The 107-year-old Atlanta-area club was well ahead of its time in giving members both city and suburban settings and a full range of family-friendly amenities.
WHEN A TRADITION-RICH COUNTRY CLUB in a major city merged in 2006 with a high-end golf club 30 miles away, it was hailed as an innovative solution to the challenges that faced both types of operations—and indeed, those behind the creation of the new Mayfield Sand Ridge Club in Cleveland were soon inundated with calls from managers, owners and Board members from clubs in many other metropolitan areas who wanted to explore a similar strategy and sought insight into how the Mayfield transaction came together and was working out.
But as a C+RB cover story in February 2009 (“Merger on Mayfield”) pointed out, the real trailblazing and precedent for Mayfield’s merger strategy had actually occurred several years earlier. Those who were involved with bringing about the Mayfield combination, in fact, had relied heavily on guidance they received from those who were behind the merger in 1999 of the Settindown Creek Golf Club in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, Ga., with Ansley Golf Club, in one of that city’s most-established neighborhoods.
The two situations were strikingly similar, despite taking place in locations that were over 700 miles apart and had much different histories and economic and cultural profiles. Settindown Creek, like Sand Ridge, was a “pure golf club” with a nationally recognized golf course, in this case designed by Bob Cupp. But its owners and operators had come to realize they needed to be able to offer their members more to be able to survive in the changing club world. And Ansley GC, founded in 1912 (just a year after Mayfield CC), had a unique nine-hole course as part of its landlocked Midtown city property, but saw the benefits of finding a way to expand its golf offer, to help it stay competitive in the demanding Atlanta market.
“Ansley was solvent, but neither club was doing great,” C+RB wrote in its 2009 feature on the Mayfield merger. “Much like Mayfield and Sand Ridge, the more the two clubs talked, the more they realized how much they could each benefit by combining operations.
“After spending time studying this example to learn about the challenges and obstacles involved with club mergers of this scale,” the article continued, “the Mayfield Sand Ridge team took away one golden bit of information: The reward was worth the risk, because the newly combined Ansley Golf Club was once again growing, despite a difficult economic environment.”
PROVEN OVER TIME
Today, twenty years after Ansley and Settindown Creek originally came together, the success of those clubs’ pioneering merger effort is even more evident. The combined organization now has a full membership with a waiting list, and a management team that includes an effective balance of long-tenured experience with the fresh perspectives of some key new additions.
And while the new entity retained “golf club” in its name—as a nod to both the tradition of its original property and the focus of the one it had added—the Ansley GC staff has continued to broaden all that the club has to offer, and to whom, through a full slate of activities and amenities that provide across-the-board appeal to a diverse and increasingly family-oriented membership.
The Settindown property remains primarily the charge of Director of Agronomy Courtney Young, who was brought on board in its formative days by the group of members of Atlanta Athletic Club who founded Settindown Creek. Those founders wanted to fulfill their vision of building a golf-only venue with easier access and that did not require going to Scotland or Pine Valley for a high-end, getaway experience. Young, who came from The Honors Course in Chattanooga, Tenn., worked with Cupp to “bring that same look” while building and growing in a new course out of the farmland pasture and wetlands in what at the time was still a very rural Roswell.
Ansley Golf Club
Locations: Atlanta, Ga. and Roswell, Ga.
That objective was executed so well that the Settindown course has stood up for 20 years with “nothing major” yet needed in the way of renovation work, Young says. “As time has gone by, the need for maintenance has tended to creep out, so our focus is always on bringing the ‘old Settindown’ back,” he notes. “We’re always mindful of how people want to have the true Settindown experience when they come out here to play.”
Young and his Settindown crew have even been able to retain that experience despite an infestation of emerald ash borers that hit the property three years and has already led to the removal of 2,000 trees, with another 700 still slated to come down. Because the property was put under quarantine after the infestation was discovered, much of the infected wood has had to be buried on site.
But in a display of the resourcefulness that typifies the Ansley course-and-grounds operation, staff members have developed special woodworking skills, including the use of a CNC machine for importing computer-aided designs, to turn salvaged wood that has escaped harm into a variety of unique pieces, including menu covers, plaques, awards, benches, tee markets and even mini-rocking chairs (evoking the signature Settindown logo) that hold coasters in the clubhouse and have also become a popular keepsake item on their own (see photo above).
