The Sine Qua Non of Massachusetts Public Golf

 From the year Arnold Palmer turned pro (1954) to the year Jack Nicklaus won his last major (1986), high-quality public golf in Massachusetts had its headquarters on Randall Road in Stow. Minding the store were the three Page brothers, blue-collar entrepreneurs who worked like plow horses to turn rugged woodland into two courses Arnie and Jack wouldn’t have minded playing, themselves.

 The brothers, first-generation Americans, were warned by their father not to follow him into the Waltham foundry where he molded iron to earn a hard wage. The two oldest—twins Robert II and Fred—set themselves up in the heating oil business, hand-carting what was called “range oil” in five-gallon buckets and pouring it through spouts installed in exterior walls.

When the business advanced to using metered trucks that fueled furnaces and boilers, the Page Brothers suddenly had a crew of drivers rumbling all over Waltham and surrounding towns from October to March. To keep from losing the drivers to other permanent employment during the summer lull, Robert suggested they buy a 9-hole golf course up in Stow, where they already owned a woodyard. They paid $35,000 for 160 acres, nine holes and stylish but battered clubhouse. “We took in $1,400 that first year,” recalls Fred. “But we kept the drivers busy.”

And themselves, as well. For six more years they continued the oil business, before selling it to Jenney Oil and devoting themselves to steady expansion of the golf operation.  Younger brother Tommy became the inside manager while Bob and Fred tended the turf. “We mowed, spread loam, seeded, fertilized…. mostly on our own, with a few helpers, he says.” Years later, Fred confesses, when fleets of golf cars were becoming commonplace at even dusty municipals, the Pages’ refusal to allow them would stem from all those long days of nurturing the turf by hand and protecting it at all costs. “But it was the biggest mistake we ever made,” he says of the famous no-carts policy. “That turned out to be the No. 1 money maker, and we wouldn’t let them on!”

Nor would Bob, Fred and Tommy go in for the prestige of hosting MGA championships and qualifiers on their sleek North and South layouts. “We put our regulars first,” says Fred. “We wanted it so they could drive up any day of the season, pay their fee and play.”

On their own, the brothers built a second nine to complete the South layout. The holes were awkward, however, and the region’s premier designer, Geoffrey Cornish, was called in to make repairs. Cornish would go on to design the other 18, Stow North, and probably would have been hired to build additional courses on the extensive land holdings (539 acres in all) the family had quilted together along their original site.

When they decided instead to sell out and perhaps retire, their asking price of $5 million drew barely a sniff. The Pages cancelled the listing and operated Stow Acres another year, at the end of which they offered the property for $7 million. Still no serious offers. Over the ensuing few years, against logic, up rose the price to 10, 12, then $14 million, with occasional close calls and a one $125,000 deposit that was simply abandoned by a bidder who no-showed at the closing. In 1986 the Lankau-Cole partnership bought the property and business assets for $14 million. The Pages walked away (though, in Bob’s case, not far), and an era in Massachusetts public golf was over.

The Page brothers were financially set after they sold Stow Acres in ‘86, but the golf-course business was by no means out of their systems, especially Robert’s. In the late 1980s, Robert and his son, Robert Page III, invested in land off Wheeler Road, just a mile or so north of their old property.

In 1993, Butternut Farm  opened its doors, competing—in an upbeat golf market—for green-fee revenues with the family’s original golf property around the corner. But not directly, as a me-too contender. Butternut Farm, with its polished appearance and emphasis on banquets and catering, was everything that Stow Acres hadn’t been for the previous Page generation.

It’s virtually a law of nature that when a set of brothers operates a golf course, certain brothers naturally work outside and thus avoid placing liquor orders or writing copy for newspaper ads, while others work inside and will probably never mow a green. Trevor Page did a stint on the construction side but found his place in-house after that, teaming with Cole, the oldest, on the non-turf side of the operation. Meanwhile Tadd, who co-designed the course with father Robert III, cultivates the fairways and greens alongside his dad and the youngest of the four, Jared.

The death of co-founder Robert Page II prompted his son and grandsons toward changes that have benefited the business—a new clubhouse chief among them. A new clubhouse came out of those discussions. The original clubhouse measured 9,000 square feet, about have of which was devoted to an upstairs apartment where the aging founder lived. In its place is a 14,000-square-foot building that functions as a golf clubhouse and banquet hall of unusual good looks. It will host some 50 weddings in the 2006 season, about as many as the calendar permits. A 15-foot ceiling opens the room up for a stylish feel and pleasing acoustics.

 In a difficult golf market—Butternut’s annual rounds-played tally is under the 45,000 peak of several years back—the business derives only about 70 percent of its revenue from golf. The 6,300-yard golf course, with its self-described “hallway-thin fairways,” has a gentler look than Stow Acres and features different soils and tree species—more pine than oak. Overall the facility is visually sleeker and more refined. Its promotional materials strive for an elegant feel rather than the golf-lodge atmosphere of Stow Acres.

Robert III keeps an eye out for possible new investments in golf, though he is more inclined to expand via acquisition than begin the arduous task of digging a new golf landscape out of the dirt. For now the family concentrates on Butternut Farm.

