Gaming the System

A life-long love of the links

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

gonzos0318Even as a child Stephen Gonsalves, a PGA Professional and the owner of Gonzo’s HD Sports in South Burlington, knew that golf would be in his future.

When we were kids and wanted to go do something, Stephen would say, ‘Oh, I can’t. I have to go play golf.’ That was before I loved golf, and I’d think, ‘Why does he want to go do something like that?’”

That’s Ray St. Pierre, the service manager at New England Air Systems, speaking of Steve Gonsalves. St. Pierre knows why now: Steve Gonsalves loves the game.

Known as Gonzo to friends, Gonsalves is a PGA Professional and the owner of Gonzo’s HD Sports in South Burlington. Gonzo’s offers eight high-definition golf simulators (with 28 PGA championship golf courses represented), five of which can switch to play a slew of other games — think baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, even Zombie Dodgeball.

Gonsalves has recently also become the owner of the practice facility at Kwiniaska Golf Course in Shelburne, where he grew up.

Last year, Snyder Development announced its proposal to develop the six holes on the west side of the Kwiniaska property, and Bob Nappi (Gonsalves’s friend and business partner) and his wife, Marcia, bought the remaining 12 holes, plus the driving range. “In a nutshell,” Gonsalves says, “Bob was my angel, my investor, even with Gonzo’s. He bought the driving range and sold it to me.”

Gonsalves is on the transition team, helping with the construction phase. “I have a friend, P.B. Dye,” he continues, “whose dad is the famous golf course architect Pete Dye. Bob has hired his architect to come up this spring to design the golf course. Come 2019, we will have a par 70 from the back tees, roughly 5,800 yards.”

Owning the practice facility, which he dubbed The Kwini Club, has brought Gonsalves full circle. His father, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Champlain College for 36 years, coached the college’s golf team. His mother, who worked at Chittenden South School District, he says with pride, “was the club champion.”

Gonsalves says he started working in the golf shop when he was 15 years old. “My parents would bring us to the golf course when we were 3 — me and my twin brother, Jamie.”

He figures that he and Jamie have played over 4,000 rounds at Kwiniaska. “I’m 6 minutes older,” he adds. “I always tell people we’re not identical — we’re fraternal — but if you ever saw the movie Twins, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, I say, ‘I’m not Arnold.’ I’m losing my hair, and my brother is an ex-Marine.”

Following graduation from Rice Memorial High School (where he played golf, hockey, soccer, and tennis), Gonsalves took a couple of years off, working at golf courses in Clearwater Beach, Florida. A year and a half later, he returned to Vermont to attend Champlain College, where he earned his two-year degree in marketing and retail management.

In his freshman year at Champlain, Gonsalves worked in the golf shop — and occasionally in the bag room — for Max Minnick, the head PGA Professional at Burlington Country Club. After graduation, having enrolled at the Mississippi State Golf Management School to study professional golf management, he was preparing to transfer his credits.

But Minnick had left the country club during Gonsalves’s second year, and the membership was planning to interview the first assistant golf pro, John Paul, who phoned Gonsalves.

“JP said, ‘Steve, if I get the head pro job, I’m going to offer you the first assistant’s job.’ And out of 80-some applicants, he got the job, and he hired me.”

“I was 21 years old, and the rest is history. I didn’t go to Mississippi.” He was at Burlington Country Club for 10 seasons.

Golf is a seasonal pursuit, and this turn of events created a need for winter employment. “Most golf pros in the north move to Florida for six months,” says Gonsalves, “so that began my seasonal run for 18 years down in Florida.”

Pro golfer Bobby Pollitt, Max Minnick’s former college roommate and auctioneer for the annual Jimmy Fund Pro-Am at Burlington Country Club, hired him to work as a teaching professional at Hunter’s Run Golf and Racquet Club in Boynton Beach.

Gonsalves chuckles as he recalls the Vermonters who worked in the bag room there. “All these seasonal guys would come to me, and I would say, ‘Hey! You need to come and work at Hunter’s Run.”

One of those Vermonters was Paul Meunier, now a PGA Professional and the used-car manager at Heritage Toyota, who grew up next door to Gonsalves in Shelburne.

“Isn’t he cool?” Meunier asks. “We lived with each other in Florida, so living with him, being his best friend, growing up with him — it was incredible. I’ve never seen him in a grumpy mood. He treats everyone the same way.”

