Springdale Golf Club – On Par for 125 Years

Under Troon management, the historic club is teeing off to a greener future

By Ilene Dube | Images courtesy of Springdale Golf Club

Some describe it as “a good walk spoiled” (a quote falsely attributed to Mark Twain*). Others call it “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (such was the title of a book and film about golf champion Francis Ouimet). Princeton’s most famous resident, Albert Einstein, reportedly said of the sport: “Tried it once. Too complicated. I quit.”

While modern golf originated in 15th-century Scotland, the game can be traced to the Song Dynasty in China during the years 960 to 1279. The Dutch and the Romans may have also played an early form of the game.

Today, the rate of attrition for old-time golfers exceeds the number joining from a younger generation, and consequently more courses are closing than are opening. But at Princeton’s Springdale Golf Club, celebrating 125 years of operation, membership is surging.

Open exclusively to its 400-plus members, as well as Princeton University students and faculty — the University owns the land and the club has a long-term lease — the bucolic enclave with a gothic tower at its center is only viewable to most of us while driving along Alexander Street, or possibly taking our children and grandchildren sledding on its hill. On special occasions, Springdale opens its doors to the community for special events, fundraisers, and charity golf outings. Cross-country skiing is permitted on the fairway, though not on the greens.

Paris has Notre Dame Cathedral, Pittsburgh has its Cathedral of Learning, and in Princeton the Gothic spires of Cleveland Tower loom over the course at Springdale. Part of the Graduate College, Cleveland Tower was designed by Ralph Adams Cram (architect of New York’s St. John the Divine Cathedral) as a memorial to President Grover Cleveland, who served as a University trustee following his retirement from public life, and is home to one of the world’s largest carillon organs.

Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland were pals but competitive, says Springdale’s Board of Governors President Kevin Tylus, and the two presidents bickered over where to put the tower. Wilson wanted it in town, and Cleveland ultimately consented that it could be anywhere as long as it bore his name.

Aerial view of Princeton in 1937, with Springdale to the right.

Washington Slept Here

Both George Washington and Albert Einstein figure into the history of Springdale. The founder of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — on land adjacent to Springdale — was Abraham Flexner, an avid golfer. Flexner tried to interest a reluctant Einstein in the game. In response, the theoretician of relativity signed up for a lesson at Springdale, just a short walk from his home at 112 Mercer Street, but apparently the first lesson was also Einstein’s last. The joke they tell at Springdale is that Einstein went into physics because he was so bad at golf.

It has been written that George Washington’s encampment prior to the Battle of Princeton was located somewhere near where the fifth tee lies today. First Lady Frances Cleveland was one of the club’s earliest members. The club included women from the very beginning, and the clubhouse was designed with a ladies’ room — though it is shocking to consider any alternative today, it was a big deal back then.

The original Princeton Golf Club, formed in 1895 by alumni, faculty, and undergraduates, was one of the first 100 golf clubs in the U.S. A nine-hole course was laid out in a large field known as Stockton Woods, to the west of the old race track at the lower end of Bayard Lane. Moses Taylor Pyne, Stephen Palmer, and Cornelius C. Cuyler formed the Springdale Association and raised $25,000 to buy the 240-acre Stockton Farm. The nine-hole course opened for play in 1902. Seven years later the property was turned over to the University.

The old clubhouse was originally a tenant-farmer house. The Class of 1886 purchased the house from the Springdale Association and deeded it to the University in 1903 with the proviso that it be used for Class of 1886 reunions, and each member would be a lifetime member of the club.

The course was originally designed by Scotsman Willie Dunn Jr. In 1911, Gerard B. Lambert — known for his wildly successful marketing of Listerine products and, locally, for his design of the Albemarle estate, which became the one-time home of the American Boychoir School — had the property surveyed and made plans to enlarge the course to 18 holes, which he laid out and completed in June of 1915. In the summer of 1922, the Princeton Golf Club changed its name to Springdale Golf Club.

The course was re-designed in the late ’20s by esteemed golf architect William S. Flynn, known for his designs at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island and Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Although most of Flynn’s work is in the Philadelphia region, his most recognized work is at the Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, the Cascades in Virginia, and the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Shinnecock Hills, a five-time U.S. Open venue, is considered his finest work and was rated third in Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Courses ranking.

Flynn worked during the sport’s golden age, starting at the end of World War I and through the Great Depression, when most of the country’s golf courses were built or rebuilt. A distinctive feature of Flynn’s designs was that rather than change the topography with earth-moving equipment, he worked with the natural landscape, taking advantage of what it offered.

The vintage clubhouse.

New Clubhouse Offers Needed Amenities

In the early 2000s, the University decided it needed the original clubhouse as a test kitchen for its dining services. It then contributed toward the architectural, engineering, and planning costs for a new clubhouse, opened in 2007, as well as the rerouting of the course for access from the new clubhouse.

“The move here was a win-win,” says Tylus, a banking executive and lifelong Princeton resident who, as a student at St. Paul’s School, was a sports writer for Town Topics. “The old building, quaint as it is, was in need of repair. Now we have a new building with amenities, parking, and a practice facility for the men’s and women’s varsity teams.”

A new indoor performance space includes a golf simulator with video of actual golf courses that plays one’s shot in real time. It also gives stats: spin, launch, miles per hour, and angle. The performance space enables the University teams to practice in all weather, but is also an amenity for club members. “It’s a fun way to practice and really popular,” says Tylus.

