Galloping Hill’s New Giddyap

Losing money on golf, Union County bet $17.6 million on a bold plan to turn its decaying 1928 flagship into a state-of-the-art facility. And pulled it off.

Galloping Hill
From the terrace of the new clubhouse, diners can order locally sourced food, craft beers, cocktails or wine and watch golfers putt out on the 9th and 18th greens.

Since the first New Jersey Open in 1921, the New Jersey State Golf Association (NJSGA) has always held its top tourney at one of the state’s private country clubs, an august group that includes Plainfield, Ridgewood, Baltusrol, Montclair, Shackamaxon, Forsgate, Canoe Brook and Alpine, to name but a few.

That shimmering streak will finally snap three Julys from now, when Galloping Hill in Kenilworth—where anyone can tee it up—will host the 2016 New Jersey Open. The selection of Galloping Hill—a Union County course where registered residents can play 18 holes on a weekend for just $31 ($47 with cart)—is the fruit of a rare public-private partnership: Union County; the NJSGA; Kemper Sports, a leading golf course management company; and TaylorMade, the world’s No. 1 golf-equipment maker, have together brought about a stunning turnaround for a course that just seven years ago was an embarrassment.

In 2007, Galloping Hill had no practice range; drainage woes that turned several holes swampy in the rain; and a clubhouse that, in the words of Union County freeholder Dan Sullivan, “was basically a shack.”

Maintenance on the 27-hole layout was slipshod. Opened in 1928 as just the eighth publicly owned facility in the state (Weequahic, opened in Newark in 1915, was the first), Galloping Hill in the early 2000s “was being run like a park,” says Armando Sanchez, who was hired as Union County’s director of golf operations in 2008. “The attitude was, ‘If we don’t cut the greens today, we’ll cut them tomorrow.’”

Fast forward to this summer, when Galloping Hill will host the NJSGA Public Links Championship, starting July 18. The course now boasts state-of-the-art practice facilities; professional greenskeeping under superintendent Russell Harris; an imposing new LEED-certified clubhouse with a handsome bar offering cocktails and craft beers on tap (including a crisp Galloping Hill Lager, made for it by Climax Brewing of Roselle Park); a restaurant called Red Knot, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week; and a stylish pro shop sporting newly logoed caps and shirts.

You needn’t be a Union County resident or golf cardholder to grab a table on the broad slate terrace overlooking the 9th and 18th greens. Order a frosty cocktail and it will be delivered in a shapely glass with a nice heft to it. The wine list, by food-and-beverage director Richard Spaulding, formerly of Ursino and 90 Acres, features many bottles under $30. Try the gutsy house burger, made from a flavorful grind that bucks the silky brisket/shortrib trend.

“That blend is a bit dainty—it can’t take a char,” says executive chef Ralph Romano, a Bayonne native who most recently opened the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “Ours is coarser, with more sirloin. We play a little rougher around here.” The burger comes with hand-cut fries and chunky, house-made ketchup you won’t mistake for Heinz. Options from the wood-burning oven include crusty pizza and what Romano is thinking of calling Tandoori Tuesdays—the latter a nod to Union County’s sizable Indian population.

Drink in hand, you are perfectly situated to watch groups coming up 9 and 18. If it rains, no worries—there’s a roof overhead. Below the elevated terrace, brand new golf carts zip past in silence. They’re electric. The noisy old gasoline-powered carts—the muni mainstay—were returned to E-Z-Go in May.

“When golfers come to Galloping Hill now,” Sanchez points out, “they receive treatment they usually see only at high-end daily-fee and private courses. But most important, they will be doing so at very affordable prices.”

Galloping Hill is feeling its oats in a way it hasn’t since actual horses did the galloping. In the days before Hollywood replaced Fort Lee as the capital of the movie business, Westerns were shot on the hilly, mostly wooded 300-plus acres that Union County bought as parkland in 1921. It soon hired Willard Wilkinson, an engineer who had been an assistant to A.W. Tillinghast—designer of Shackamaxon, Baltusrol and other great courses—to carve 27 holes from the undulating terrain.

In 1995, the county hired prominent New Jersey-based golf architect Stephen Kay to renovate Galloping Hill. The project, completed in 2000, used three different contractors, of whom the first two had little or no golf experience. In the end, says one veteran observer, Galloping Hill got only “a Band-Aid.”

