Built and successfully operated by non-golfers

Features - Spotlight

The family behind a New York course proves ingenuity and grit can overcome a lack of history playing the game.

January 19, 2022

Conklin Players Club is a family-owned and -operated course in New York’s Southern Tier that opened in 1991.
© rick woelfel

Celebrated, yet understated.

That phrase perhaps best captures the legacy of the Conklin Players Club.

Situated just across the Pennsylvania border in New York State’s Southern Tier, 50 miles north of Scranton, Pennsylvania and a 15-minute drive south and east of Binghamton, the daily-fee facility doesn’t offer a lot of bells and whistles. But it has been offering a quality golf experience to visitors from as near as the surrounding community, and from as distant as Canada and southeast Pennsylvania for three decades now.

In some ways, Conklin is a throwback with a unique history. Rick Rickard, the man who envisioned the club, was not a golfer 30-plus years ago and is not a golfer now. But with the help of his brother-in-law Rick Brown, he designed and built the course that he and his wife, Theresa, own and manage today.

Around 1987, Rickard owned a body shop but was looking to change careers because of the physical demands of the job. He played softball for recreation and it was his softball teammates who planted in his head the idea to build a golf course.

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“I played softball four nights a week,” he says, “and all the guys did was sit in the dugout and talk about their golf games. And they couldn’t get on any golf courses because they were all packed.”

The Rickards spent no small amount of time deciding whether to take on all that was involved with not only designing and building a golf course, but also running it. They eventually decided to move forward and purchased a 400-acre site that in the years following World War II had been a thriving dairy farm but had become run down. Today, the Rickards live on a farm on the property.

When construction began in 1988, the Rickards hired an excavator “for a couple months,” but, to save money, chose not to retain an architect or a shaper, or to work through the National Golf Foundation. “Most of your money is already gone and you haven’t even turned over a shovelful of dirt yet,” Rick Rickard says.

Instead of depending on outside parties, Rickard, with the help of brothers-in-law Rick and Marty Brown, designed and laid out the 18 holes. In 1991, after three years of hard work, Conklin Players Club opened for play and proved to be a popular destination from the start. “It was a lot of work,” Rick Rickard says, “but we were young and into it. We did what it took.”

Rick Brown came on board in 1989 to help build and grow in the golf course, and stayed on as the superintendent. He has never worked at another golf course and has no desire to go elsewhere.

From a turf professional’s perspective, the Conklin Players Club might be the Elysian Fields, the paradise reserved for heroes in ancient Greek mythology. The site encompasses a bit more than 170 acres, including four acres of putting surfaces, 5½ acres of teeing grounds, and 30 acres of approaches and fairways, all of which are bentgrass. The crew also mows 80 acres of bluegrass/fescue rough.

As part of a family-owned and -managed operation, Brown does not answer to a board of directors, a club president or a green chair. Nor does he have to concern himself with things like budget meetings.

Rick and Theresa Rickard
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“We don’t have a budget at the beginning of the year,” he says. “I haven’t done a budget in 20 years. I know what my costs are, generally, on average. But (the figure) changes, just like it does for everyone. We put what is needed into the golf course. If it’s needed, we do it. We have that luxury.”

In fact, it’s not uncommon for Brown and Rickard to amend the budget during an on-course discussion. Brown says that being part of a family business brings its own satisfactions, as well as a sense of responsibility. “Everybody knows it’s our product. Everybody knows who’s responsible for the conditions,” he says. “There’s no entity other than us.”

Brown’s staff maxes out at 12 at the height of the season, including himself. Six are full-timers, the other six work 15 to 18 hours each week as mowers. The team has become more efficient with the passage of time. “We’ve learned a lot to be more efficient, to be able to mow all of this and be off the course by 9:30 in the morning,” he says. “It takes a while to figure out how to do that.”

Theresa Rickard had to learn how to oversee the inside operation and do it on the fly. The club didn’t hire a golf professional, Ryan Evans, until October 2017. But she approached the task with a sense of resolve. “I didn’t really know how to run this place,” she recalls. “I’d never run a golf course but I’m the type of person, … give me something, I’ll do it, I’ll get it done.”

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Over time, Theresa evolved into a combination of general manager, shop manager and travel agent, working with hotels and other courses in the area to create stay-and-play packages. Conklin attracts golfers from a vast geographic footprint. Apart from the local play that predominates during the week, the club regularly attracts visitors from Albany, two and a half hours to the northeast; the Philadelphia area and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, three to four hours due south; and, before the start of the pandemic, from Canada, as the border is roughly 160 miles to the north.

At the peak of the golf boom, the club hosted as many as 38,000 rounds each year. In that era, the tee sheet was full from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. In recent years, the figure has been closer to 25,000 rounds.

Brown says that size and makeup of the club’s visitor/customer base speaks to how highly it is regarded not just in New York State, but elsewhere. “That’s the reputation we’ve got and how much people enjoy it,” he says. “That’s what we’re here for, to make sure people enjoy their round of golf. We get a lot of repeat players from a long ways away.”

Rick Rickard is justifiably proud of what he and his family have accomplished. The golf course, which maxes out at 6,772 yards with a par of 72, has evolved, as golf courses do. Green complexes have been reconfigured and rebuilt, trees have been removed.

Even after more than three decades, Rickard is likely to be found on the golf course mowing. As proud as he is of what he has created at Conklin, he arguably takes the most satisfaction from the way he’s gone about it.

“I built something that’s on the map,” he says. “It’s not like you just did a job and nobody cares about it. If I want to add a tee, I get my bulldozer out and I go build a tee. I don’t ask anybody. I still have all the equipment I had when I built this place.”

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.