Sunday, July 31, 2011

Atlantic City Country Club - Open to the Public

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Atlantic City Country Club is now open.
By William Kelly (Published in spring 2007. Also See:

The venerable 110 year-old Atlantic City Country Club, one of the most historically significant golf clubs in the world, is now open to the public, a change in policy that is itself historic.

This formal announcement brings the club full circle, as it was in the beginning, a golf club built for the pleasure and convenience of the guests of the Atlantic City boardwalk hotels. Now once again owned by Atlantic City boardwalk hotel interests, the club is experiencing a Renaissance that anyone can enjoy.

After more than a half-century as a private club and ten years into its casino ownership, the club has begun a new public era that allows ordinary golfers to go where golf history was made repeatedly.

Since the casino company is currently changing owners, how long it will last is yet to be seen. So those who take their golf game seriously should take advantage of the opportunity this season to experience what venerable golf is all about.

Previously a private club owned by the Fraser family, and open only to members and guests for more than a half-century, shortly after Harrahs took over the previously merged Bally-Hilton-Caesars company, the new casino owners opened the course to the public last year

This year, with a recently acquired public liquor license from the city of Northfield, they opened the historic clubhouse to the public as well. Purchasing one of the two liquor licenses in Northfield from J.R. Kemp’s Ale House (formerly the Owl Tree), the Tap Room began serving drinks in early April, just after the club held an open house to showcase the historic clubhouse and grounds. For the record, the first beer was served to long time pro shop manager, starter and club historian Kenny Robinson.

Kenny has been around the club longer than anyone, and can answer most of the questions that come to mind.

Long known as “the Northfield Links,” the classic Lakes Bay links course was totally revamped in an $8 million makeover by Bally-Hilton, updated to today’s standards by classical revivalist architect Tom Doaks.

But as a private casino course it was seldom used by casino management and high rollers, mainly because they couldn’t serve liquor, so the greens are pristine and course is in prime championship condition.

Originally built in 1897, laid out by Philadelphia Country Club professional John Reid, the course was the scene of a number of early major championships and historic events, like the 1901 U.S. Amateur (won by Walter Travis with the then radical Haskell ball), and was where the term “birdie,” for one under par, was coined in 1903. Club pro Johnny McDermott was the first American and youngest ever (at 19) to win the U.S. Open, which he did twice (1910-1911).

One of the players in the first “birdie” game was George Crump, who went on to build Pine Valley, recognized as the finest golf course in the world, while others associated with the Atlantic City Country Club established Seaview, Oakmont, Wildwood, Great Bay, Boca Raton, Oakmont, Mays Landing, Brigantine, and Avalon, among others, making Atlantic City something of the mother club to many other, also historically significant courses.

Since the early 1940s the club was owned by the Fraser family, “the first family of golf,” whose patriarch “Jolly” Jim Fraser was a golf pro from Fraser, Scotland and one of the first pros at Seaview. His son, great amateur Sonny Fraser and his associates sold the club in 1944 to his brother Leo, a returning war hero and golf professional who became head of the PGA.

A great proponent of the game, Leo Fraser made it a championship course again, with a number of USGA Women’s Open Championships (1948, 1965, 1975) that helped set up the LPGA, and the first PGA Senior’s tournament (1980), the humble beginning of the PGA Senior (Now Champion’s) Tour.

In 1997, after a year-long centennial celebration, the Fraser family sold the club to the Bally-Hilton casino company. The Frasers then renovated their Mays Landing Country Club and built a new one in Florida (designed by Arnold Palmer).

When the Bally-Hilton-Caesars group merged with Harrah’s/Showboat, becoming one of the largest casino companies in the world, the new corporate owners decided to open the course to the public.

Although open last year, the course still didn’t get much play without promotion, and a sliding green fee scale ($140-$200). This year, even though the clubhouse will be open for business and there will be more people around, they don’t anticipate a big increase in course use this season.

While the course has been upgraded significantly, the clubhouse has changed little, and is still pretty much the same as it’s been in the past fifty years or so. There’s the bell at the front door, rung for the last trolley of the day, and the McDermott Room just off the front door. You can spend an entire afternoon roaming the hallowed halls of the Leo Fraser Library, the Sonny Fraser Room, the magnificent ballroom and dinning rooms, the storied Tap Room (See: Sidebar), the Locker Room and pro shop, all of which are now open to the public. Each room has a story to tell and their walls are lined with photos and memorabilia that outline the history of golf from its earliest days in America.

It’s still a first class operation (there is no second class here), and the prices reflect that, as meals are priced accordingly for lunch and dinner, and you get all the amenities, quality and service.

Former club members who return will recognize some of the employees, waitresses and the chef, as well as items on the menu. Although now a public venue, it still has that private club atmosphere, style and tradition. With the new liquor license, the Tap Room Grille is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays (from 5pm), and the Ballroom and dining rooms are available for private parties and meetings.

What we don’t know is what the future will bring, as golf pro Steve Sullivan has announced his departure and yet another major conglomerate is in the process of purchasing the Bally-Hilton-Caesars-Harrah’s-Showboat Empire, of which the Atlantic City Country Club is but a very small part.