Then came new troubles. The late-’90s golf boom, spurred in part by the emergence of Tiger Woods, resulted in a frenzy of course building. But by the turn of the millenium, five-hour rounds and high greens fees were causing many newcomers to mothball their barely broken-in Softspikes. Whereas in 1994 Galloping Hill and its sister courses, Ashbrook and Oak Ridge, racked up 215,000 rounds, in 2003 the three together barely reached 100,000.

By 2007, Galloping Hill—far from being ready to wrest the most prestigious state championship from the private clubs—was barely holding on. That year, for the first time, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders examined the economics of its three golf courses separately from the operation of the Department of Parks and Recreation. It discovered that golf was losing about $500,000 a year.

Spurred by George Devanney, then the county manager, the freeholders took action. “We realized we had to reinvigorate the whole golf operation, and we felt the way to do that was to focus on Galloping Hill,” says Sullivan, who identifies himself as the lone golfer on the county board. “It was the most attractive and centrally located, right beside the Parkway, and it needed a facility worthy of that.”

Devanney brought in Sanchez, who has a degree in golf management and had worked with Jack Nicklaus’s Golden Bear Industries. Freeholders and officials visited some of the top county-run facilities in the state, including Mercer Oaks (Mercer) and Neshanic Valley (Somerset). “The Neshanic guys were awesome about what was wrong with county golf and how to do it right,” says Sanchez.

A plan was forged. It began with triage—the closing of Oak Ridge after the 2008 season. The least-used course, it had the shabbiest conditions, including bad drainage, ancient greens and a clubhouse on the verge of condemnation.

“Some golfers didn’t want to see it go, but it paved the way for turning Galloping Hill into a real flagship,” says Sullivan. Closing Oak Ridge, which is now a park, saved $600,000 a year. In 2009 the county brought back architect Kay to reduce Galloping Hill’s third nine to a short (but interesting) executive-length course, creating space to build the long-sought practice facilities. The Learning Center, opened in 2009, became a TaylorMade Performance Lab last June.

“We needed to show the public their dollars were being well spent,” says Sullivan. “Getting the practice and learning center open quickly did that.” Now Galloping Hill has partnerships with the Renaissance Junior Golf Program, the LPGA/USGA Girls Golf Program, and First Tee of Raritan Valley, which is based at Galloping Hill.

In 2009, the county signed a five-year contract with Kemper Sports to manage the daily operation of Galloping Hill and Ashbrook. In the deal, expected to be renewed when it expires at the end of next year, Kemper is paid a monthly management fee, and the county retains all revenues except for retail sales in the pro shop. The attraction for both TaylorMade and Kemper is the population density of North Jersey and Galloping Hill’s location flush beside the Parkway—where 250,000 cars a day pass by, according to a 2007 feasibility study. The big new clubhouse looms in full view of all 10 lanes.

The freeholders took the biggest step in 2010, when they approved $17.6 million in bonds to pay for the Learning Center, a new maintenance facility and the new clubhouse, whose second floor includes a large banquet hall—expected to produce significant revenue for the county. The state golf association had long wanted to move its headquarters to a golf course. Conversations with Union County led to an agreement to expand the proposed clubhouse from 30,000 to 46,000 square feet, making room for the NJSGA.

In June of this year, the clubhouse opened with the NJSGA’s flag flying from the roof. “It’s a dream come true,” says NJSGA executive director Steve Foehl. “It’s vital to our branding to be associated with a first-class facility like Galloping Hill.” In the first two years, the association will pay the county $5,000 a month rent; then the sum will increase 3 percent every three years till the end of the 10-year lease. By the end of May, the banquet space had already booked 80 events through 2016. “We are on target to hit about $5.6 million in revenue this year,” says Sanchez, “with operational costs at about $5.3 million.”

The next phase begins this fall, when Montclair’s eminent golf architect, Rees Jones, known as the Open Doctor, begins preparing the course for the 2016 NJ Open. While 200 to 300 yards will be added to Galloping Hill’s 6,639-yard length, much of the work—like bunker renovations—will aim to “restore the classic feel of the golf course,” says Jones, “and provide regular golfers with as enjoyable an experience as possible.”

Additional reporting by M. James Ward.

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