The third hole at Cobblestone Creek Country Club in Lawrence is a classic risk-reward par-4. Bunkers guard the left side of the fairway, flanked by a dense copse of pines. Golfers who successfully negotiate these hazards off the tee will have a relatively easy second shot to the green. Take them on and fail, and they could see their scores soar northward.
Then again, they could take the easier shot up the right side, where rough is the only hazard. But this route requires a longer second shot to the green, and brings into play a bunker that guards its right side. A birdie or a par is still possible, but players will have to overcome a separate set of difficulties to score.
Such design is characteristic of good golf courses, testing expert golfers with one set of challenges and high handicappers with another. And that’s exactly what Cobblestone Creek had in mind several years ago when, still known as Greenacres Country Club, it hired renowned golf architect Bobby Weed to give its course a total redesign.
The new course, set to open June 30, is only the most visible aspect of a multimillion-dollar effort to breathe new life into an 80-year old club while also staying true to its history and traditions. A floor-to-ceiling renovation of the main level of the clubhouse interior and a refreshed “resort-style” aquatic complex are other major initiatives the club has completed in recent months.
The changes have been so dynamic that the club’s board felt that nothing short of a name change could properly embody the reinvention. So in late 2017, Greenacres Country Club became Cobblestone Creek, a “totally new country club,” in the words of Howard Deutsch, the club’s president.
At the heart of this new philosophy is what Deutsch calls a “town-center” style club: family friendly and health- and wellness-centered, with a focus on cultural, educational and recreational programs that cater to the modern lifestyle. They relaxed the dress code — yes, that means jeans are OK — and brought in a new executive chef to modernize the menus in the club’s dining facilities.
They’ve launched a speaker series — the first guests were McCarter Theatre artistic director Emily Mann and playwright Christopher Durang — and plan to host a variety of forums and workshops on topics ranging from nutrition and exercise to cooking and photography.
The hefty investment in facilities coupled with this all-new approach to country club life represents a risk-reward scenario that appears to be paying off for the club. Deutsch says response has been strongly positive since Cobblestone Creek embarked on its reinvention. They’ve added more than 60 new members, including more than 40 just this year.
“People’s lifestyles, their time commitments, their priorities have changed,” Deutsch says. “We think this town center concept, with programming one would not normally experience in a country club setting, makes being a member even a more compelling proposition.”
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Deutsch, 64, became club president in 2012. A member for 20 years, the Titusville resident is a business consultant with a background in health-care management. Born in Brooklyn, he has also lived in California and Florida prior to settling in this area.
Deutsch says it was clear to everyone on the club’s board at the time that they needed to do “something significant” if the club was to thrive. The 2008 recession had been tough on private clubs across America, but it largely served to accelerate a process that was already underway. Membership at most clubs had been aging for years, and as older members have left clubs for the reasons older members do, younger ones have not been joining at a replacement rate.
The board came up with three elements they felt would reverse these trends: make sure membership classifications and their dues structure was highly competitive; deliver value for members; and find a way to invest and modernize the clubhouse and golf course. “We needed to become a forward thinking club,” Deutsch says. “To be thought leaders and not industry followers.”
The third element was most crucial. Where to find the capital necessary to modernize the club, to update a clubhouse last renovated in the 1990’s and freshen a golf course that had become overgrown with trees? The answer, it turned out, was literally right in front of the club.
David Friedman, a long-time member and multiple-time club champion, happened to meet Bobby Weed one day and, knowing his reputation in the golf world, struck up a conversation. Weed, who once worked for famed architect Pete Dye and later served as the PGA Tour’s resident golf course designer before striking out on his own, is becoming known for what he calls “golf course repurposing.”
Weed works with clubs to see if excess land can be found by redesigning the golf course without harming the aesthetics or challenge of the layout. If such excess land can be found, a club can then use it for something else — such as selling it to a developer and using the proceeds to revitalize the club.
The Florida-based architect was brought in to assess the site and came up with a proposal that involved rerouting six holes and relocating the driving range. Doing so would clear about 14 acres along the club’s entry road, where the range had been.
