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Nonesuch owner realizes his dream

Sports

Nonesuch owner realizes his dream

When Dan Hourihan was caddying and practicing putting under the lights in his early teens at Wollaston Golf Club in his hometown of Milton, Mass., and summers at Dennis Pines Golf Course on Cape Cod, the Massachusetts schoolboy had little idea he would one day own a golf course.

The idea seemed even more remote while studying at New England College in Henniker, N.H., and New England School of Law in Boston, where his access to golf was considerably less than during his caddying days.

But as a young attorney in Boston, his professional connection with the sports world started to gain steam when he became vice president and general counsel of Sports Advisors Group, a sports agent firm that represented such baseball Major Leaguers as Dwight Evans, Harold Baines and Willie Wilson.

In the mid-1980s, an opportunity to lead a real estate development firm called First Atlantic Corp., brought him to Portland. Included in First Atlantic’s portfolio was a golf property called Spring Valley.

After a decade spent ushering the Scarborough golf project through marketing and land studies, financing applications, environmental permitting and construction, Hourihan decided it was time to enter the course ownership game, and create a new 18-hole course on the site of the former nine-hole Spring Valley Course.

He purchased First Atlantic and its interest in Nonesuch River. A year later, in the spring of 1997, he was the majority owner of a course ready to set sail on its first full season in the fast-expanding Portland golf market.

“I always thought the recreation business was intriguing,” said Hourihan, who worked part-time in the ski industry earlier in his career, but found the three-season golf industry preferable to the basically two-week (Christmas and February vacation) ski season.

Designed by Gary Player protégé Tom Walker – who had just struck out on his own and whose work at Hilton Head (S.C.) National much impressed Hourihan – Nonesuch’s initial claim to fame was its smooth-rolling bentgrass greens.

“They were all built to United States Golf Association specifications.” Hourihan recalled. “They are very consistent from green to green.”

Hourihan was also impressed with Walker’s ability to work with coastal terrain and fit a course into the land rather than force his vision upon the natural surroundings. Walker and Hourihan also shared a love of solid par-4s.

“It was obvious Tom liked intriguing par-4s and that’s what he gave us here. I’d put our 8th, 9th and 18th holes up against any par-4s in the state. From the back tees, the course is a handful. We have hosted two USGA Public Links qualifiers for the best golfers in the area and the 36-hole scores have been just 1- or 2-under. But if high-handicap players start from the right set of tees, they will have a great time,” Hourihan said.

As Hourihan has learned over the past 14 years since Nonesuch first opened, a golf course isn’t complete when the designer walks away. It is a constantly shifting canvas made up of living plants that mature and change with time.

“We have worked on the edges – growing in the rough, clearing out the wooded areas, building new tees where appropriate. That all takes time, seeing how people play the course, then altering those areas that need it. The challenge is keeping the layout fun for the average player and challenging for the skilled player.”

One of the major challenges for Hourihan has been surviving financially in an overbuilt golf market. Nonesuch was one of a handful of Southern Maine courses that came on line in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to a National Golf Foundation initiative that asserted the country could absorb a course a day into the foreseeable future.

Among the new Southern Maine daily-fee layouts opening its doors during that era were The Links at Outlook in South Berwick, The Ledges in York, Dunegrass in Old Orchard Beach, Sable Oaks in South Portland, Point Sebago in Casco, Toddy Brook in North Yarmouth, Spring Meadows in Gray and Fox Ridge in Auburn.

“Everyone started doing marketing studies in the mid-1980s and came to the conclusion the area needed additional courses,” Hourihan explained. “But no one anticipated this many courses opening. All of a sudden the daily-fee market was overbuilt with more competition than anyone anticipated. There are only so many golfers living in or making visits to the area.”

Indeed, the golfer has been the major beneficiary of a saturated Southern Maine golf market and an economic recession that has forced everyone in the recreation industry to scramble for the consumer’s limited discretionary income dollar.

The new courses raised the bar on the Maine golf experience to a new level. They offered full irrigation, smooth-rolling bentgrass everywhere and an emphasis on customer service.

They were also very affordable, especially compared to other regions of the country. “The same courses we have here in Southern Maine would cost another $25 to $30 to play in the Boston area, for instance,” Hourihan noted.

A father of a boy and a girl, both in their early 20s, Hourihan realizes the importance of attracting more young players into a U.S. golfer population that has remained basically stagnant over the past decade at 25 to 27 million players.

Nonesuch’s three Class A PGA pros conduct numerous junior programs and clinics that use the full-size grass practice range with grass tees, two putting greens and golf academy. Nonesuch also offers a junior membership that allows basically unlimited play for $450 annually.

“The industry is a little stagnant,” said Hourihan, noting the time to play the game and plentiful recreational alternatives make it tough to attract players. “As President of the MSGA, I am involved with the Board and staff in dealing with the challenge of how to grow the sport.

“We want to keep the game fun and interesting for kids. We are becoming more receptive to nine-hole rounds. At Nonesuch we let players tee off the back nine Saturday and Sunday mornings so they can get in a quick nine then get back with their families. We also encourage nine-hole rounds weekday afternoons.”

Though he never planned on being a course owner in his early years, Hourihan couldn’t be happier his life has taken him in that direction.

“There is not much bad I can say about being a course owner,” he concluded. “It is like most businesses – paying taxes, working with vendors, making payroll. But it is nice to operate a facility where people come to enjoy themselves and leave with smiles on their faces.”