Strawberry Valley scores best season in 15 years

More people at home, plus sunny weather, means rounds played way up

Strawberry Valley Golf Course in 2020 posted its best season in 15 years, with the spike in rounds played attributed to the pandemic and summer-long drought.

It’s probably unfair to connect those things. But the annus horribilis that was 2020 meant golfers spent more time close to home, and had more time to sneak away for a quick 9 holes, Strawberry Valley Golf Course Committee Chairman Steve Wakelin said. And the drought meant more sun-splashed weekends with a steady stream of golfers hitting the course from dawn ‘til dusk.

“I ended up golfing more myself than anytime in the past 15 years,” said Wakelin, one of thousands of Abington residents who found themselves working from home more in 2020.

Although by the end of summer the course started to show the effects of the drought — the entire South Shore reached “Critical Drought” status by September — golfers continued to make their loops. 

Strawberry Valley recorded 21,660 rounds of golf in the 2020 calendar year, compared to 13,705 rounds the year before. The 58 percent increase is remarkable considering the course was completely closed for six weeks when the pandemic first struck, and when it did reopen, the number of available tee times were reduced because groups were more spaced out.

“Last year it hardly rained at all,” said Wakelin. “Every weekend was available for golf. If it rains on a Saturday or Sunday, you don’t make those [lost rounds] up. We had full weekends almost every weekend of the year.” 

2020 was the second full season with the course back under town management. Although Abington has owned the course since 1984, it was managed for many years by private golf course operators, who paid the town an annual management fee. That fee in 2018 – the last year of the last contract – was about $50,000. 

The boffo season means the course is already in the black for the current fiscal year, generating $390,000 in revenue with the spring golf season still to come. The course’s budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 is about $319,000.

“It seems like nobody had anywhere else to go, so they came and played golf,” Course Superintendent Rene Vadeboncouer told the Finance Committee Wednesday night.

Paul Chase was among those Abington residents who found himself playing Strawberry Valley more in 2020. “I ended up working from home a lot and I could sneak over and play a quick 9 holes,” Chase said, adding he could also bring his 8 year old son, Dylan, who is learning the game. “For me, it was just really convenient.”

The golf course is requesting a budget of $341,000 for fiscal year 2022, which starts July 1. The increase is driven by proposed salary increases for the course’s full-time and part-time staff, Wakelin said. The part-time staff makes minimum wage, which is increasing by 75 cents per hour. Vadeboncouer would receive a 2 percent increase, he told the finance committee, which did not raise any objections. 

Strawberry Valley played host to a kids golf clinic in July, led by High School Golf Coach Tim Hill.

Property tax dollars are not used to maintain or operate the course. All revenue generated by the course is kept in an enterprise fund separate from the town’s general fund and can legally only be used to support the course’s operations. The enterprise fund finished the last fiscal year with a balance of $475,800. 

Town Meeting does approve the golf course’s annual budget and capital expenses.

The golf course committee is looking to reinvest some of its profits back into the property, Wakelin said. 

One possible project involves drilling a second well to help keep the course’s irrigation pond full. The small pond off the challenging fifth hole feeds the course irrigation system. The pond is currently recharged through the combination of a natural spring, a nearby stream, and a nearby well. It struggled to keep up with irrigation demands this past summer.

“You could see the pond go down two and a half feet [following an irrigation session],” Wakelin said. “We’d have to skip a day and let the pond catch itself up.”

A location for a new well hasn’t been finalized yet; one area being eyed is off the second and third holes, which would cut down on the amount of water being pumped across the course. 

Town Meeting last year approved money to improve the safety netting that protects the clubhouse from long, errant drives along the 2nd hole. The clubhouse is currently dotted with broken windows and siding, demonstrating the need for better protection.

A company has been hired to install new support poles that will be five feet taller than the existing ones. The new netting has already been delivered, and work should begin in the next couple weeks, Wakelin said.  

The golf course is also looking to update much of its maintenance equipment and carts. Abington bought the equipment for $30,000 from the course’s last management firm when its contract expired. However, the equipment is all 13-17 years old and getting worn out, Wakelin said. 

Over the next few years, Wakelin said the course is looking to replace its mowers for the fairways and greens, aerators, blowers, chainsaws, and other equipment. The healthy 2020 season means the committee can also consider buying larger mowers, for example, that would allow staff to cut fairways faster. 

The golf carts, which are 2014 models, are also going to be upgraded to 2018 models, according to Wakelin. Cart rentals are traditionally money-makers for golf courses. Wakelin said the course is increasing its stock from 25 carts to 30 to handle demand during tournaments and peak weekends.

The process of replacing many of the trees lost to recent storms is also underway. The edges of the 1st and 9th fairways, 1st and 2nd, and 2nd and 3rd fairways have opened up noticeably due to the loss of trees over the past few years. Replacements may be in the form of fast-growing Lindens as opposed to tall hardwoods. Wakelin said, although Vadeboncouer is angling for conifers, which don’t produce leaves.     

Regular golfers will also notice a new concrete pad off the 7th fairway. The area will be used to store loam and stone dust. In future years, it may become a new storage site for some machinery. The current barn is getting maxed out, Wakelin said.

“You can’t walk in the barn, it’s completely full of machinery or carts,” he said. 

As a long-term goal, the committee is eyeing a clubhouse improvement project, such as a porch or a patio, which would make it more convenient for golfers to stay for food and a drink after their rounds, or give tournaments a space to set up.  

Assistant Town Manager Sue Moquin told the Finance Committee recently that the town is eyeing a combined state Green Communities Grant to pay for needed HVAC and heating improvements at both the senior center building and golf course clubhouse.