A new Athletic Center and a full dose of fresh ambition from members and staff have reinvigorated this suburban Philadelphia club and its rich golf legacy.
EVEN IN The TRADITION-RICH Philadelphia area, The Springhaven Club, in suburban Wallingford, Pa., can more than hold its own when it comes to presenting an impressive golf resume. The club was founded in 1896 and the driving force behind the design of the golf course on the property it has occupied since 1904 was founding member Ida Dixon, who is credited with being the first female golf course architect in the U.S. (and probably the world). The course, which features narrow fairways and tight tree lines to put a premium on accuracy, was then enhanced by additional design touches made in its early years by notable names such as Horace Rawlins, Herbert H. Baker and William Flynn. (Architectural icons including A. W. Tillinghast, George Crump and Hugh Wilson also competed at or against Springhaven in Philadelphia-area inter-club matches during its early years.)
In 1928, Springhaven hosted an exhibition to raise funds and make it possible for the top U.S. players to travel to England for the first Ryder Cup held overseas (the inaugural match had been held in Massachusetts in 1927). All of the standing men’s and women’s major-tournament champions of the time, including Walter Hagen, Johnny Farrell and Glenna Collet, found their way to Wallingford for the event.
In 1937, Springhaven’s reputation also drew Babe Ruth to come play in an exhibition there, with Chick Evans among others, as the Bambino adopted golf as his new pastime after playing his last baseball game in 1935. Playing left-handed, The Babe shot 77 on the Springhaven course, aided by seven scotch-and-sodas that he downed during the round, according to newspaper coverage of the event. Ruth insisted he had scored a 75, but reports say he was charged with two extra strokes after ignoring the advice of his caddie and bombing a four-iron off the clubhouse to overshoot the 8th green by 50 yards.
A NEW SOURCE OF ASSISTANCE
Today, The Springhaven Club sustains its golf legacy through a series of prestigious events that attract top amateur and area players, including The Springhaven Cup, which ranks as one of the longest continuous-running tournaments in the U.S.; the Horace Rawlins Invitational, named for Springhaven’s first golf professional, who also happened to win the first U.S. Open in 1895; and the Ida Dixon Cup, played since 1917 as a premier competition featuring some of the Philadelphia region’s top women golfers. The club has also hosted many U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open qualifiers over the years.
But as many properties have discovered in the past 10-plus years, more than a great golf legacy is now usually needed to position even the most traditional and well-established clubs for long-term success, especially in demanding and competitive markets like Philadelphia. This first began to become apparent as the family-friendly movement started to take hold in the first years of the new milllennium, and then grew into harsher reality with the shock of The Great Recession at the end of its first decade.
As Springhaven emerged from that period, its leadership recognized that a crisis was fast emerging as the club approached the 125th anniversary of its founding. Membership had stagnated and was now being sustained in part by post-recession incentives and discounts that did little to amass reserves for the capital improvements that were critical to preserving all parts of such a seasoned property, and especially a golf course that needed to maintain its storied history and reputation, but were continuing to be largely deferred.
The golf course was being preserved in the best fashion possible under the care of a maintenance team led by Superintendent Charlie Miller, CGCS, who has been at Springhaven since 1990 and in the superintendent role since 1996. Through careful and steady reduction of trees on the property without compromising its appeal as a pastoral retreat amid the growing swell of surrounding suburbia, Miller and his staff had been able to keep turf and greens healthy while preserving the course’s shotmaking and putting challenges. A transition to bermudagrass from bentgrass on all tees also made a major difference. But additional issues still needed to be addressed—in particular, the course’s 80-plus bunkers that could be found throughout the tight (115-acre), landlocked and essentially level terrain, and that had become increasingly susceptible to washouts.
Signs of critical needs were even easier to find in other parts of the club’s facilities. Its pool had gone essentially untouched since it was built in the early days of Springhaven’s occupying the property, and its clubhouse, which still has some rooms dating back close to 100 years, reflected a series of piecemeal additions that created an inconsistent appearance and less-than-optimal functionality.
And Springhaven faced a special challenge when seeking to upgrade its amenity mix and bolster its appeal to families, with a popular swim and racquet club located literally across the street.
But there were two pieces of good news: The club was surrounded by extremely desirable neighborhoods in highly rated school districts, and its membership included third- and fourth-generation representatives of families that had deep ties to Springhaven, strong affiinity for its special nature and value, and keen interest in finding ways to make sure it could stay in step with the times for many more years and generations.
