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June 2016

From Good to Greathorse

fromgoodtogreathorse.jpgBy Kyle Darbyson

With a unique vision and deep pockets, the Antonacci family has transformed the bankrupt Hampden Country Club into an elite facility

When Guy Antonacci and his family purchased Hampden Country Club at auction, they knew the southern Massachusetts facility needed some work to get up to their exacting standards. First were renovations to 44 of the course’s bunkers. Then, all stakeholders agreed the newly minted bunkers accentuated the shortcomings of the 40-year-old greens, so they were replaced. That created an opportunity to reroute a few holes, and so on. Now, nearly five years and $45 million later, the club has been completely transformed and reopened under the name GreatHorse.

The general manager, Bryan Smithwick, says the club’s young president is 10 years ahead of most of the private club industry. “Guy has such a unique vision and an uncanny ability to think outside the box,” he raves.

Antonacci turned pro after college, then spent some time toiling around on the mini-tours before returning to Connecticut where his family runs a successful recycling business. But Guy had designs on a different kind of green. “We had been looking for a golf property for eight or nine years, but just never found the right place,” he says.

The bank foreclosed on the original Hampden club in December 2011 and spread word that it would be available for auction. Guy and his family toured the facility and were instantly enamored. “As soon as we saw the hundred-mile view from the clubhouse, we knew we’d found our place,” he remembers.

There were two other bidders who kicked the tires on Hampden, but the Antonacci clan was serious, and seriously capitalized. They eventually won the property with a $1.4 million bid, plus an additional $400,000 for equipment.

Originally, Antonacci intended to reopen the club, going as far as to sell 39 memberships.  “We thought we could work around members,” he admits. Once the scope of the project began to grow, it became obvious that would be impossible. “We refunded their money and closed to play.”

The existing clubhouse was passable, but as Antonacci’s vision evolved, he decided to replace it. The resulting 25,000-square-foot structure is jaw-dropping. All stone and exposed timbers, it wouldn’t seem at all out of place in Vail or Aspen.

“We also wanted to be able to host events without putting out our members,” explains Antonacci. So, a separate 10,000-square-foot banquet space was built nearby.

“Guy is obsessed with providing amenities you wouldn’t expect to find at a private club,” says Smithwick. He added many, including a barber, spa and even bocce courts. A Vegas-style pool was installed, complete with a ring of cabanas, and the casual sports bar was outfitted with two high-end golf simulators.

Antonacci explains the eclectic offering isn’t just an attempt to stand out. “There’s no way you can be successful in this industry unless you build several different amenities for families.”

On top of amenities, the club plans a robust social calendar to engage young families, with junior cooking classes and babysitters onsite on weekend evenings. The club even brought in a petting zoo. “We had dozens of kids running around here,” Antonacci says.

GreatHorse is also determined to shed many of the old guard’s stuffy rules. Social events often feature a vodka luge, there’s a very relaxed electronics policy, and denim is allowed anywhere on the grounds.

The member experience at GreatHorse is clearly exceptional, but Antonacci says the course itself is the real heart of the facility. Renowned architect Brian Silva was brought in to oversee the on-course renovations. He added scores of new bunkers, rebuilt greens to USGA spec, and stretched the course to more than 7,300 yards by adding new teeing options.

It all adds up to a completely unique private club experience, which is reflected in its name. GreatHorse is intentionally left alone, without “country club” or “golf” anywhere in the name. “I tell everyone we’re a lifestyle club that happens to have golf,” Antonacci says.

Once they were getting close to reopening, Antonacci, Smithwick and other club staff compiled a list of ex-Hampden members, high-profile community leaders and others they deemed to be qualified GreatHorse candidates. They were offered a time-sensitive discount on initiations ahead of a public offering. This slow, measured approach has worked. “We’ve gone from zero to 250 members in just a few months,” Smithwick says.

Antonacci plans to keep an eye on the member experience before capping the number of memberships. “We don’t take tee times, so if we see people having to wait too long to play on weekends, that’s something we’ll have to consider.”

For his part, Smithwick says he’s focused on continuing to improve the member experience. With an eye on competing with some of the elite clubs in New England, that job will be paramount. So far, it looks like GreatHorse is one horse you don’t want to bet against.

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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