After more than 45 years in the golf industry, primarily as a superintendent, Bob Maibusch was looking for something different. As majority owner of Pine Grove Springs GC, he’s found that even as things change, much still remains the same.
Bob Maibusch was introduced to golf at the tender age of 12, working as a caddy at Oak Park Country Club in suburban Chicago (his claim to fame from that early part of his life in golf is that he caddied for Tom Watson’s first PGA Tour win in 1974 at the Western Open, when tour caddies were not allowed).
From that point, Maibusch knew he wanted to work in golf. But the clubhouse did not interest him, and his playing ability would never be good enough to earn a paycheck. So he pursued a career in golf course management at Michigan State University, and made the typical career progression from intern to assistant to head superintendent.
After 31 years at Hinsdale (Ill.) Golf Club, Maibusch went looking for a new opportunity—one he thought was most likely going to be outside the golf industry. With their kids grown up and out of the house, Maibusch and his wife Cheryl decided to move to New England, where Cheryl had spent her youth. At 56 and too young to retire, Maibusch started scouring the Web for a business opportunity that would interest him. He came across a golf course property in southwest New Hampshire that was listed for sale.
He toured the property’s grounds (despite it being covered by two feet of snow) in January 2015, and knew it was something he wanted to purchase. After conducting due diligence and some back-and-forth negotiating, Maibusch closed on the property in June 2015. The name of the facility was Pine Grove Springs Country Club, but to better reflect its public status, it has now been changed to Pine Grove Springs Golf Course.
“I was ready to leave golf,” Maibusch says. “I had a good career, but I was looking for something different. But this looked like a good opportunity and something completely different from what I was doing for the past 30 years. The ironic thing is I bought the course from an individual [Jim Hillier] I had met 15 years earlier while working on a committee [of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America].”
While Maibusch went into ownership with his eyes wide open, he admits that overseeing all of Pine Grove Springs’ operations has evoked a spectrum of emotions—ranging from invigorating, rewarding and challenging to frustrating and terrifying. Seventy-five percent of his time is spent in the administration of the facility, he estimates, with 25 percent spent on the course itself. And he’s doing things he has never done before, such as creating radio commercials to market the course.
“I went from being in a position to retire in a few years, to where I may never retire,” Maibusch chuckles. “But I have a supportive family, great friends in the industry and a good staff. I like a challenge. It’s safe to say I am never bored.”
Maibusch detailed some of what his newfound daily excitement now entails in this Q&A with C&RB:
C&RB: What is the history of Pine Grove Springs?
Maibusch: The course was part of a resort that got its name from the trees in the area and some springs that were said to have some medicinal value. There were several resorts in the area that surrounded a lake. There were also a lot of second homes for people who lived in metropolitan areas and would come up for the summer.
COURSE & GROUNDS OPERATIONS PROFILE
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: Less than $50,000
The hotel burned down in the 1960s, and a group of local businessmen bought the nine-hole golf course and the clubhouse facility. At the time I purchased the course, an accurate description would be that the golf course, clubhouse and facility were all distressed and rundown.
C&RB: What has the focus of the first year been for you and your team?
Maibusch: Simply to improve day-to-day conditions and to create a welcoming culture. I am fortunate to have two full-time people and two part-time people who are experienced and enthusiastic about improvement. Dave DeLollis can do just about anything you can imagine on the golf course and has great mechanical skills, which are valuable because of the age and limitations of our equipment fleet; we operate with the bare bones of equipment. Bert Torsey, who used to be the Golf Course Superintendent at a neighboring golf facility, is also very proficient at maintaining our ancient irrigation system.
Between the two of them and some input from me on direction, they manage to get things done. I try to set an agenda and stay out of their way. We serve some food and have a full liquor license. That part of the business has been a steep learning curve for me.
C&RB: What has been the feedback of golfers?
Maibusch: The feedback has been very positive. Now we have to translate that into greater participation. We have had people who showed up to play who hadn’t been here in years, because it had a reputation for being neglected. We are slowly bringing some of those people back.