It’s hard to believe there are bigger fish than the current casino owners, but when the Texas Pacific Group and Apollo Management LP complete the multi-billion dollar deal, the new owners may not even be aware they own the club, a small percentage of the new company’s assets/holdings. Texas Pacific’s David Bonderman, James Coulter and William S. Price III and Apollo Management’s Leon Black and Arnold Rosenstein (KSL Fairways), may or may not play golf and have an affinity for history and tradition.

They could keep the club as is, make it private again, spin it off to a local group or develop the course with condos.

In any case, whatever the future holds, now is the time to appreciate the Atlantic City Country Club, one of the most historically significant golf courses in the world. A first class experience, in the clubhouse and the course, caddies are available ($50), and you “play a round with history.”

The club stands as a testament to the definition of the word “venerable,” as Webster’s says it is “made sacred by historical association, and calling for respect through age, character and attainment.”

The venerable Atlantic City Country Club is now open to the public.

For more information contact the Atlantic City Country Club, One Leo Fraser Drive, Northfield, N.J. 09225-0236 – (609) 236-4400 for reservations; (609) 236-4401 for front desk; (609) 236-4411 for pro shop or visit on line at]

[William Kelly is the author of “Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club.” He can be reached at]

Taproom at Atlantic City Country Club Open to the Public - By William Kelly
(Published in March, 2007)

With the transfer of the liquor license approved by the city of Northfield, the storied Tap Room of the historic 110 year old Atlantic City Country Club is now officially open to the public for the first time in living memory.

Previously a private club open only to members and their guests, the Atlantic City Country Club, once purchased by Bally-Hilton, was used only by the casino’s executives and select guests until last year, when the course was opened to the pubic for the first time.

Now the historic clubhouse, banquet rooms, restaurant and Tap Room are open to the public as well. Previously, without a private or public liquor license they couldn’t even legally serve the high rollers, so they arranged the purchase of one of the two liquor licenses in town from the J.J. Kemp’s Pub, formerly the Owl Tree/the Parrot on Route 9. (The other license is Ventura’s Offshore CafĂ©).

When the club held an open house, showcasing the historic clubhouse and grounds to the public, the Tap Room began serving Bloody Marys when it opens for breakfast at 8 am Friday, March 16, the Opening Day of the 2007 Golf Season and Tap Room beer was flowing from the taps on St. Patrick’s Day.

The Tap Room Grille will be open on weekends for breakfast and lunch, and for dinner on weekends at 5 pm and slowly expand their hours and days thru the summer.

The historic clubhouse and classic championship links course make for many legendary myths, some of which are actually true.

The Tap Room is where Babe Zaharius played the piano after winning the 1948 U.S. Women’s Open, and where Sam Snead played the trumpet in 1980 during the first PGA Senior’s tournament (now the Champion’s Tour).

The Tap Room’s small, straight hardwood bar is against the wall next to the Locker Room, and sets the stage for a small dining room that sports comfortable booths, walls packed with historic memorabilia and a large bay window overlooking the course, the bay and the Atlantic City skyline on the horizon.

Above the bay window is a panoramic photo of Shawnee on the Delaware, an equally historic course where early club pro Johnny McDermott defeated British champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray by 8 stokes in 1913, and set up the “Greatest Game Ever Played” by promising they wouldn’t take the U.S. Open championship home with them.

The ceiling of the adjacent Locker Room is lined with painted portraits of the winners of the Sonny Fraser tournament (1945-1999), one of the premier amateur invitational tournaments in the country. Among the portraits are Sonny Fraser, Dr. Carey Middlecoff, Julius Boros, Billy Hyndeman III, Howard Everett and Billy Ziobro, who also won the New Jersey Amateur championship and N.J. Open in the same year, a hat trick that’s never been duplicated.

Ziobro was named the first pro in the casino era, an esteemed position now held by Steve Sullivan, who has announced he too is moving on soon. There are a few of the long time employees still working there, including some waitresses and the chef, as well as manager Kenny Robinson, who can answer questions about the history of the place and the accuracy of some of the stories.

Among the yarns is how the term “birdie” was coined there in 1903, how Johnny McDermitt became the first and the youngest (at 19) to win the U.S. Open, which he did twice (1911-12), how the women’s tour was nurtured there and how the U.S. Senior’s Tour got started over many discussions, arguments and a few beers in the Tap Room.

It’s not true that McDermott celebrated his victories in the Tap Room (he was a teetotaler), but it is true there used to be slot machines in the Tap Room for many years in the pre-casino era.

The Tap Room slots became famous when Florida Senator George Smathers complained about them when club owner Sonny Fraser and club members Hap Farley and Olympic champion John Kelly (Grace Kelly’s father) decided to build the Atlantic City Race Course. Smathers thought the race course was competition to Florida gambling venues and complained about the slots machines. Instead of getting rid of the slots however, Sonny Fraser sold the club to his brother Leo, a returning World War II hero, and the slots stayed into the early 1950s.

Over the years the Tap Room was the center of social life at the famed club, where everyone gathered after a game, a tournament, wedding or just a Saturday night at the clubhouse. A First Class establishment with exquisite charm, the Atlantic City Country Club is a throwback to a time forgotten by the glitz and the glitter of today’s Atlantic City.

The opening of the Tap Room to the public for the first time is an historic event in itself, ensuring that history will continue to be made there.

[William Kelly is author of the book “Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club.” He can be reached at]

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