Like a long green fairway, the golf season stretches out before Ridgefield’s hackers and whackers — starting Friday.
“It’s a limited opening: walkers only,” said Ridgefield Golf Course professional Frank Sergiovannni. “We call it a soft opening.
“Tomorrow at 10 a.m. will be the first shots of the year,” Sergiovannni said Thursday, March 28.
“We’re going to open at 10 a.m. tomorrow and 7:30 this weekend. No announcement has been made beyond that because they’re saying frost Monday and Tuesday. Frost forecasts change. Decisions on next week will be made midday Friday."
People can book tee times through the the online reservation system on course’s website: ridgefieldgc.com.
And apparently there’s no shortage of folks to get out there with the old clubs start whacking at their sanity.
“There’s a small number of reservation for tomorrow,” Sergiovanni said Thursday, “then Saturday we have a lot of reservations.”
While the forecast was for beautiful spring weather on Saturday, there are predictions of rain on Sunday.
“Hopefully, if we don’t get too much rain, we’ll the carts rolling next week,” Sergiovanni said.
The carts proved problematic last year, when the course sustained damage during a very wet late summer and fall.
“Incessant rain,” Sergiovanni said. “...Rain last year it really started in July — July, August and September, rain, rain, rain.”
It wasn’t good for the course.
“We took some hard wear and tear because we can’t just close for weeks and weeks at a time,” Sergiovanni said.
To start this year an area on the eleventh hole will be out of play.
“We’ve fenced off that area on 11,” Sergiovanni said. “You can’t walk on it. You can’t drive on it. A push cart can’t go in there. No access. That’s the only way it’s going to heal — if it’s left alone for a couple of months.”
Talk of damage to the course during last year’s rain reached the Board of Selectmen when golfer Dave Campbell showed up at a recent budget meetings to express concern.
“It’s a gem of Fairfield County, it’s a real asset — until last year,” Campbell said. “...That was a disaster last year.”
First Selectman Rudy Marconi agreed.
“There was a lot of damage done last year. Frank told us that,” Marconi told the board. “People run everywhere with the carts...”
Campbell felt use of the course should have been more closely restricted.
“We could have reduced the loss,” he said.
He worried out of town golfers would write of the course due to its condition.
“More than 60% of the revenue comes from out of town,” Campbell said. “...We’re going to have some problems getting our reputation back.”
“All I’m asking is put a closer eye on it,” Campbell told the selectmen. “...Please pay attention. It’s a wonderful course.”
Sergiovanni felt some of talk going around was a bit alarmist.
The damage from last year is all in areas that are off the fairways, greens and tees, he said.
“Every course was in the same boat, every golf course had trouble with all the rain, it wasn’t just us,” Sergiovanni said.
“We’re one of the last golf courses in the area to open, because we’re one of the wettest.”
The Ridgefield Golf Course covers about 145 acres off Ridgebury Road. And, although the neighborhood is fairly high up, the course itself runs through some of the local low spots.
“In the middle of the golf course is a 45-acre wetland preserve,” Sergiovanni said.
The 2017-18 fiscal year, which ended last June 30, closed with the course in good shape — both physically and financially.
“We had a very good June — last month of 2018. It was right where it should be: rounds and revenue,” Sergiovanni said. “Then, the second week of July, it started to rain.”
The course had to closed frequently, disappointing golfers and reducing revenue.
“We close when we absolutely have to, but if we can possibly be open we try to be open. It’s a balancing act,” Sergiovanni said.
A four-level protocol governs use of the course after wet weather: closed; walkers only; carts allowed with restrictions; and open to walkers and carts without restrictions.
Last year, with so much rain, was difficult.
“When the course has been closed two days one week, three days the next, it’s becomes tougher to close it again and again,” Sergiovanni said.
“We let the carts out on some marginal days,” he said. “There are some days, we could have been ‘walkers only.’ ”
Still, if all golfers had respected the rules on cart use, the wet days wouldn’t have resulted in much damage.
“There’s white lines. There’s ropes. There are signs: ‘Please go around,’” Sergiovanni said.
Not everyone pays attention, it seems.