Many fitting this profile stepped up to become active on a Board that put a new priority on master planning under a “Drive for ‘25” theme. And in a bold and somewhat ironic fashion, it was determined that the first key measure of the plan would be to address the golf course’s bunker issues by spending $3.5 million on a new Athletic Complex that would feature a brand-new pool along with a full fitness center (both for individual workouts and classes, neither of which were offered at the club before), as well as a golf simulator room, an outdoor full basketball/pickleball court, an adjacent cabana cafe that would serve as a new dining and function venue, and many other attractions.
Like many clubs, Springhaven’s plans for building its new facility ran headlong into the coronavirus outbreak. But also like many clubs, it decided to push through and proceed and then also found, after making it through the initial traumatic weeks of the pandemic, that what it was doing was especially timely. The club not only was well-positioned because of its reputation and location to take full advantage of the surge in golf interest, but the buzz surrounding all of the new attractions it was bringing on stream resonated, quickly and strongly, with those who were looking for nearby, safe escapes from their own properties.
A new Athletic Membership with limited shared-round golf privileges was created, to provide added appeal to those who might want to take up or resume the game in addition to enjoying all that the new complex now offered.
Further momentum came with the arrival in July 2020 of a new General Manager, TJ Diagne, who brought experience from Greenwich (Conn.) Country Club and a variety of new ideas for maximizing the appeal of the new complex, including how to keep it humming throughout the winter by erecting a synthetic ice rink. Diagne has also taken a series of steps to upgrade Springhaven’s culinary offerings, including recruitment of a new Executive Chef, Mark Shoup, who came to the club in October 2021 and brought experience from country clubs and a variety of resort, casino and hotel properties. Diagne also brought in Kerri Hearn to serve as Membership and Athletic Director, a dual role she had held previously for 12 years at the Aspen Glen Club in Carbondale, Colo.
With all of this now in place at Springhaven, it didn’t take long for the club to fill up its new membership category and start a waiting list (it is also now at capacity for its Certificate Membership class). The influx of new members, who came primarily from three nearby zip codes, dropped the club’s average age by 10 years.
And the infusion of revenue from the new additions, along with the added activity from golf (rounds soared to 28,000 in 2021 from the annual norms of 22,000-24,000), will now be put towards a $1.1 million renovation that will outfit every bunker on the golf course with Capillary Concrete™ technology over the next year. (Bunkers on the course’s 16th hole have already been upgraded as a pilot project, and the value was immediately demonstrated when they remained playable after a two-and-a-half-inch rain while all others washed out.)
“It’s been pretty incredible to watch this club’s transformation [in recent years],” says Mike Hodges, a Board member who chairs the Greens Committee and has a four-generation connection to Springhaven. (“On any given day, you can meet a member of my family here,” he says.)
“It was an aspirational case [to build the Athletic Complex] and it’s proved to be way above aspirations,” Hodges adds. “We were looking at a huge maintenance lift to do all of the bunkers, and never thought we could find the funding to do it all in twelve months. But the right vision, and the right staff to execute it, helped us tap into a whole new class of membership.”
And discussions with members, staff and especially TJ Diagne—with whom you can’t walk five steps on the property without hearing about more ideas for new amenities, services and facilities that the club could look at adding—make it clear that there will continue to be a drive to identify and achieve many more aspirations for The Springhaven Club—not only for its 125th year, but well beyond it.
At a Glance:
The Springhaven Club
Membership: 325 Certificate; 237 Athletic
Clubhouse Size: 40,000 sq. ft.
Athletic Center Size: 6,500 sq. ft.
Golf Course Design: Ida Dixon, Horace Rawlins, Herbert H. Baker, William Flynn
Annual Golf Rounds: 28,000
General Manager: TJ Diagne
Head Golf Professional: Ben Debski, PGA
Golf Course Superintendent: Charlie Miller, CGCS
Executive Chef: Mark Shoup
Membership/Athletic Director: Kerri Hearn
Food & Beverage Manager: Jenna Schilling
Director of Operations: Jimmy Alvarez
Director of Catering/Private Events: Bridget Ryan
Assistant Golf Professional: Gary Mackay, PGA
Assistant Golf Professional: Chris Colman
Golf Shop Manager: Chris Geschke
Golf Shop Merchandiser: Nadine Stan-Boyens
Director of Outside Operations: Sean Driscoll, PGA
Assistant Controller: Katelynn Gold
Assistant Caddie Master: Forrest Lederer
Facilities Manager: Lee Kuhlberg
Dining Room Manager: Troy Clement
Locker Room Manager: Stephen Ryan
Laundry Manager: Coco Bay