Matthew Woodcock studies dollars and cents more than the science of fairways and tees.
Woodcock is the superintendent at Old Erie Golf Club, a 9-holer in Durhamville, New York, pop. 901. Woodcock and his wife, Jill, purchased the 77-acre facility property last year, so he doubles as the co-owner. Woodcock is just 32. He wears jeans and cowboy boots to the course. He has a deep voice and speaks freely, because, well, he doesn’t have a boss. Standing on the eighth green — which borders his in-law’s backyard — on a sticky September morning, I asked Woodcock what’s tougher: maintaining turf or operating a business?
“The business is the hardest part, 100 percent, and it’s not even close,” he says. “I think every superintendent worth their salt will tell you the grass is the easy part. It’s the time, the mental part, managing employees, all that stuff, that’s the hard part.”
Woodcock employed a bigger crew in 2022 than he did in 2021, a positive in his quest to preserve and elevate a course he grew up playing. A pair of students pedaled their bikes to Old Erie on summer mornings and executed myriad tasks, a local man mowed rough on an as-needed basis, meaning he worked anywhere from zero to 20 hours per week depending on turf growth — “There were three weeks in July where he didn’t work,” Woodcock says. “We were that dry” — and a family friend helped fix equipment. Woodcock’s mother, Susan, assisted with mowing. His father, David, “loves to give away free beer,” Woodcock says.
Selecting kegs for a rotating tap and keeping the clubhouse cooler well-stocked are important parts of the job. Good drinks keep customers around longer. When annual memberships are just $405, up $15 from last year, and green fees are around $20, beer sales matter. The businessman in Woodcock understands the correlation between course setup and beer sales.
Low scores are good for business. Old Erie possesses no bunkers and approaches are wide open. Woodcock avoids tucking pins or placing them close to slopes. Too many three-putts hurt the business.
“I try to make easy pins, because if a seven handicap comes out here and shoots a 39, they are going to be excited and go in and have a couple beers,” Woodcock says. “If somebody goes out here and is a three handicap and shoots 47, they are going to be pissed and go home, and now we lost out on maybe an extra $20.”
Old Erie is one of the most fascinating courses I have visited in 2022. I could have spent days riding, walking and talking with Woodcock. I observed a few Tuesday-morning regulars playing the course and then sipping beer in the clubhouse. I tried processing how the Woodcocks get everything done — including raise four children. I calculated in my head operational costs, revenue streams and possibilities, and how a young family can sustain a comfortable lifestyle while owning a golf course in a seasonal market saturated with affordable facilities.
Two of our columnists, Matthew Wharton and Tim Moraghan, also recently visited charming public courses are wrote columns about their experiences for this month’s issue. Wharton and his wife, Darless, made what has hopefully become an annual trip to the Scottish Highlands and experienced Golspie Golf Club. Old Erie and Golspie are separated by more than 3,000 miles, but their respective superintendents can relate to each other. Golspie’s Muir Ross maintains a lovely course with a crew of 2½ workers.
I have no doubt that if Moraghan and Woodcock ever meet they will instantly click. They are both candid and passionate. Moraghan is at his let-it-fly best with his examination of why public facilities should be embraced more by the industry establishment.
Seventy-nine percent of the 529 million domestic rounds in 2021 were played at public courses, according to the National Golf Foundation. Woodcock and I discussed this reality and how facilities like the one he owns aren’t proportionally accounted for when industry leaders make decisions.
We’ll keep the details of that conversation to ourselves.
Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.