Further confirmation of the special skills resident in the department that helps to maintain both the Settindown and Midtown courses in prime condition has come from honors bestowed on Ansley’s Equipment Manager, Trent Manning, who in successive years was a finalist for one industry website’s Technician of the Year award and then was named 2018’s Most Valuable Technican by another industry publication.
Around THE TOWN
While the golf course at Settindown remains a showcase, there’s also ample appeal for the unique nine-hole course on Ansley’s Midtown property—enough in fact, that the 52,000 annual rounds played by Ansley members are pretty much evenly split between the two layouts, according to Director of Golf Phil Taylor.
The tight Midtown course is fun to play not only because of the views it affords of the Atlanta skyline and the “adventure” that comes when having to cross in front of the driving range, which is only 150 yards long, while navigating the layout. (A bell with a pull chain was installed at a key intersection to help golfers signal to those on the range to hold their fire; while some players still choose to cross at their own risk, Taylor says the bell system has been effective in avoiding any disastrous skullings.)
Enjoyment also comes from the fact that The Midtown course has earned top-five status in national rankings of nine-hole courses. “It’s not an executive course,” Taylor says, noting that it can be played to over 6,700 yards as an 18-hole trip, which he says 60% of those who play it do.
At the same time, Taylor, who has been at Ansley 30 years, notes that “the convenience factor is now driving the [golf] industry, and we’re not missing that; we’ve also had an explosion of people who come late in the day to just play as much, or as little, as they want.”
The nature of the Midtown campus, and the demographics of the Ansley membership, combine to make it necessary for Taylor and his staff, and all of the club’s management team, to be ready and especially flexible to accommodate how members will want to use the club. Ironically, while the Settindown property and club was originally conceived as a real estate development but failed because of the developer’s ties to the ‘90s savings-and-loan scandal, Midtown traces its roots to one of the first known communities built around a golf course (the club was originally Ansley Park Golf Club, named after the community created by realtor Edwin Ansley).
The Ansley Park neighborhood was one of Atlanta’s most affluent in its earliest days. The constant presence of the club and golf course helped it to avoid much of the decline seen in other areas in Atlanta, and then a revival of the Midtown area brought a new influx of families back to that part of the city.
Today, nearly 65% of Ansley GC’s membership lives within two miles of the Midtown campus, according to Director Tennis and Athletics Matt Grayson, and that has fueled tremendous growth, especially among the youth segments, for not only the club’s tennis and swimming programs and other activities, but also dining and events. “It’s the most active club and devoted membership I’ve ever seen,” says Grayson, who came to Ansley in 2012 and has a total of nearly 20 years of club experience. “People just walk over and wander in, and they’re here all the time.”
MAKING IT ALL FIT
Even with all of the walk-ins, it’s not surprising that parking and other facility-related concerns rank as the biggest and most constant challenges for Ansley at its landlocked Midtown property. “We have 150 parking spaces for 1,500 people,” says Nick Markel, CCM, who became Ansley’s new General Manager in August 2018.
An active shuttle service instituted a few years ago has helped in handling Ansley GC’s growth and increased activity, as have renovation projects that have improved efficiencies in the 60,000-sq. ft., multi-level Midtown clubhouse. But Markel—who was most recently GM/COO of Atlanta’s Druid Hills Golf Club, and who earned a “Rising Star” award through the Excellence in Club Management Awards co-sponsored by C+RB while Assistant General Manager of The Country Club in Pepper Pike, Ohio—has already compiled a full list of other facility-related needs that includes kitchens, locker rooms, fitness and turf care, as just some of things he recognizes will have to be addressed to keep up with Ansley’s fast-growing member-usage pace.
As those are tackled, Markel takes comfort in knowing he has a great combination of experienced and accomplished veteran managers—a group that includes Chief Financial Officer Joy Plate (30 years at Ansley) and Membership Director Paula Savignano (28), in addition to Young and Taylor—along with talented new additions including Clubhouse Manager Margarita Gilo, CCM; Human Resources Director Anitra Smith, and Executive Chef J. Kevin Walker, CMC, to help keep things running smoothly.
“You get a ten-fold payoff from bringing in a CMC like [Walker],” Markel says. “Add that to someone who’s ‘everyone’s favorite golf pro’ like [Taylor] and to an agronomic genius like [Young[, and that sets you up pretty well to handle just about anything.”