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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Running a golf course is truly a family affair

For the past several years, Matthew Woodcock saw Old Erie Golf Course as a place where everyone in his family, adults and children alike, could have fun and feel welcome. Now that he owns it, he plans to keep it that way, and not just for his family, but everyone else's, too.

Woodcock, 31, and wife Jill bought Old Erie, a nine-hole mom-and-pop operation in Durhamville, New York, on March 1. Built in 1968, Old Erie will not show up on anyone's top 100 list and it does not have bocce courts. It does have a Thursday night cornhole league that plays on a vacant area behind the clubhouse, and the jeans-wearing crowd that is the facility's bread and butter think the playing conditions here are plenty good.

If the game is going to build on its renewed popularity of 2020, continue to grow and attract new players, it has to be, more than anything else, fun, and the atmosphere customers find at their local course has to be inviting.

"We're not going to be the best course in the area, but one thing we can do is provide a great atmosphere where everyone feels welcome, where they don't have to worry about wearing a collared shirt," Woodcock said. "That's not who we are.

"We want to provide a fun atmosphere where people can come and not be judged about what they are wearing, or about their game. That's who we are."

Our tolerance for disease pressure at this golf course is pretty high. . . . If there is disease on a tee, we probably have to live with it.

Woodcock, his wife and their family spent many a day at Old Erie long before they bought it. They had become so at-home at Old Erie that when David Niemann and John Stewart, who bought the course in 2012, considered retirement, they asked Woodcock on several occasions if he was interested in buying it.

"We all hung out here all summer," Woodcock said. "The owners really cultivated a family atmosphere here.

"They saw we were invested in the property, and he wanted someone who was going to continue to run it the way he did. I guess they saw that in us."

As owner-operator, Woodcock also is the course superintendent. He has no turf degree, and his experience includes four years of golf course maintenance at Old Erie and before that, Turning Stone, a multi-course resort in nearby Verona that was a PGA Tour stop for a brief time.

He ended up in the turf business only because he was looking for a job after he lost his position in the payroll processing sales industry. 

"I am not a salesman," he said. "I should have been fired. When someone said 'no' I'd just leave and tell them 'have a nice day."

It was wife Jill who saw a help-wanted ad for seasonal maintenance work on the crew at Turning Stone.

"I fell in love with it," he said. "I fell in love with the work: mowing, weed-eating, being outside all day. I loved it.

"I have an associate's degree in science. I applied to the turf program at Penn State, but I had to put those plans on hold - because I bought a golf course."

The day after closing on the golf course, Woodcock delivered a presentation to the Penn State Turf Club in a virtual conference.

031221family3.jpg

Running Old Erie Golf Course is a family affair for Matthew Woodcock and son Ezra, 6, who also is shown below.

"I told them that I felt funny talking to them because they knew more than I did," he said. "I talked to them about how hard work and luck make people successful. You need both, because hard work doesn't always get you there. Sometimes you need a little luck. That's where I'm at."

The nondescript but family friendly course opened in 1968. Conditions and expectations are 180 degrees at the opposite end of the spectrum from those at Turning Stone, which was home to the Turning Stone Resort Championship from 2007 to 2010.

"Our tolerance for disease pressure at this golf course is pretty high," Woodcock said. 

"If there is disease on a tee, we probably have to live with it. We focus on the greens. People come here and pay $20 to play nine holes. They don't care if there is disease in the fairways. I learned that from the owner, and that was a culture shock coming from Turning Stone. We have to live with flaws, because we can't afford to fix them, and our clientele does not demand that we fix them. They come here to have fun."

The decision to buy a golf course - during a pandemic - was not one the Woodcocks entered into lightly. Matthew's parents, David and Susie, and Jill's mother, Michelle Vance, helped with the down payment, making the purchase of a golf course a true family affair.

031221family2.jpgAt least 11 family members help with everything from accounting and marketing to tending bar and managing special events to working in the clubhouse and assisting with course maintenance.

"The previous owners really promoted a family atmosphere. When they had tournaments, everyone would stay after and have dinner together," said Woodcock's dad, David, an MRI technician during the week and now part-time golf course employee on weekends. "Sometimes they'd have live music. It's just been a lot of fun. When they talked to Matthew about buying it, it just seemed right for them to take it over and for us to help him.

"I travel a lot for work, but I'm home on weekends and I'll help out when I can. I was always there anyway."

The course has about 100 members. Woodcock says he'd like to grow that number to about 150 or so, but not much more.

"We can't support 250 or 300 members," he said. "If people come out here on a Saturday and it's packed wall to wall, we'll lose members anyway."

There are no illusions of getting rich off Old Erie. Woodcock is renovating a house on the property that he and Jill and their four children eventually will occupy. That will help them with expenses.

"He knows he's not going to get rich doing this, running this kind of golf course," David Woodcock said. "We figured if you make a decent living, have fun and all are OK and we can make a go of this, I think that is the way to do it.

"It's never going to be Augusta, but the fairways and greens are always very good."

The experience also is a legacy the Woodcocks can pass down to their four children.

"We want to do outreach with our local charities to make our local area better," Woodcock said.  "I grew up a mile from here. I'm super proud of this area. I am fully invested in it, and I want to make it an area our kids can be proud of, as well."

Edited by John Reitman

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