After deciding to go forward with Weed’s plan, the club reached an agreement with Lennar Homes to sell the land for the development of a 97-unit, upscale active-adult townhouse community. As social members at a minimum, these new residents will have access to both the pool and clubhouse.
The deal was what the club needed to set everything in motion. The golf course was closed in June 2017 to implement Weed’s redesign. He built all new first, second, fourth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth holes, and made significant strategic changes to all the other holes, such as the aforementioned third. He lined the creek that runs through the course with cobblestones, thus inspiring the club’s new name. Weed also cleared some unused land near the I-295 interchange for a 320-yard driving range — longer even than the old range had been.
“To do it right, we had to look at the entire golf course,” Deutsch says. “It made no sense to change six holes and leave the other twelve exactly as they were. We wanted the course to have a particular playing philosophy.”
Long-time PGA golf head professional Michael LaBrutto and assistant PGA pro Chrissy Caramma continue to offer private and group instruction and administer the club’s men’s and women’s leagues and tournaments. LaBrutto notes that the course offers two convenient six-hole routings (holes 1 through 5 plus 9 or holes 13 to 18) for golfers who don’t have time to play 18. The course is also now rated for seven tees (four regular and three combination tee sets), ranging from 4,901 to 6,354 yards, to give golfers as wide a range of difficulty level as possible.
Speaking to host Derek Duncan on the Feed the Ball golf podcast, Weed said Cobblestone Creek is one of the most rewarding projects he’s worked on.
“We’ve come in and really … put a course on good standing,” Weed said. “And now that they’re going to be competitive in the marketplace, we’ve impacted in a very positive fashion the business side, as well as accomplishing what we want for both today’s member and tomorrow’s member (on the golf course).”
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The club shut down the clubhouse at the start of the year and gutted the main floor interior. The entry hall, large ballroom, dining area and bar have all been completely redone and are reopened. “Except for the wood part of the bar, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that existed prior to Dec. 31, 2017,” Deutsch says.
Changes have also been made to the pool area, which now features an oversized, heated pool, shaded kiddie pool and adjacent children’s activities center. The aquatic area also includes a gazebo with a tiki bar and outdoor grill just steps from the snack bar. Full-menu food service is available from the clubhouse dining facilities.
After golf season ends in 2018, Cobblestone Creek plans a second phase of renovations in the lower level of the clubhouse. This will entail new locker rooms, an enhanced fitness center, a new pub-style bar and new indoor and outdoor casual dining spaces. Meanwhile, the club continues to feature its outdoor tennis facilities, where it offers competitive and fun activities for players of all skill levels.
Cobblestone Creek has long been known in the area for its cuisine, and a new executive chef, Christopher Krail, should only enhance that reputation.
Krail has spent more than 30 years honing his craft in a variety of notable restaurants and resorts. Krail spent two decades at the Montclair Golf Club, serving as executive chef for 10 years. He attended The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College and The Culinary Institute of America.
“My philosophy blends modern and traditional club fare while applying the artful use of fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch cooking,” Krail says.
Historically the club has had a large number of Jewish members, and that tradition continues to be reflected in, for example, its annual Passover Seder and regular Friday dinners. “Friday dinners are our best dinners,” Deutsch says with a smile.
But he notes that the club has always been inclusive and says that it wants “a diversity of membership in every way possible.” Members who have joined in the past year have been of all faiths and ages. “We have been able to attract a number of families and people in their 30’s, but have also added empty nesters who are joining a club for the first time,” he says. “And we’ll continue to add programs that will make every demographic group confident that they’re getting value for membership.”
The club has membership levels designed to suit a variety of lifestyles, for families as well as individuals, for golfers and nongolfers alike. As of now, it is also waiving joining fees and offering reduced 2018 dues. The club has held a number of open houses to attract new members, and private appointments can also be scheduled by calling (609) 482-3428.
Deutsch believes once people are introduced to the new Cobblestone Creek, they’ll be hooked. “We know the product we have and we’re really excited about it,” he says.