Tee Time

Jeff Brown has watched West Bolton Golf Club attract more skilled players without letting go of the course's family atmosphere

by Julia Lynam

Colin (left), Mary, Ethan, Jeff and Connor Brown spend most of their time during the summer at West Bolton Golf Club, which was designed by Jeff's then 76-year-old grandfather, Xenophon Wheeler, in 1983

It's four miles down a dirt road from either direction, whether approaching from Waterbury along Bolton Notch Road or from Richmond along Browns Trace and Nashville Road. It might seem like an unlikely spot for an 18-hole golf course, tucked away in this high Vermont valley, but the West Bolton Golf Club has flourished since it was planted here in 1983 by then 76-year-old Xenophon Wheeler, on land purchased by his father, Bill, in the 1920s.

Xenophon's grandson, Jeff Brown, and Jeff's wife, Mary, now run the family-owned business, putting their hearts and souls into the continuation of Xenophon's idiosyncratic idea. They don't hesitate to credit the old man, who passed away in 1993; he is commemorated with a plaque on a huge rock that graces the 15th hole.

"My grandfather didn't even play golf until he was 76," Jeff says. "He owned a number of farms including this," indicating the lush, 100-acre golf course and its hundreds of acres of surrounding forest. "He grew corn and hay here, raised about 30 replacement heifers for his other farms, which included Venture Farm in Richmond and Willow Creek Farm, now a residential development in Underhill."

With many small farms going out of business in the early 1980s, and having resigned himself to selling off the other two farms, Xenophon sought a lucrative alternative use of his West Bolton farm. His friend Austin Devine, who played golf in Williston, convinced him that a golf course would be a good way to offer family recreation and to preserve much of the natural landscape.

"My grandfather laid out the course himself," Jeff explains. "He paced off other courses, then came and set out the stakes here for the first nine holes. He had the family check it, then employed a local man with a bulldozer to level off the ground. He chopped down the hay grass with a blitzer mower and over the next few years overseeded the fairways with more appropriate grass."

John Streeter is one of 17 employees at the golf course. Despite his and other workers' valued assistance, Jeff says filling positions at the course has always been a challenge.

Jeff recalls that, in the early days, Xenophon would sit in his old farmhouse with his binoculars, looking up the long fairway to the small clubhouse and parking lot, and comment, "There are 12 cars there, it's a good day!"

The golf club, which is still wholly owned by the family, has evolved steadily since those days. Membership has grown; the second nine holes were added in 1985; the club house has been expanded several times; the calendar includes several tournaments; youth golf camps are offered; and the general standard of the greens and fairways has improved dramatically.

To procure a youthful clientele every summer, Jeff, assisted by coach Chuck Webber of Mount Mansfield Union High School, offers four separate weeks of golf camp for youngsters between the ages of 8 and 14. "They come with all sorts of experience, or none," Jeff says, "and each week culminates in a tournament."

Those tournaments, and many others, have become an important feature of the golf club. In addition to the ones at the end of youth camp that draw friends and family members, the course is the venue for several charity events, as well as the FM 101.3 "Corm and the Coach" tournament and the Vermont Air National Guard event.

Originally attracting mainly beginner golfers, West Bolton has experienced a gradual change in membership, Jeff says. "With more equipment and better maintenance, we're beginning to attract better golfers. Our nucleus of good golfers is beginning to expand."

The Burlington Fire Department is part of that changing membership. Several Burlington firemen have joined the course and play regularly on their days off. Retired Burlington Fire Department Captain Fred DeSpirito is one of them. "I've been playing there for eight or nine years. It is just unbelievable the first time you go up there to find a golf course as nice as that buried in the mountains. Yes, it's a long drive, but about a dozen guys from the department play there each year. We've seen it progress and get better. I go out there because I like the course and I like the people there Jeff and Mary are great."

Members quote several reasons for enjoying West Bolton. "One longtime member recently wrote us that he used to play here because it was the best deal around," Mary says, "but now he comes because it's so beautiful and the people are terrific." While Mary is grateful for the compliment, she indicates that beautiful is almost an inadequate word to describe the club's setting in an expansive grassy bowl flanked by the arbor-clad Green Mountains.

"It's a spectacular way to experience the fall foliage," says Mary, adding that nearby resorts recommend the club to visitors, especially during leaf-peeping season. Despite radio and print advertisements during the summer, the Browns say they try to keep the profile deliberately low. "Because of our location, it's difficult to see us as a big tourist attraction," Jeff says. "What we offer are some of the best views around, a chance to see all sorts of wild creatures, and the big advantage of a quiet, relaxed and serene place. Large busloads of people just wouldn't fit in."

Golfers at the pro shop before heading onto the course, which is consistently upgraded throughout the season.

