WINDSOR – I was looking over the scorecard after playing 18 holes of golf this past Wednesday, and upon some quick reflection, I realized that my actually golfing would play a minor role in this article.
Perhaps more than any course we have reviewed, the story of Golden Oak Golf Course goes beyond the happenings within the fairways.
It’s a layered story in which majority owners Rebecca Ellsworth and Ken Ellsworth threw themselves a midlife curveball by purchasing the course. It’s a story of superintendent and course manager, Jack Gill Jr., living the American dream by working himself up the ladder from laborer to part owner. And lastly, it’s the story of longtime members who willingly volunteer their time, not at the behest of ownership, but just because.
To those who call Golden Oak their home course, it is the social epicenter of a rural area on Route 79, three miles south of Windsor – and just seven miles north of the Pennsylvania border.
After enlisting my GPS to get me to the course, I arrived a few minutes ahead of my tee time, and was greeted in the parking lot by a nice gentleman. He asked me if I was the reporter writing the story about the course. I said, “yes, are you one of the owners?”
He told me no, but “Becky (Ellsworth) was in the clubhouse, and was expecting me.”
The gentleman, who introduced himself as Dave Gorman, said he had found playing partners for me, and he had my golf cart ready to go. I inquired after the round if Dave worked for the course. I was told “no, he just likes to help out.”
As I learned during my 5 1/2-hour stay, there are a lot of Dave Gormans at Golden Oak Golf Course, and that pitch-in-and-help-out mentality is fostered by the people-friendly Ellsworths.
“The biggest change (since the Ellsworths) took over is the culture here,” Gill said after my round. Gill is in his 21st year with the course, and fifth as the course superintendent and manager.
Gorman, who had a ready smile and an anecdote or two to tell before I played, let me know that he arranged for graduating Windsor senior Joey Roberge and recent Broome Community College graduate, Jeremiah Noyd (also a Windsor alum), to play with me.
I quickly noticed that both were swinging the club from the wrong (I mean) left side. In over 30 years of playing the game, I believe this would be the first time I was the only right-handed golfer among my threesome or foursome.
Both young men had a wealth of course knowledge, and their recommendations on club selection and direction were quite handy.
Due to a seniors outing in the morning, Dave sent us out on the back nine. On our third hole, the par-five 12th that runs along the Susquehanna River, I met Gill for the first time.
After our introduction, his first question to me was, “why Golden Oak?”
The short answer was that the last time I was here, we were rained out two-thirds through the round.
The long explanation – because I have some space to fill – was that I was hoping to not only play all 18 holes, but also play those holes much better.
Fearsome thunder clouds hovered over us during that 2004 round. That day, Bob McNitt and ES publisher, Dick Snyder, made up our threesome. We dodged the raindrops for a few holes, caught some misting showers about the seventh hole, then hurried through the final two holes in an incessant downpour.
After grabbing lunch, the rain halted, and we optimistically headed out to the back nine. Within 10 minutes, we realized that we had made a bad decision When we reached the 12th hole, it was raining again – hard.
Ultimately, Mother Nature’s liquid outburst shooed us back to the clubhouse where we made a mad dash to the parking lot, unhooked the bags from our carts, and literally left the carts right where they stood as we scrambled into the dry haven of Dick’s car.
In all of the years writing this feature, that was the only time I did not finish the round.
Weather was not an issue this week, and was nothing short of spectacular. After introducing myself to Becky Ellsworth and confirming a post-round interview, I allowed my chauffeur, Jeremiah, to drive us to our opening hole, the downhill par-three 10th.
It was an inauspicious beginning in which I had to take a penalty stroke for overshooting the green with my tee ball and into some gnarly shrubbery. From there, however, I proceeded to play my best round of the season.
I didn’t completely avoid trouble, and unless you’re hitting the ball perfectly straight – all day – you will likely have a time or two searching for your ball. There are plenty of hazards, water, sand, long grass, out of bounds, and steep dropoffs left or right that can send your score soaring at any moment.
