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Fore-aging a New Course in West Hartford

Woody Dwyer loves playing golf at Rockledge. “I think Rockledge is as good as any of the private courses around here. I entertain the idea of joining a club but then I always think I would miss Rockledge.” Courtesy photo

The popularity of golf explodes in the age of COVID-19.

A view of the Rockledge course from the deck of Rockledge Grille. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Tracey Weiss

No doubt about it, golf is on an upswing, especially at the town’s two courses.

Rockledge and Buena Vista Golf Courses are experiencing record numbers of tee times and newcomers.

The most obvious reason for this surge in popularity may be because of the effects of COVID-19, since golf is a sport that can be played while social distancing and wearing a mask. The only contact on the green is between club and ball.

But if it wasn’t fun, new golfers wouldn’t keep coming back.

While it might annoy seasoned golfers who are having difficulty getting a tee time, it’s delighting golf pros to see the sport thrive.

“I’m seeing more people play golf now than they have in the last 15 years,” said Rich Crowe, the PGA Golf Professional at Rockledge Golf Club.

I’ve been here for 36 years. We had seen a decrease after 9/11, because people’s priorities changed. Golf had been flat and the number of rounds being played had gone down.”

Members of the Women’s Club at Rockledge generally play on Wednesdays and weekend mornings, according to Sandy Gifford, membership chair of the women’s club.

“The Wednesday group exploded with players,” she said. “I attribute it to the fact that people are staying closer to home. Currently there are 96 women in the league; eight are new. I’ve been told we are the largest league in the state.”

The numbers also tell the tale. “Between May 10 and August 31, we compared last year to this year. In 2019 we made $22,701 and this year it was $27,198, a 23% increase, at Rockledge,” said Helen Rubino-Turco, director of Leisure Services and Social Services for the town.

That’s despite the fact that the town closed both courses, from March 17 to May 10.

“We opened on March 1, which was early,” Rubino-Turco said. “We had some really good weather. Then coronavirus came and we shut down in mid-March. We lost seven weeks of golf. We calculated that we lost $160,000 in revenue by shutting down because the weather was great and most other courses were open and full. So we tried to ballpark our losses based on that.”

The hidden story, Rubino-Turco added, is about Buena Vista and its 9-hole “executive” course, where most beginners usually play as well.

“Last year, people played 6,444 rounds of golf at Buena Vista. This year, they played, comparatively, 9,906 rounds of golf. That’s a 53% increase.

“Buena Vista is our hidden gem.”

Teeing up a new generation

Van Weaver is one of the new, younger faces out golfing this year. He is playing golf now, since COVID has prevented him from participating in other athletics and he didn’t attend summer camp. Van says he really likes playing golf. Courtesy photo

“Since COVID, [some] kids are not playing any other sport right now so, the golf course is a pretty good choice,” Crowe said. “We are through the roof with the number of new players.”

“I’ve definitely seen more younger people playing golf,” said Kevin Pasternack. He just retired from his role as president of the Rockledge Men’s Golf Club. “There’s a dramatic uptick in junior golf, too.”

Kate Weaver agrees that golf is a great alternative for children this year. She’s been playing for more than 10 years and is pleased that her son Van, 9, is learning how to play the game.

“Our 19-year-old neighbor started teaching Van how to play in late May because we knew he wasn’t going to camp. We wanted to see if we could give the kids some enrichment this summer.”

“I really like [everything about golf],” Van said. “I started off better than I thought. But everybody is really bad.”

“People don’t care if you’re a bad golfer,” Kate Weaver said, “but nothing irritates golfers more than a bad golfer who is also holding everyone else up.” 

Running a tight chip

In addition to a lineup of new golfers, COVID has affected how the courses are being run. When the town reopened the Rockledge course on May 10, it was much later than most municipal courses in Connecticut.

“2020 has been one of the more challenging years, to keep things safe for everyone,” Crowe said. “In the clubhouse and the pro shop, everyone wears a mask.”

At first, golf carts could only be used by one person at a time, but now two can share a cart.

Initially, swimming noodles were used in the holes so that players wouldn’t pick up their balls, and rakes were not allowed on course. Those two rules have since been reversed as well.

A permanent and new change this year is the electronic sign-up for tee times. Prior to 2020, people had to physically show up for a lottery system draw in order to play.

“It’s been a real learning curve,” Crowe said. “But now you can sit at home and set up your tee time. And we are 110 percent booked from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.

“It’s been great and busy. And 99.9 percent of the people who are coming here and playing have been very respectful.”

“Social events are shut down [for the season],” Gifford added, “but at least [golfers] are still getting their game in.”

May the course be with you

Like many people, Devon Pencz of West Hartford, who has been working as a landscaper, has spent a lot of time playing golf both at Buena Vista (pictured) and Rockledge, as well as at other public courses throughout the area. Photo credit: Sam Newton

New and seasoned golfers agree that Rockledge and Buena Vista are both topnotch courses for players of all skill levels.

Woody Dwyer plays 9-18 holes, twice a week, at Rockledge.

“I’m a competitive person,” he said. “I think Rockledge is as good as any of the private courses around here. I entertain the idea of joining a club but then I always think I would miss Rockledge.”

His advice: Buy a package of lessons and take them from Rich, Andrew or Kevin (the other two pros at Rockledge). Learn the foundation of golf from one of them. Then go have fun.”

Jonathan Weiner is a past president of the men’s golf club at Rockledge and is still a regular at playing there, although he plays Buena Vista more often now because he is teaching his son the game.

“There’s a lot to love about Rockledge,” he said. “The course itself has a great layout and is challenging. The tone set by the pros is everything and the physical facility is spectacular.

“The atmosphere, the way it’s drilled in to the staff, is so much more welcoming than any golf course.”

His advice? “Don’t be afraid to get out there and do it. And don’t worry. Everybody is just as bad a golfer as you are.”

Pasternack agrees. “If you’re a beginner, don’t be afraid to come and play.

We are very lucky to have a facility as nice as Rockledge. It’s one of the top, if not the top, public courses in the state. No names, but I just played a private course and I was amazed at how rough the greens were. It didn’t hold a candle to Rockledge. Our grounds keeping staff is the best: 2020 has been a challenging year not only because of COVID, but because we have had no rain and record heat.”

“The team at the course does a wonderful job,” Rubino-Turco added. “They take pride in their work and it shows.

“The big question is, are we going to be able to sustain this [interest in golfing]? People were looking for a place to go for their mental health, which we saw with the increase in the use of parks in general. They really rediscovered the local parks.

“We haven’t seen numbers like this in years. Hopefully we can sustain the interest, now that more people are exposed to it.”

Rockledge Men’s Club Tournament

The Rockledge Men’s Club is holding its annual Greens Keepers Revenge and West Hartford Food Bank Fundraiser golf tournament on Nov. 1.

According to www.rockledgemensclub.com, “The grounds crew will take out their revenge by setting several pin positions that will be your worst nightmare! Make sure you bring all of your skills with you for this tournament! In addition, we will be once again be raising funds for the West Hartford Food Bank. Please bring a non-perishable food item or make an additional cash contribution as part of your entrance fee for this event. Prizes will be awarded for gross and net but the real winner in this event is the West Hartford Food Bank!”

Anyone can contribute a non-perishable food item or make a cash donation.

A version of this story was originally published in the October issue of West Hartford LIFE

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