By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Sam Snead. Arnold Palmer. Nancy Lopez. These are names that are synonymous with golf, and they have something in common — they’ve all walks the grounds at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield.
Atlantic City Country Club is steeped in tradition. The term “birdie” was coined at the course in 1903, and the first American born U.S. Open champion, John. J. McDermott, was a head pro. The club is known for elegance in the golf world, and has been for 120 years. That didn’t change when the Ottinger Group bought the property from Caesers Entertainment and added it to a portfolio that also includes Ballamor in Egg Harbor Township and Scotland Run in Williamstown. All three are in the top 10 among public golf courses in New Jersey.
“I’ve been here since the Ottinger family took over the course in 2014, but I’ve been with the Ottinger family at Scotland Run and Ballamor since 2000. The company is in the asphalt business and had a plant in Williamstown, and by law they had to replenish the property once they were done excavating it. So, Chip Ottinger Sr. and Chip Ottinger Jr. were golfers, so they decided to turn it into a golf course, and that’s how Scotland Run was born. Chip Jr. was also a member at Ballamor, and when that came up for sale he purchased that. At that time, it was a private club, but we made it public so Scotland Run would have a sister property. It worked out well because a lot people from Philly have shore homes, so the members were able to use both courses at different times of the year,” said Director of Marketing Liz Norton-Scanga. “When Atlantic City became available, Chip decided to add it to the portfolio. We actually purchased it from Caesars Entertainment. They had it for about 19 years, but prior to that the Fraser family had owned it for 50 years. The memberships go from what I call ‘frequent flier’ where you get a discount every time you play for an annual investment of $495, all the way up to $6,500, which would be the full membership where greens fees are included, lockers, restaurant discounts and things like that.”
Since taking over three years ago, the Ottinger Group has stayed true to the vision of the Faser family, which owned the property for about 50 years, while also modernizing the club with upgrades. They added a sky deck that looks out onto the course, overhauled some aspects of the course itself, and have done a great job with the Taproom restaurant.
“When we took over, we saw that renovations were needed. All the public areas within the clubhouse were renovated, we added the sky deck, we added a beautiful bridal suite, and we added the halfway house snack shack. Then we looked at the golf course and renovated the bunkers. That’s all happened within three years,” Norton-Scanga said. “Atlantic City, Scotland Run and Ballamor are all ranked in the top 10 public course in New Jersey, with Atlantic City being No. 1. It’s pretty impressive that the Ottinger Golf Group has three of the top 10 courses.”
As for the golf itself, Atlantic City is friendly enough for amateurs to play, but also challenging enough for more experienced golfers. Assistant pro Sean Furman came over a year ago after seven years at Scotland Run, and says he loves the course.
“It’s an awesome course, so I’m excited (about working here). It’s old school. It’s a forgiving golf course, but you have to be in play to score, and they can make it pretty tough around the greens. This is a really unique back nine. When the wind isn’t blowing it can be easy, but if the wind is blowing, it’s one of the hardest back nines I’ve ever played. Your tee shots are crucial,” he said. “This is definitely in the conversation with a lot of the top courses, with your Merions and Pine Valleys. I know we’e not private, but it has those kinds of esthetics. People buy a ton of merchandise at the shop just because of the logo. It’s pretty high up there with a lot of the high-end courses.”
Perhaps the biggest attraction is the history of the club itself.
“First and foremost is the history of the club, which is really dynamic. It was established in 1897, so it’s 120 years old. The hotel owners in Atlantic City decided that in order to attract people to their properties, they needed to have recreation other than just Atlantic City, so they formed Atlantic City Country Club. It’s been home to six USGA championships, and the first American-born U.S. Open champion, John J. McDermott, was actually the head pro here when he won. He’s still the youngest to have won the U.S. Open, and it gives me chills just thinking about that. Arnold Palmer was a frequent guest here, and when you just walk through the property, you’re amazed at all the artifacts and history,” Norton-Scanga said. “We’re open to the public and we encourage everybody to come and just walk around and take it all in. We have interactive kiosks that tell the story of Atlantic City Country Club, and actual players who made it what it is, like John J. McDermott, Leo Fraser and Sonny Fraser. It’s really very interesting. Arnold Palmer and Nancy Lopez were interviewed for it. It’s a really nice piece.”
The club also has one of the best chefs around in Ed Daggers, whose son, Sam, is a star baseball player at Absegami High School.
“The restaurant is open seven days a week to the public, and we host hundreds of events, from baby showers to extravagant weddings to business meetings. We have a variety of different rooms, so whatever your need is, we can accommodate it,” Norton-Scanga explained. “There’s something for everybody at the restaurant, from sandwiches and salads to pizza and dinner. Chef Ed Daggers is a very well known chef in this area and very accomplished, and his specials on the weekends are out of this world. There is still a clientele that comes for the high end food, and they are able to get that because the chef does the specials and there are a number of things on the menu that would be attractive to the foodie type of person.”
One of the most difficult things for golf clubs these days is attracting new, younger members. Golf is a sport that is most popular among people 35 and older, so Norton-Scanga said the Ottinger Group has made a concerted effort to find ways to get younger players involved.
“We have a young professional membership for individuals 35 and younger, which is $3,500 for a full membership, so we have the ability to introduce (younger) golfers to the club, and hopefully they will fall in love with it. We also encourage junior golf with programs, women’s golf with clinics, and if somebody wants to add a spouse or a child under 21 they can do so for $500, which is very affordable in the golf world. We want to encourage families and young people to enjoy the facilities,” she said. “Entertainment was really successful here in 2017, so we’re going to look to expand on that and we’ll be doing some family events, probably centered around the holidays. We’re also trying to get the Golf Channel to come here to do a long drive contest.”
Norton-Scanga and Furman both said a lot of people are jealous of them for having the opportunity to work at one of the country’s premier public golf courses.
“The views are gorgeous and the actual golf course is always meticulously maintained. The course is challenging, but fair, and it’s a shorter course so you can walk it and really enjoy the atmosphere. There are just a lot of positives about the golf course. I’ve been in the golf business for 20 years, and when you’re walking out there you are like, ‘oh, my God, Sam Snead walked this same course.’ The fact that we’re open to the public is a big thing because the name ‘country club’ denotes private. For people to know we’re open to the public is huge, and everybody is welcome here,” Norton-Scanga said. “This is definitely a course that is on the bucket list. We have a lot of people who come in from out of the area, and they have to see it.
“It’s been amazing to me to see the growth (at the Ottinger Group). And this is the premier property in New Jersey. The history just gets me every time. I’m lucky to work with owners who provide us with a property that I don’t even need to promote because it does it on its own. They provide us with all the tools we need to do our job, so people are happy here. They’re happy when they come to work.”
“People think it’s really cool when I tell them I work here just because of the history of the place. It’s one of the better jobs in the area, so most of my friends are jealous because I’m at a golf course every day,” Furman added. “They think I’m living there dream while they are sitting at an office all day. They think I’m playing golf all the time, but I’m not. They think it’s a cool, interesting job.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays