In the mid-1980s, when Monte Ahuja started playing golf, he applied to join the Chagrin Valley Country Club.
At that time, the club was very particular about its members, Ahuja said, and it only took a single “no” vote from the members for it to be rejected.
When Ahuja was not selected, he was so upset that he made a wish.
“I said, ‘One day I want to own the golf course,'” said Ahuja, a renowned philanthropist and chairman and CEO of Walton Hills-based Transtar Industries Inc. “That was what drove me.”
Fast forward to 2011. The Barrington Golf Club in Aurora found itself in dire financial straits as membership numbers and the surrounding neighborhood declined. Ahuja loved the Jack Nicklaus-designed course and saw the club’s potential, so when he heard Barrington was for sale he acted quickly. The club went through what Ahuja called “a friendly bankruptcy to clean it up”, and it spent its own money to update the clubhouse, floors, wallpaper and furniture, while improving the trappings course sand, tee boxes, cart paths and irrigation.
He also set out to change the culture of management and employees, setting higher standards for dress and behavior.
“When you do that, 90% of them will stand up,” he said. “If you treat them well, they will treat you well.”
Barrington remained open through winter and spring renovations, and by the time the busy summer season arrived, “people were impressed with how much it had changed and how wonderful it had become”.
“We started picking up members pretty quickly and 10 years later we’re pretty much full. Now they’re building new homes there because the club has proven to be a phenomenal part of the community. “
The best part? In 10 years, Ahuja has never charged members a membership fee to cover the cost of renovations. Yes, annual dues have increased over the past decade, but the bill for the club’s transformation has been met by increasing its membership and increasing revenue from events, food and golf. Membership in all categories has increased by approximately 90% since 2011.
“It has become a very successful investment, both in terms of financial success and the success of the club,” Ahuja said.
Others have noticed, which is why Ahuja was approached four years ago to buy the Mayfield Sand Ridge Club, a private country club that has two courses: Bertie Way-designed Mayfield at South Euclid and Lyndhurst, and Sand Ridge designed by Tom Fazio at Chardon.
As he did with Barrington, Ahuja invested his own money in upgrades. Mayfield got a full clubhouse renovation inside and out, including a new roof, new furniture, and remodeling of the locker rooms. He has also invested in improving the two golf courses, including fairways, rough, sand traps, cart paths and irrigation.
“Many country clubs are owned by their members…and when it comes time to make big improvements to the golf course or build a new pool complex or put a new roof on the club, they value the members,” said said Dan DeCrow, who has served as general manager of Mayfield Sand Ridge Club since April after spending seven years as general manager of Signature of Solon Country Club. “So if you need a million dollars and that money isn’t in reserve, you could get a $10,000 valuation at the end of the year to pay X, Y, and Z.
“So for a private owner never to do valuations in 10 years at Barrington and four years (at Mayfield) that’s something the members appreciate, but it also shows the health of the club.”
When Ahuja purchased Mayfield Sand Ridge in 2018, membership had grown from around 600 to 475. Today, membership in all categories stands at 680, with room for more.
“It was all word of mouth,” said Ahuja, whose clubs got a boost from the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were drawn to safe outdoor activities like golf. “We didn’t do any marketing or advertising. It’s not classy to beg people to join. But by building the quality of the club, there’s more (word of mouth). More people approach us that we do not approach them to become a member.
“Happy members are the biggest source of new members.”
It’s not just the members who are impressed. From September 27-30, Sand Ridge will host a qualifying tournament for the Korn Ferry Tour, the development tour of the PGA Tour. Ahuja said he was approached to arrange a qualifier shortly after buying the club, but did not believe the course was ready at the time.
“I was approached again about six months ago, and said I think it’s time to do something,” he said. “Hopefully this will lead to something bigger.”
There are 12 different qualifying sites for the first Q School stage of the Korn Ferry Tour, and of the 12, Sand Ridge was the No. 1 course requested by players, according to the course’s head pro, Garrett Korte. Since Sand Ridge members have access to both courses, they will always have a spot to play during qualifying.
“Also, anytime you host a pro event, members feel great having the pros on their home course,” DeCrow said.
Has Ahuja finished acquiring golf courses? Well, before buying Mayfield Sand Ridge, he considered acquiring Signature of Solon (and ended up hiring its general manager instead). He’s not looking for a fourth course, but he wasn’t looking for the first three either.
“People tell me I’m a turnaround guy,” Ahuja said. “I started from almost nothing and made my own company (Transtar) the biggest company (of its kind) in the country. And the most important thing was that it was known to be the best run with the most people. qualified. It has become the industry standard.
“My driving force is that I like to do anything that not only feels good to me, but is good.”
Joe Scalzo: [email protected](216) 771-5256, @JoeScalzo01