After 13 seasons at Hunter’s Run, in 2001 Gonsalves followed Pollitt to the Club at Admiral’s Cove in Jupiter, Florida, serving as head golf professional until 2007, when he left to open Gonzo’s.

Things progressed in his summer life as well. Having earned his Class A PGA membership card in 1996, he knew it was time to seek his own head pro job. He found it at Tater Hill Golf Club in Chester, but in 1998, he leapt at the offer to interview for work with Bob and Pennie Beach, the owners of Basin Harbor Club.

“Nothing bad about Tater Hill,” he says,“ but Basin Harbor Club is one of the best in the country.”

Gonsalves worked at Basin Harbor for seven years until the resort decided to change the position into a general manager–type job, he says. The Links at Lang Farm hired him as head golf pro, and he stayed for 10 years, leaving three years ago.

With financial help from a friend, Phil Gellis, Gonsalves opened Gonzo’s Indoor Golf Club & Academy in November 2007 at the Essex Shopping Plaza. “We had two golf simulators, a small little bar, pool tables — that kind of thing,” he says. “After two months, I expanded. We bought two more golf simulators.”

In 2009, wanting to expand further, he moved the business to Williston Road, doubling his square footage to 5,000. In 2013, he bought his partner out with the help of Bob Nappi.

Space was not the only expansion Gonsalves wanted. “In a nutshell,” he says, “when it was Gonzo’s Indoor Golf, marketing-wise, if you’re not a golfer, you aren’t going to come in. I wanted to bring families, kids, corporate outings, team-building people, and we weren’t getting that. We have a short season, and I also wanted to do business when golfers were outside.”

He had found a Canadian company that made not only golf simulators but also virtual sports games, and could retrofit his existing simulators for them. He started with two retrofits.

“It was a cold, snowy day at Christmastime,” he says. “I’m good friends with Nordic Indoor Soccer in Essex, and we were going to do a soccer event.”

After being talked out of a temptation to cancel by Nordic’s Jim Goudy, he decided to go ahead with a free party for the students. “I bought pizzas from Domino’s, and 60 kids came! I saw how much these kids enjoyed the soccer, and I called up the company and ordered three more virtual sports games, so on five of our eight simulators, you can flip a switch and play sports games.” Gonzo’s HD Sports was born.

This kind of generosity appears to be typical. “He also lets me teach out of his driving range,” says Meunier. “I used to teach up at Sugarbush — was teacher of the year — so I’ve got a following. I left Sugarbush because I built a house out in Colchester. Gonzo called me up and said, ‘If you don’t have a place to teach, I’ll give you a key, and you can teach as much as you want.’ Even Sugarbush took a portion of my lesson income, and Gonzo doesn’t want a penny. That’s why everybody loves him.”

Besides the eight game spaces, Gonzo’s features a full bar called Gonzo’s Pub, and Chef George’s Corner, where George Hawley serves up New York pizza by the pie or slice, and other types of pub food. Customers can also play billiards, ping pong, foosball, and shuffleboard.

In summer Gonzo’s is open only by reservation for parties or private functions (or really bad weather, he quips), but from October 15 through April 15, it’s open to the public seven days a week. Employees open up Tuesdays through Fridays at 10 a.m., and Gonsalves goes in sometime after that to check what’s happening that day and grab the deposit from the night before. “Then I go around to the simulators and say hi to everybody.

“I’ve never been a behind-the-counter or a computer guy. My big thing is I’m a meeter and a greeter. I’ll stay an hour or so; if it’s really busy I’ll stay longer. Then I’ll give some golf lessons.” He returns for the busiest time each week — from 5:30 to 7:30, when the golf leagues play. He’s gone before closing time.

Asked about spare-time activities, Gonsalves confesses he’s really trying to get more into the social scene. “I haven’t played tennis for 12 years; I’m trying to get back. I still love traveling, and I’m going to see my parents in Sun City, South Carolina. They retired about 20 years ago.”

He still plays golf, and is part of the Vermont PGA. “I’m probably one of the top five or six oldest members of the Vermont chapter.” Of all his awards, he’s proudest of being named the Vermont chapter’s Golf Professional of the Year in 2015.

“Businesswise, my whole life has come full circle in 30 years, being back at Kwini. Now I’m home.” •