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October 2018

Polishing a Gem

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By Steve Donahue

11 years, $40M later, Pound Ridge glimmers with hope

Pound Ridge Golf Club has received accolades since the Pete Dye gem — his first design in New York — opened in 2008.

But things weren’t always pristine on the small-town site. Around 1939 or 1940, a short 18-hole country club was built on 50 acres straddling Stamford, Connecticut, and Pound Ridge.

“In the 1960s or ’70s the local denizens turned the property into a gambling/strip-tease-girl kind of thing,” says Pound Ridge owner Ken Wang, whose late father, born in China, purchased some nearby property while considering buying a house.

“Even though we were both horrible golfers we wanted a place to play and a real-estate investment,” says Wang.
A developer who owned the golf-course land ultimately sold them 9 1/2 holes of the course on the Connecticut side of his property, and enough land that years later Wang could develop. The Wangs hired a young pro to oversee operations at the 9 1/2-hole course.

“For years we just land-banked that course,” Wang says. “Finally, golf became more popular. Tiger came along and eventually my dad and I decided what to do with the land. We started interviewing name architects. I’d always loved Pete Dye’s courses and hoped he’d do it. I’d met Perry Dye, his son. I asked him if he could get his dad to do it. Pete said yes.”

Thus began an 11-year process to get it approved and eventually built, says Wang, also president of U.S. Summit Company, the New York-based global marketing and distribution company.

The 11 years of agency and development delays ultimately cost Wang roughly $40 million.

“Despite the delays it never occurred to me not to continue the project,” he says.

The course finally opened in 2008 — during a recession.

“Certainly, that worried me,” says Wang. “We opened a few months, plus or minus, when the market, everything, fell apart. There’s nothing you can do about it. Businesses have been scrambling for 10 years.”

The golf industry has changed in that time because the world has changed, says Wang.

 “Because the economy in general has changed since 2008, you see the decline of outings and weekends at the golf course, people aren’t willing to play golf because they want to keep their jobs, there are many changes in the environment of golf courses, like society,” Wang says.  “GolfNow has fundamentally changed the pattern of where people play golf, with a menu of where golfers can go. In the old days people always ate at their favorite restaurant. Now they have many options. A course may get its share of golfers, because they’ve been shopping around, but it’s different than when we started. Many different shifts are going on. Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is most of the industry is struggling with these different variables.”

Wang, who has an office near Pound Ridge, visits his club fairly frequently.

“I stop by almost every few days, for sure weekly, and talk to the manager quite a bit,” he says. “Fortunately, I have a pretty good management team. I don’t play that often, partly because my game, which has never been very good, keeps getting worse.”

Wang’s older sister, famous fashion designer Vera Wang, is a golfer who has played at her brother’s club. She is also a member at New Jersey’s Liberty National and, like Ken, at Long Island’s Atlantic Golf Club.

“She doesn’t play much these days,” he says. “She’s very busy and doesn’t have much time.”

When Pound Ridge opened, there was a small possibility of a Vera Wang women’s signature apparel line.

 “It’s funny,” Wang says. “Early on I suggested that might happen, but her business got much bigger than that. She also educated me, saying that with golf apparel, women always want to wear something someone else won’t wear. So, she said the problem is, that if she sold out of a pro shop she’d be concerned women wouldn’t buy it even if they liked it because five other women would show up wearing the same thing.”

As Pound Ridge celebrates its 10th anniversary, it heads into its 11th year with confidence.

“We’re holding our own,” says Wang. “I think when we first conceived of doing this we got all the demographic information we could find and one thing was obvious for this part of the country — there is a prevalence of private clubs, very few public courses and hardly any munis. We thought there was a hole in the market in that respect and un-met demand. It probably didn’t hurt that Pete wasn’t doing a lot of private courses anymore because I don’t think he believed in them anymore.”

Wang philosophically thought there were elements of golf back then that were too restrictive, that it was still too much of an elitist sport in the northeast.

“We kind of thought this part of the country needed high-level public courses and we were surprised there weren’t many,” adds Wang. “The early years were kind of tough. We held our own and we’re getting better. We’ll see what happens.”  

Steve Donahue is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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