David Mortimer isn’t much of a golfer. As CEO of East Hartford-based Firth Rixton, an international supplier of specialty products for the aerospace industry and Caterpillar, his business trips leave him little time for the links. His game is, by his own admission, not good. He certainly never dreamed of owning a golf course.
But when the bank foreclosed on New London Country Club last year, this lifelong Waterford resident couldn’t bear to see the 87-year-old golf course going to seed. So he decided to take a swing at running the place.
In February, for $2.8 million.
“My financial advisors told me I was crazy,” said Mortimer. “But it’s not all about the money. I grew up in this community and a large part of who I am and what I was able to achieve comes from growing up in Waterford. This is a community benefit. If it was $10 million I wouldn’t have done it, but the price was reasonable and the risk was small. It was the perfect storm.”
In recent years, the had certainly hit some rough patches, with both membership and the facility falling into decline. Mortimer, his wife Ann--an accountant by profession who, along with their 28-year-old son Kurtis, handles the day-to-day operation of the club--have worked hard to turn things around.
The course itself hasn’t changed much. In 2003, New London Country Club hired Cornish, Silva, and Mungeam to redesign it, adding 200 yards to the course and four sets of tees to accommodate players of all abilities. Between 2003 and 2004, a practice putting green, a short game practice area and a full driving range were also added.
Mortimer brought in Dave Ryan as the new course Superintendent, but Kevin Shea, who has worked at the club since he was a teenager, is still the golf pro. It didn’t take long for the club, , to attract members either.
The club is still private but it is more accessible. Mortimer did away with costly initiation fees and set annual membership prices at $2,700 (plus tax) for a single person, $3,700 for family memberships, and $500 for a single junior membership. To attract young players, he also offered an associate membership for $1,500 for people aged 22 to 35, although some playing restrictions apply.
Greens' fees are $40 for members during the week and $60 for the weekend, with an additional $10 fee for cart rental. The price is low to make it easy for members to invite guests to play, Mortimer said.
“My goal was to set modest fees that would cover the expenses of the golf course itself,” said Mortimer.
The gambit paid off. When New London Country Club closed, it had fewer than 180 members. Today, the club is full, with 400 members and a waiting list of people who want to join. About 60 percent of the members used to belong to New London Country Club, with most coming from Waterford, New London, East Lyme, and Niantic, but Great Neck Country Club also draws members from as far north as Stonington and as far south as Clinton.
“What has been really positive is member support and how relieved they were that they weren’t going to lose [the club],” said Ann. “It’s been nice to set our own direction with feedback from our membership.”
A Whole New Look
When it came to improving the facilities, Mortimer spared no expense. “It was important for people to drive in and see a change,” he said.
The tired old clubhouse has been revamped with new shingle siding, new windows, and stone facing, and the awning has been replaced by a porch with columns. The pro shop has been completely renovated and now looks as polished as the golf clubs it sells.
The banquet hall remains the same but the restaurant is being gutted and expanded by about 1,000 square feet with a dining area and separate bar. Both the banquet hall and the restaurant will open onto a new patio with an outdoor fireplace and a view of the course.
All the building’s infrastructure, wiring, and plumbing has been replaced and brought up to code. Mortimer also plans to expand the parking lot to accommodate at least 120 more vehicles and said he plans to repave it when traffic subsides late in the fall.
In total, the renovations will probably add up to another $1.5 million at least.
“Originally I had in mind to put half a million into improvements outside and to the restaurant, but now the scope has changed,” said Mortimer.
Mortimer didn’t set out to completely redo the restaurant but as membership swelled, the demand for a top-notch dining facility grew. Brian Langley, who was the longtime manager of food, beverage, and banquets at the Groton Inn and Suites before he went to work for Great Neck Country Club, has a lot to do with that.
“He’s been really successful about booking,” said Mortimer. “Brian, with his ability to draw banquets, was a key element of our strategy and in opening the restaurant to the public.”
Indeed, in June alone there are 40 events booked at the banquet hall.
While they may be new to operating a golf course, the Mortimers know a little something about running a restaurant. The family owned and operated Huey’s Restaurant in New London from November 2001 until February 2005.
Initially, Ann said, they weren't sure whether to make the club public. In the end they decided to split the difference, keeping the course members-only and running the banquet hall, bar, and restaurant as separate entities that would be open to the public.
Mortimer hopes that the newly-refurbished restaurant, bar, and patio will be open for business by the end of July. That business, once it gets going, should help carry the club through the winter months when the course is closed.
“The sooner we can get the restaurant open, the sooner we can generate revenue,” said David Mortimer.
The end of July is a pretty tight deadline but Mortimer credits the town of Waterford for helping him to realize his goals, even as the goal posts moved to include more extensive renovations than he'd imagined at the outset. Everyone, from Waterford Town Planner Thomas Wagner to Fire
Marshall Peter Schlink—who graduated from Waterford High School with Mortimer—have done what they can to help speed the normally time-consuming approval process.
“These changes don’t make anyone in the town very happy but we needed above average response times to keep the project going and they’ve accommodated us,” said a most appreciative Mortimer.
At the end of the day, Waterford has a vested interest in preserving the golf course as part of the town’s recreational facilities and Mortimer is definitely in it for the long haul. He may not have set out to own a country club but now he and his wife have made the investment, they view it as a family business that they look forward to passing down to their four grown
“My feeling was I’ll have to look at it for the rest of my life, so I wanted to do a good job,” said the 52-year-old Mortimer. “In the next two or three years, I’ll retire and need a place to go. I plan to play a lot more golf when I retire!”