The Browns have been able to strike a balance between running a viable family business and preserving the peaceful nature of the surroundings. As a result, members are much appreciative of the Browns' ability to preserve the intimate atmosphere of the course even though an increasing number of people have stepped onto the fairways. "We interviewed all our members one year, and they didn't want anything to change," Mary says.

Some degree of change is inevitable to maintain the vibrancy of a business, however. While bearing in mind the wishes of their members, and without radically altering the overall feel of the place, the Browns pursue a course of continual and unobtrusive improvement. "We used to hear comments like 'It's still a cow pasture,' " Jeff says, "but now the only adverse comment is that the greens are a little on the small side." He says he would like to enlarge them but is reluctant to remove holes from play during green improvements. "It's something that we'll have to manage very carefully," he says. "We'd have to start very early in the year if we want to have enlarged greens ready when we open for the summer."

The clubhouse, which has grown almost organically over the years, is another candidate for improvements. The Browns plan to renovate and expand it this year, moving the dining area to capitalize on the exquisite view of the golf course and mountains.

Other than the major, one-time renovations, the golf course undergoes yearlong maintenance. Because lush, green grass is not the native vegetation of the area, a great deal of effort goes into making it so. Head greenskeeper Ed Tinker has been with the family 39 years, switching from farm worker/logger to greenskeeper when the course was established. Turning 65 this year, Tinker still rises every morning at 4 to mow. Jeff says the only day he takes off during the season is his birthday, July 10.

Constant care of a golf course includes extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides, but the Browns have taken steps to minimize their use of artificial chemicals. "With pesticides, we use a curative program rather than a preventative one," Jeff says, explaining that rather than regularly blanketing the whole course with pesticides, the Browns treat problems as they arise. "Knowing the course as well as we do is really important. There are some areas where the state does not allow us to apply pesticides at all, and we work around these."

"It's a great family place. That's one thing my grandfather wanted when he started this course, and it's the one thing we've been able to continue doing." Jeff Brown

Jeff was away from Vermont, serving in the Air Force, when his grandfather established the course and wrote him to move to Vermont and start working in the family business. In 1992, he left the service and joined the club as general manager. He hired Mary as a bookkeeper in 1997. They were married two years later, on the ninth green with its inspiring view of Mount Mansfield, and settled down in the old farmhouse where Xenophon spent many days rocking on the porch.

Their four children from previous marriages Jeff's daughter, Renee, and son, Ethan, and Mary's two sons, Colin and Connor" absolutely love" the golf course. "We communicate with these," says Mary, indicating a hand-held radio. "When the boys come home from school, they're straight on the radio. "'We're home! Where are you, Mom? Can we come up and putt?' "

This strong family tradition of allegiance to the course is apparent throughout the club. Jeff and Mary are there all the time during the season, wearing, they say, at least 20 different hats between them and willing to take on any task that needs doing.

They have to be so hands-on partly because staffing is always a challenge. The club employs 17 full- and part-timers during the season. They work on the grounds, in the clubhouse, snack bar and pro shop. Jeff and Mary are always on call and have to be flexible to fill any needs that arise. "This year we lost our key food person," Jeff says, "so, Mary's filling that position until we get someone else. We also lost a mower, so I had to take on that slot." One task Mary took on because she wanted to and not because she had to is also one of her more appreciated contributions. She cultivates the bountiful flower beds that add a splash of color to the lush green fairways.

Then, there are the sprawling wildflower meadows, planted by club member Mike Lizotte, a sales manager with the Vermont Wildflower Farm in Charlotte. "About three years ago," he says, "I was planning to purchase a membership in a golf club when Jeff called to ask about wildflower plantings. We'd done them for other golf clubs, so I helped him design a few areas, with spectacular results, and now I play here myself.

Two years after Jeff hired Mary, they married on the ninth hole and now live in the farmhouse

"They do a fabulous job of upkeep and the members are great. The view of Mount Mansfield from the ninth hole is wonderful, but I'm partial to the seventh hole, myself the one I eagled last year."

Like most other golf courses, atmosphere is a key to the attraction. The Browns take immense care of the course, from well-kept greens and well-sited tees to wildflower meadows and the use of an irrigation pond with a built-in fountain. In the spring before golfing begins the pond is home to a pair of Canada geese that return each year to raise their young.

Clientele is another key. The course's green fees include not just a special price for seniors but an additional special for "super seniors" of 75 and over; the course offers a "Ladies Day" special Wednesdays, but it also boasts a "Men's Day" special Thursdays; and one of the most popular specials the family membership is an extension of Xenophon's original vision of West Bolton as a family outing. "It's a great family place," Jeff says. "That's one thing my grandfather wanted when he started this course, and it's the one thing we've been able to continue doing."

Originally published in August 2001 Business People-Vermont