On Monday, March 25, Sergiovanni gave a little tour of the course, showing wet areas, and some of the damage left from last year. He felt the situation is manageable.
“This is an area that’s chronically wet,” he said on the fourth hole. “Not destroyed, it’s just wet.”
Regular golfers know where the wet spots are.
“The problem holes are two, three, four, six, eleven and thirteen.” he said.
Hole eleven is the worst — the wettest, and the most damaged from last year’s onslaught.
“This is the lowest spot,” he said on the eleventh. “There’s still some standing water.
“This is the one area of concern, “ he said. “This is the one area that’s going to need some repair.
“What happens here, the asphalt path runs out ... can’t go right, can’t go left.”
The cart path ends because it’s an area where many golfers’ shots — slices, a lot of them — end up coming down. “This is a main landing area,” Sergiovanni said.
If the asphalt cart path extended further, more balls would be hitting it and taking huge bounces into a nearby pond.
With the path ending, people sometimes drive their carts right through wet areas, causing damage.
That’s why an area of the eleventh hole has been fenced off.
Still, Sergiovanni doesn’t see problems that can’t be handled.
“All the areas I’ve point out are in the rough. All the fairways are fine,” he said.
“We’ll keep the fairways, the tees and the greens in excellent shape, and we’ll fix the areas that need it.
“We’ll be coming up with some creative solutions short term and long term,” Sergiovanni said. “We’ll get it fixed.”
To ready the course for the season and care for it through the long months of use — and, some might argue, abuse — by golfers and their carts, maintenance supervisor Tony Steger has four full time workers and some seasonal part time help.
“It’s a small crew. They do a great job,” Sergiovanni said.
After last year’s long slog of wet weather, they’ve had lots of work to do.
“There are pockets that need to be graded and seeded. You wouldn’t do that in the winter, The grass doesn’t grow,” Sergiovanni said.
“Each year the goal is to have the course to open April 1,” Sergiovanni said.
“The past two years it was April 13, April 14,” he added. “One year a while back they were open March 17 — although it snowed the next weekend ... March is a funny month in New England.”
So, this year’s March 29 opening can be regarded as a small victory.
As part of the long term thinking about the course, the town’s five-year capital spending plan includes a request in 2020-21 — the year after the coming season — for $125,000 to finance “cart path expansion.”
Having more areas with good paths could lessen damage from carts while increasing the number of days carts would be allowed out on the course, Sergiovanni said.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi told The Press he’s confident the course’s professionals can handle the difficulties.
“There’s no question that due to last year’s weather and the amount of rain we had, there was damage to the course — much more than normal,” Marconi said.
“You can’t keep people away from the course constantly. There were certainly days they opened and there were carts going into areas they should not have,” he said.
“But we have the material to fill in those ruts, plant the grass,” he said.
“...Again we’re hoping that mother nature is more agreeable this spring, and that the weather this year isn’t as wet as it was last year.”
The course hosts between 36,000 and 37,000 rounds of play most years.
A variety of membership options are offered, ranging from $25 to $1,475 for the season. The course has about 1,600 members, and 1,250 or 1,300 are Ridgefielders, according to Sergiovannni.
The guest fee for non-members is $50 a round.
Cart rentals are $17 per round, so non-members using a cart can play for $67 a round — “competitive, but not cheap,” Sergiovanni said.
The town’s fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30, so the change from one year to another falls in the middle of the golf season. Each fiscal year consists of the later summer and fall from one calendar year, and the spring and early summer from the next.
Golf course revenues totaled about $1,343,000 in 2016-17, and the $1,258,000 in 2017-18.
The current 2018-19 fiscal year budget has golf course revenues projected to be $1,350,000, and the same figure is proposed in the budget for next year, 2019-20, which town officials are still working on.
For the current 2018-19 fiscal year golf revenues are, not surprisingly, down.
The first half of the current fiscal year — the later part of last summer, after July 1, and the fall, when all the rains hit — brought in $545,046 in revenues. The previous fiscal year’s revenues for the same period were $644,936.
“So, year to date, year over year, we’re down about $100,000,” Marconi said.
What can be done?
“Pray to the gods,” Marconi said, “and hope the rains stay away and we have a relatively dry season.”