Which, by the way, still makes a pleasant pasture for the long-retired Fred Page, who makes a daily visit there to the hit balls, play a few holes and study the landscape to see where the latest improvements have gone in. Appropriately enough, his money isn’t any good there

“I’m a freeloader at Butternut,” the old patriarch unabashedly confesses.

Walter Lankau was one of those industrious math-and-science mavens who took radios and lawnmower engines apart when there was else to do on a cold Saturday in Portland, Maine. As a high school sophomore, Lankau spent $25 of his hard-earned caddie money on an old Ford Six. The hulking sedan sputtered and blew oil when he bought it, but after a shade-tree valve job Lankau had its engine purring properly.

He earned an undergraduate degree at Worcester Polytechnical Institute, studied chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts for a year then went to work for DuPont in Wilmington, Del.(in part because DuPont employees could pay about a tiny sum for yearlong golf privileges at any of four excellent golf courses DuPont controlled in the area). Realizing his brain and temperament were built for a hybrid of science and business, Lankau applied to the prestigious Wharton School at the University and Pennsylvania and was accepted. MBA in hand, he took a consulting job in the D.C. area at which he excelled and with which he was quickly bored and frustrated.

Lunch with his old thesis advisor at Wharton produced a lead on a position with a high-tech firm back in Massachusetts and Lankau joined it as the “fourth guy in.” For all his science background, Walt was the tech lightweight in this quartet. The rest were MIT software brains who had built an ingenious family of computer programs for contract management. With business sizzling and the workforce up from four to 225, Lankau and his fellow principals accepted an offer and sold the company. He wasn’t sufficiently bankrolled to retire in high style, but suddenly there were options. Lankau and his wife, Collette, fantasized about buying a golf course. Somewhat accidentally—his club’s tee was closed on a day he wished to play with a guest—Lankau found himself in the Stow Acres grill with a fellow entrepreneur, each of them aware the property was on the market. “We should buy this place,” one of them said. The other agreed. They found one bank out (out of a 15 they asked) willing to provide financing.

The rest isn’t just history, it’s agronomy, economics and Marketing 101.  

Under the new regime (and, eventually, Lankau’s sole ownership) the Pages’ old course became home to one of the region’s best golf learning centers, the buildings and grounds were significantly upgraded and Stow was hosting a slew of important tournaments, culminating in the 1995 U.S. Amateur Public Links. Not long before that Lankau became a director of the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund board and immediately offered to host a golf marathon at Stow to benefit the fund. In the 13 years that the Ouimet Marathon has unleashed its organized chaos upon Stow South, the event has generated over $2.5 million in college scholarship money for golf-employed youth.

In his spare time Lankau joined a partnership that built and sold Sterling Country Club. He also acquired a substantial interest in Owl’s Nest Golf Club in New Hampshire and secured, with a partner, a lucrative regional distributorship for Club Car. The company’s VP of sales, David Hamilton, was glad to have Lankau in his investor group. “Walt has been recognized for his unselfish support of the industry and for his contributions to the game for good reason,” says Hamilton. A golf course design and construction service, On-Course Golf, was incubated at Stow and is now a thriving enterprise managed by Sean Hanley. The management roster at Stow Acres looks a bit like a genealogical chart, with Walt and wife/partner Collette joined by their two daughters, Anne and Karen, and the daughters’ husbands, Russ Spencer and Mike Giles, teaming up to run day-do-day operations.   

Mike Hughes, chief executive of the National Golf Course Owners Association, made a trip up to New England about a dozen years ago to help in the establishment of a regional NGCOA affiliate. Hughes spent time with Stow Acres owner Walter Lankau on that trip and was impressed right away by Lankau’s unusual mix of passion and prudence.

 “Walt has a deeper feeling for the game of golf than just about anybody I know,” says Hughes, a man of vast contacts within the sport. “He turns that passion into a will to get things done.” Some of the people most deeply passionate about golf are also blind to the business realities of the industry, but Lankau’s eye for opportunity is famously sharp. He uses it to spot opportunities for the charitable organizations and service groups that golf has traditionally supported. In parallel to his personal success at Stow Acres, Lankau can claim a vital role in helping start up a regional owners’ group that now numbers some 330 members. He served as the chapter’s first president in 1994. That was eventually followed by a term as president of the NGCOA, the national owners’ group, in 2003-04.

 “Walt has been one of the most effective board members and one of the most effective presidents we’ve ever had,” says Hughes. He says the Lankau style is to step forward calmly but decisively, either to volunteer his help or to express a well-honed viewpoint, pro or con. “If Walter disagrees with an association policy or an initiative, he’ll say so immediately. But if the plan goes through and is ratified, he’s behind it,” says Hughes. “That’s how the process is supposed to work—you want people to put their dissent on the front end.”

 Being a young golf organization, the NEGCOA started off without much visibility. To help remedy that, Lankau has arranged for the chapter to gain a seat on the board of the highly visible and influential Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund, of which he (along with his wife, Collette) is a Lifetime Distinguished Member. The NEGCOA will contribute its energy and assets to the charity—a benefit to the Fund—but in the process the chapter will raise its profile and open up new networking opportunities. “That’s a helpful step for the public golf industry in this region,” says Dudley Darling, president of Juniper Hill Golf Course, who was there with Lankau in the startup days of the chapter. “Walter wants golf to keep growing and moving forward, that’s what motivates him.”

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