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Keeping It Fresh

Photography courtesy of Fresh Meadow Country Club

The story of Fresh Meadow Country Club begins in Brooklyn, New York in 1921. On the corner of Dean Street and Bedford Avenue stood the headquarters of the Unity Club, a social club of prominent Jewish men — mostly bankers, lawyers, doctors and businessmen — whose ancestors came to the United States from Germany after the Civil War and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The members were committed to philanthropy and used their financial success to better the larger Jewish community in Brooklyn, sponsoring hospitals, homes for the aged and other causes, all while doing their best to assimilate into mainstream society. 

So it was not surprising that in the late summer of 1921 representatives of the Golf Course Construction Company (a subsidiary of Lewis & Valentine) approached the members of the Unity Club with an audacious proposal. They offered to sell to the members a 106-acre parcel of land in Queens, including a to-be-constructed 18-hole golf course, for the all-in price of $240,000. The proposal was initially met with skepticism. Carving a golf course out of acres of farmland seemed daunting. Most of the members lived in Brooklyn with only local roads connecting them to what was Queens “farm country.” However, many were still intrigued by the idea even though they’d never been on a golf course — despite their prominence in the community, private golf club memberships were effectively closed to them because of their faith.   

A committee was formed to study the proposal and develop a business plan. To fund the purchase and have a viable club, the committee determined that a minimum of 150 members were initially needed, with each purchasing a $500 bond and a $250 bond. Enthusiasm began to wane. Most members were reluctant to make the financial commitment and become pioneers of a type of club they’d never experienced. Representatives of Lewis & Valentine pressured the members to make a decision or they would go elsewhere. Twenty-two gutsy men stepped up to loosely form the “Golf and Country Club.” They decided to proceed with only 100 initial members and agreed to pay their full subscriptions immediately rather than in installments. Forty-five other men quickly signed on and pledged to recruit additional members. 

By mid-December 1921, a contract was signed to purchase the Queens property. Famed golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast was hired to design the course and oversee the construction. Planning immediately began to transform the giant vegetable patch into a world-class golf course. The construction contract contained ambitious milestones. It required nine temporary holes to be ready for play by Decoration Day, May 30, 1922. Despite having to wait for the spring thaw, the mini-course was completed on schedule. In true Fresh Meadow fashion, a celebratory luncheon was held for several hundred members and guests under a tent, with food and staff brought in from the Unity Club in Brooklyn. Ben Ribman, Fresh Meadow’s first president, hit an inaugural drive off the first tee. A nine-hole match followed between National Amateur Champion Jesse Sweetwater and Fresh Meadow’s first Club Pro, Willie Anderson. 

As spring turned into summer, construction of the golf course progressed swiftly. However, the club’s officers and board soon learned that true championship courses required more land. In a stroke of serendipity, 26 additional acres abutting the property became available in July and were purchased in August. Tillinghast rolled up his sleeves and changed the original plans to provide for the expanded layout. By October 1, 1922, the entire course was constructed and seeded. The result was nothing short of spectacular. From the back tees, the par-72 course measured 7,074 yards. The golf world was abuzz about the new “Tillinghast Course.” Plans were made for a formal opening in June 1923. 

The first Annual Membership Dinner was held on December 11, 1922 at the Hotel Astor in Manhattan. In his first “President’s Report,” Ben Ribman took a moment to reflect on the remarkable achievements of the past year, which, in his words, “may have been equaled but never excelled by any similar organization in a period as short as that [in] which we have existed.” In only 14 months, Fresh Meadow Country Club went from an idealistic concept to a flourishing reality. It had over 200 members. Its property was increasing in value as new roads and subway extensions were being constructed to serve the now rapidly-growing communities in Queens. The club’s financial obligations were being met without any assessments, and it was elected to membership in the Metropolitan Golf Association and the United States Golf Association.  

As plans began for the formal opening of the golf course in June 1923, the club’s founders turned their attention to building a clubhouse. Members differed on whether the clubhouse should be built with luxury or financal concerns in mind. Ultimately, plans were approved for an attractive but simple clubhouse that could be expanded over time. By August, the dining facilities were operational and on September 8, 1923, a ceremony was held to celebrate the formal opening of the clubhouse. The membership was elated. The building’s architecture was the perfect complement to the club’s magnificent golf course. 

Unfortunately, the euphoria over the opening of the clubhouse was short-lived when only nine days after the dedication ceremony the clubhouse burned to the ground. The membership was shocked at this tragic turn of events, but the club’s founders quickly made plans to rebuild. At the second Annual Meeting in December, 1923, the club’s membership authorized the expenditure of $125,000 for the construction of a new clubhouse that was to be bigger and grander than the building it would replace. In an uncharacteristic display of bravado, President Ben Ribman told the membership, “Our club is rich and strong. We can afford the best, we are entitled to it, many of us are accustomed to it and there is no reason why we shouldn’t have it.”

From 1924 to 1929, the club apparently continued to prosper. Unfortunately, all of the club’s records for this period are missing. What we do know is that in 1925, Fresh Meadow hired the brash, young Gene Sarazen as its new golf pro. Sarazen had won a U.S. Open and two Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Championships in the three years prior to coming to Fresh Meadow, and he turned down lucrative offers from seven other clubs before accepting Fresh Meadow’s. By all accounts, these were heady times, but there were storm clouds on the horizon. On October 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed, triggering the start of the Great Depression. Fresh Meadow Country Club was about to face its first existential threat in its history.  