We have what I believe are very fair green fees. You can play 18 holes during the week for $27 and on the weekend for $30. There is significant competition, as we are located right between Keene, N.H., and Brattleboro, Vt., eight miles either way. They have a total of 54 holes between them.
This golf course has a reputation for being very challenging—tight fairways, small greens. When you are more than 10 yards off the fairway, you are likely going to find yourself in unmown, deep woods surrounded by thousands of boulders. Hit it straight or bring a lot of balls.
C&RB: What are the agronomic and facility-management differences at Pine Grove Springs, compared to what you found during your days in the Chicago area?
Maibusch: Conditions are completely different. [Pine Grove Springs] is so rocky and the soil is acidic. In many places, there are outcroppings of rocks on the fairways. In other places, the bedrock is only an inch below the surface. Some of these rocks are as big as cars. I told people I can walk 50 feet and dig out more rocks than I did in 31 years at Hinsdale [Golf Club].
We do get some snow mold. I cleared the greens in February to evaluate them. The disease pressure is not as great as in the Midwest. We get a lot of dollar spot, too. Because of the elevation and the extensive tree coverage, there are times the dew never comes off. There are some days, especially in the fall, where the frost never burns off, mainly under the trees. We are looking to remove more trees to improve turf quality.
In addition to the agronomic differences, I have had to learn a different way of management. Managing a facility that depends on daily fees or annual memberships, versus guaranteed dues, is a major shift. I need to scrutinize every expenditure and evaluate it for what potential return on investment we might see out of it.
C&RB: Is there a different stress level in this situation, compared to a private country club?
Maibusch: It’s very different. I don’t miss the stresses of a high-end private club, where your fate is in the hands of a small group of people. Recently, I have seen many colleagues, who were outstanding golf course superintendents or golf professionals, lose jobs that they held for decades.
When I parted ways with my previous employer, I decided that I was not going to pursue another opportunity on the private side. Nobody can let me go on a whim. However, having to meet the financial obligations of your own facility, in an area that has an abundance of golf in a shrinking market, carries its own stresses. I have plenty of sleepless nights. The thing about being an owner is that everybody gets paid before me.
|GOLF COURSE PROFILE
Pine Grove Springs Golf CourseWebsite: www.pinegrovesprings.com
No. of Holes: 9
Type: Parkland, with significant (over 200 feet) elevation changes, massive rock outcroppings and towering trees (predominantly pine, maple, and oak)
Course Designer: Unknown
Year Opened: 1900
Golf Season: mid-April to mid-November
Annual Rounds: +/-15,000
Grasses: (tees, fairways, roughs) Bent/poa/bluegrass/fescue/rye; (greens) Bent/poa
C&RB: Any longer-term projects planned down the road for the course?
Maibusch: If I hit the Powerball, I would put about $3 million in this place and make it the best nine-hole golf course in the U.S. It has the terrain. We have a lot of infrastructure issues that need addressing—soils, irrigation, equipment, etc. Hopefully, the business will allow us to tackle these a bit at a time.
This area is heavily wooded and there is some logging that is going on, so we might open up some of the property for that purpose. We have 92 total acres.
I think fun golf courses are places where people feel welcome and maybe have a group of friends that they see regularly. I really don’t care about course conditions when I play elsewhere. I care about the company I am keeping.
C&RB: Do you believe that deep down, a good majority of superintendents would like to own a golf course, and have total say in what they do?
Maibusch: I think a lot love the idea, but are hesitant to pull the trigger. It’s a big leap of faith and an enormous risk, especially given the current state of the industry. You better have your family supporting you. I am fortunate to have an adventurous wife who has been successful in starting her own businesses and is not averse to risk.
C&RB: And now your daughter is in the industry as well?
Maibusch: She is the Landscape Superintendent for Dan Meersman at Philadelphia Cricket Club and manages the landscape maintenance and improvement on their two campuses. She is involved in doing CAD design work for their improvements as well. That came after performing five years of similar work at Augusta National. She was a volunteer at the Masters this year.
My son also got involved for a while, taking a six-month hiatus from the construction management industry to help me get the business started here in 2015. He is now back working at his career.