The greens, while small, were smooth and virtually blemish free. They were also a tad quicker than what I remembered, and I learned that in the years subsequent to my last round, Golden Oak’s groundscrew had upgraded to a better mower.
I also learned, through my discussion with Becky Ellsworth, that only three full-time employees – including Gill – maintain the course.
“With this much land, you would think there would be eight to 10 on the crew,” Ellsworth said. “These guys are amazing, and they just work their tails off.”
What is equally amazing is Gill’s personal story. He explained that he grew up extremely poor and worked on Golden Oak as a 15- and 16-year-old to make extra money. After getting into the business of building houses as an adult, he received an offer from the previous owner, Yew, “that he couldn’t refuse.”
He worked as a laborer for many years under the superintendent, Charlie Cass, who now works for him on his crew. “We’re really one in the same,” Gill said of his working relationship with Cass.
The Ellsworth family was pleased to retain Gill and Cass on the crew, and Gill was able to take on a role as part-owner. “To work here as a young man, then work myself into a part-owner, that’s hard to do these days,” Gill said. “My kids will enjoy it, and they won’t have to go through the same school of hard knocks.”
For the Ellsworth family, Ken had played in a league at Golden Oak with his father for over 30 years. Ken Ellsworth was one of many who waxed nostalgic for the days before Mr. Yew owned the course. Yew had battled some health issues, and in his final years as owner had significantly reduced the number of member events held at the course.
“When the course came up for sale, we probably talked about it and went back and forth for about a year and a half,” Becky Ellsworth said. “The potential here was ridiculous, and this is just a gorgeous place.”
Indeed, the picturesque landscapes and the views of the valley are perfect examples of upstate New York’s beauty, and the land on which the course resides is a meeting place for all kinds of wildlife.
After finalizing the purchase of the course, there was the business about actually running the business. Ken Ellsworth owned – and still owns – an architectural engineering business in Binghamton, and Becky Ellsworth worked for her husband in that business.
Now, Becky Ellsworth was the point man for a golf course. “I am not a golfer,” she said. “I had to learn a lot, and the veteran members that were here were instrumental in letting me know how things were done. Fortunately, they didn’t lead me astray. Things could have gone bad.”
Returning in force were many of the popular tournaments and all of the traditional member tournaments. Participation in leagues has since grown exponentially, and three new leagues have been added since the Ellsworths took over to start the 2011 year.
“More than anything else, this place was a social center,” Becky Ellsworth said. “When we purchased the course, a lot of the old-time members felt like they got their course back. I was talking to (club member) Roger Hall one day, and I said to him, so it’s not about the golf?’ He said, ‘who said it was about the golf?'”
That was the “aha” moment for Ellsworth.
“This was a social thing and being a social person, I said to myself, ‘I can do this, I can do that. I’ve got this,'” she said.
Ellsworth has put her own stamp on traditional golf with interesting functions including a Halloween tournament in which players must compete in costume. During the winter, a frozen rink is set up for an annual curling tournament. Yes, the Olympic event where stones with a handle are thrown toward a circle – like shuffleboard on ice.
“I would say I’m a non-traditional owner, and we do some crazy stuff,” Becky Ellsworth said. “It’s become a great thing for us.”
Ellsworth and Gill, always on the go and preparing for the club championship this weekend, said their goodbyes as I finished up my lunch. At that point, it felt like I was parting ways with old friends, even though this was the first time I had met them.
I also said goodbye to Joey and Jeremiah, who were off to do some volunteer work on the course with Gorman leading the way. Such is the appeal of Golden Oak Golf Course to its clientele as paying members willingly volunteer to maintain the course’s upkeep.
Gill and the Ellsworths clearly know that owning a golf course isn’t just about the golf, it’s about customer service and customer satisfaction.
This golfer was more than satisfied.