Resilience 

While the early days of Fresh Meadow reflected the prosperity and optimism of the Roaring ’20s, the next decade saw the U.S. plunge into the Great Depression and the club found itself unable to avoid the economic turmoil that plagued the nation. Throughout the 1930s, the club endured the resignation of hundreds of members who could no longer afford the annual dues. The attendant loss of revenue strained the club’s finances, and the board was forced to adopt austerity measures to help weather the storm. Capital projects were deferred, except for those that were funded by voluntary contributions. Staff salaries were reduced. Green fees were increased and initiation fees were lowered. New membership categories were created to generate additional dues revenue. 

Despite the challenges of the Depression, Fresh Meadow continued to operate uninterrupted. Social events were still held, a Fresh Meadow softball team was formed and competed against other clubs and, in 1935, the club published its first newsletter, “The Divot.” Most notably, the club hosted two major events that forever etched Fresh Meadow’s name in golf history: the 1930 PGA Championship and the 1932 United States Open.    

The PGA of America first approached Fresh Meadow about hosting its major tournament in 1928, but talks about hosting the 1930 tournament became much more serious. Club President Ben Ribman negotiated the terms: Fresh Meadow would guarantee $7,000 toward the $10,000 of prize money, and all receipts over $7,000 would be divided equally between the club and the PGA. The board estimated that the first day of receipts would cover the guarantee, and approved the proposal, provided that the tournament not take place during the Jewish High Holidays. On September 13, 1930, in a 36-hole match play final round, Tommy Armour defeated Fresh Meadow’s own Gene Sarazen on the final hole. Sarazen attributed the loss to the “home course jinx” — the superstition that a pro could not win a national championship on his own home course. 

As the nation’s premier golf event, the PGA’s selection of Fresh Meadow to host the 1932 U.S. Open championship signified that the club had reached a level of prestige that its founding fathers had always aspired to. By 1931, Sarazen knew the tournament would be played at Fresh Meadow the following year and his contract was coming to an end. He took the opportunity to leave Fresh Meadow and avoid the home course jinx in the 1932 Open. The tournament proved to be one of the greatest in the annals of golf. In the first two-and-a-half rounds, Sarazen played cautiously and found himself seven shots off the lead. On the ninth tee in the third round, he went back to his characteristic aggressive play and began hunting for birdies. After shooting a 32 on the back nine, he carded a record-breaking 66 on the final day to win the tournament by three strokes. The gallery flooded the 18th green in jubilant celebration. Fresh Meadow’s favorite son had returned to win the country’s most coveted golf championship. 

Just as the economic outlook for the country and Fresh Meadow began to improve, the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 triggered the country’s formal entry into World War II. Unlike the early days of the Depression, the club didn’t attempt to promote an air of business as usual. The club continued to operate, but in a manner that reflected the gravity of the time. Sunday night dinners were eliminated and the club championships were canceled. Budgets were slashed, staff salaries were reduced and maintenance of the golf course suffered. The club redirected its philanthropic priorities toward the war effort, hosting tournaments that benefitted the U.S.O., Red Cross and veterans’ hospitals. Membership declined once again, placing pressure on the club’s officers and board. Most members made voluntary contributions to keep the club afloat, demonstrating the Fresh Meadow spirit of generosity and camaraderie.  

The years after World War II saw a massive migration of people to the suburbs. The area surrounding Fresh Meadow was rapidly being developed, threatening the bucolic charm of the club’s property. The city had its sights on the middle of the fifth fairway for the location of a new school and was planning to bury a 12-foot sewer line under much of the golf course. Real estate taxes and property values were escalating rapidly and many club members were moving to the suburbs of Long Island. This was not lost on the club’s officers, and in late 1945, they quietly began to explore an idea that once seemed unimaginable — moving Fresh Meadow Country Club to a brand new location.

Relocation to a New Home

The former Lakeville Golf & Country Club in Lake Success, New York was well-known to many of the members of Fresh Meadow. When Lakeville was unable to survive the Great Depression, it fell into the hands of a receiver, the Prudence Bonds Corporation. Once World War II came to an end, Prudence was looking for a buyer.       

In January 1946, club President Emil Barr outlined for the board a “sale and purchase” plan through which the Fresh Meadow property would be sold to the New York Life Insurance Company (NYLIC) for $800,000 and the club would purchase the former Lakeville Club for $650,000. The board was supportive of the plan, but stressed that binding contracts must be entered into simultaneously — there could be no sale without a purchase. 

The sale and purchase plan started out smoothly. The club negotiated an option to purchase the Lakeville Club from Prudence for $675,000 and had a handshake deal to sell the Queens property to NYLIC for $800,000. But things got messy. Two respected members of the club, Albert Gross and Larry Morton, offered to buy the Queens property for $850,000, topping the offer made by NYLIC. Since the club had not yet signed the contract with NYLIC, it agreed to sell the Queens property to Gross-Morton for $850,000, subject to approval by the members as required by Fresh Meadow’s by-laws.    

A meeting of the membership to ratify the Gross-Morton and Prudence contracts was held on February 25, 1946 at the Waldorf-Astoria. Board member Henry Lehrich disclosed that NYLIC had increased its offer to $1 million. What followed next will forever live in the chronicles of Fresh Meadow.  Members debated passionately over whom the club should sell the Queens property to. Some felt an ethical obligation to sell to NYLIC while others felt loyalty to their fellow members, Gross and Morton. When the Gross-Morton offer was put to a vote, it was soundly defeated. Undeterred, Gross-Morton increased their offer to $950,000. Lehrich telephoned his contact at NYLIC from the hotel lobby, who immediately raised its offer to $1.075 million. Shortly after 1:00 a.m., the membership approved the sale to NYLIC and the purchase of the Lakeville Club from Prudence, marking the end of an extraordinary chapter in Fresh Meadow’s history. The eyes of the membership were now focused east toward Long Island, where a new chapter was about to begin.

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