In 2018, Springdale selected Scottsdale, Arizona-based Troon Prive to provide management services for the club. Members now receive access to 300 Troon-managed facilities from Hawaii to the U.K. The arrangement allows Springdale to operate with greater efficiency: group purchasing rates, a payroll system, health insurance for employees, and website and social media management. It also enabled the club to bring on board a membership and community outreach coordinator, Brittany Ennis, and an agronomist, Donovan Maguigan.

A red fox resting in a sand trap.

Keeping It Green

Golf courses are notoriously maligned for their contribution to climate change, from water usage and ground water pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides to loss of natural habitats and wetlands. But, according to the website of Rutgers Golf Turf Management School, “Golf courses have great opportunities to make a positive impact [on the environment]. They can provide wildlife sanctuaries, preserve natural areas in urban environments, support native plants and wildlife, protect water resources, rehabilitate degraded landscapes, and promote environmentally-positive management to the public.”

Springdale aspires to all of the above, using integrated pest management — employing non-chemical methods of reducing harmful insects and only using chemical pesticides as a last resort. “A fairway that has full, healthy turfgrass receiving the nutrients that it needs but not to excess will use less water and require less pesticides,” notes Maguigan. He adheres to a policy of precision irrigation based on need.

“I like to give the example of the homeowner who runs their sprinkler every day, rain or shine. We irrigate areas that only need water based on environmental conditions,” he says.

By incorporating sound agronomic practices to promote healthy plants and soils, Maguigan reduces chemical dependency, using instead a poultry-based fertilizer.

Maguigan considers the golf course a wildlife sanctuary, “a 110-acre greenspace that provides food and shelter for wildlife, free from development. Fox and deer routinely make Springdale their home, coexisting with our golfers and walkers. The hawks are an attraction as well.”

A three-quarter-mile long creek runs through the property, connecting to a pond. “These areas are where we have the highest environmental impacts,” he adds. “We utilize a buffer to prevent chemical or fertilizer applications from reaching the water, monitor our irrigation to prevent excess runoff, maintain a native-plant perimeter, and plan to work with the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program and other clean water initiatives.”

 The club shares a border with the Institute Woods, where migrating birds fly over. Maguigan reports sightings of bluebirds and goldfinches around the golf course, as well as monarch butterflies attracted to the milkweed. “We have four low-maintenance areas we maintain as native patches of plants totaling about four acres,” says Maguigan, who chooses from a list compiled by the Native Plant Society of New Jersey. “Native plants require far less water and fertilizer because they are accustomed to this growing environment.”

A resident fox became a bit of a celebrity on the course last summer, about which Maguigan received numerous calls and emails. “We sent a message to the membership educating them that it was a healthy fox and that it was important not to feed the fox or approach it. There were a few instances where the fox dug into a bunker or damaged a green, but there are rules in place that allow golfers relief from that activity and the damage is minimal. Since the summer, we have seen two foxes, one male and one female, frequenting the area near our pond and Forbes College.”

 Deer, too, enjoy strolling on the greens, but at this time there are no control measures in use. “As with the fox, the damage they cause is minimal with the worst being deer tracks in the greens or scat around the property.”

Springdale’s head golf pro Keith Stewart — less formally known as “Director of Fun” at the club — was named NJPGA Golf Professional of the Year in 2019. He hosts a weekly golf radio show on Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)

New Members Welcome

After the Great Recession, Springdale saw a dip in its membership, in line with the downward trend on the national level, and began an effort to bring in new members.

The path toward membership requires a referral from a sponsor who is already a member. There is a 10-day posting period, during which time the initiate, as well as existing members, ask questions of one another.

But what if you are new to the area, want to join, and don’t know anyone who can sponsor you?

Such a thing happened recently, according to Ernie Anastasio, Membership Committee chair and educational consultant formerly with ETS. A prospective member who had relocated to Princeton discovered the club and introduced himself to Anastasio, who invited him to the member barbecue. They played a complimentary game and Anastasio became his sponsor.

The club has been actively seeking younger families as members and growing its junior programs. The diversity of its membership is also increasing, reflecting the University faculty, staff, and students, as well as the greater community. Tylus and Anastasio stress that Springdale welcomes people of all backgrounds.

There are members well into their 90s, and among the strongest players are teenage girls. Springdale’s junior program is recognized by the New Jersey State Golf Foundation as the best in the state.

And while the sport may not be as welcoming to women as one might expect in the year 2020 — for example, some clubs restrict the days of the week that women can play — Springdale’s programs are gender blind, says Board Secretary Erin Hamrick, an advocate for opportunities for women and girls in golf.

Springdale Hole No. 3.

A Seat at the Table

Among the club’s 410 members, 100 do not even play the sport. They join for the social aspects, the special events, and the dining opportunities — club dinners, barbecues, holiday galas, wine dinners, and a clam bake. “If you didn’t know anyone here, someone would sit and talk to you,” says Anastasio. “People who don’t have a plan for the holidays can come together here. Our tables are big enough for all.”

Men’s golf champion and board member Kevin Bullinger gives three reasons he and his family (the children are 6, 4, and 2) belong: love of the game and watching others play; socializing with “diverse and great people”; and enrichment programs for children, such as the junior program, camps, holiday parties, and movie nights.

Anastasio says new members are embraced, beginning with an orientation. “We are not cliquish; our members feel welcome. We’re also apolitical, so there’s no tension.”

Through the various efforts, 44 new members were brought on board in 2019. The best recruiters, says Tylus, are those who just joined.

Oh, and about that good walk spoiled? “A large percentage of our players walk — you don’t hear gas carts,” says Hamrick. “Golf was invented as a walking sport. It’s a privilege to walk and play.”