Brian Kulpa has dreamed of transforming Amherst into a “little bit of a golf Mecca” from the moment he took office as the new town supervisor three years ago.
Kulpa’s vision for municipal golf, as the heart of a reimagined central park concept, is coming closer to reality. Pending town approval, Amherst will be hiring one of the world’s top golf management firms to run operations in the town.
Troon/Indigo Golf, which manages more than 600 golf properties around the globe, will take over Amherst’s current golf operations in the coming weeks. The company will operate Audubon as an 18-hole course for the time being, while guiding Kulpa in his quest to create a more exciting golf destination in the center of town.
“They’re literally going to come in after we sign the agreement this week (on Monday),” Kulpa said Thursday. “They’ll be in town with a new general manager and take over the Audubon operation, the par-3 and the driving range right away.
“They share our vision for how golf could grow in this community.”
That means turning the existing 18-hole Audubon course into a modern, 9-hole layout and building a better 18-hole course elsewhere in the town — perhaps by redeveloping Oakwood, the existing 9-hole course in the northern part of Amherst near Tonawanda Creek.
The vision for “Mecca” would also include an enhanced commitment at the par-3 course across Maple Road; an undulating putting course; and a Topgolf complex near the new 9-hole course.
Topgolf is an indoor driving range facility in which golfers hit micro-chipped ball from elevated tees to outdoor targets. Patrons can eat, drink and watch TV while playing. There are radiant heaters above the mats, which mean you can play in winter. There are more than 50 in the country, including several in northern locales.
Kulpa said Topgolf would be built and operated in a lease arrangement by Mensch Capital Partners, which after years of haggling has come to terms with Amherst on a land swap that gives the town the old Westwood property in exchange for some town-owned sports fields that include part of Audubon.
“They always felt as a private sector that (Topgolf) was a win in that location,” Kulpa said. “As we got closer to the final deal, one thing that started to float around was the possibility of them developing the facility for the town.”
Kulpa said Mark Hamister, managing partner of Mensch, was an ideal leasing partner, due to his experience in the hospitality industry.
“We were thrilled to have that kind of reinvestment capacity as well,” Kulpa said. “It’s one of the parties we were negotiating with saying ‘We’re going to build a Topgolf and turn around and create a revenue stream back to the town.’”
Kulpa is especially excited about the partnership with Troon, which recently purchased Indigo Golf Partners to expand what was already the largest golf-club management firm in the world.
Indigo was formerly known as Billy Casper Golf. Founded in 1989, it owned and operated more than 160 golf courses, country clubs and resorts in 29 states.
“That’s Troon’s entry into the world of municipal golf,” Kulpa said. “Troon has traditionally run country clubs and beautiful resort courses. But they’re as big as it gets, a nationally renowned company. Indigo gets the backbone of the bigger company and the access to Troon’s wherewithal. They’re going to work with us on a three-year deal with a five-year extension period.”
For the regulars at Audubon, the big question is what’s in store for that course? Kulpa said Indigo is committed to creating the best golf experience possible in the short term, and it sounded as though Audubon might be at 18 holes through the 2022 season.
“They understand our desire to have a full 18 now and into the future,” Kulpa said. “They also understand that may include building a new course. They’ve got the readiness, the access and golf architects to come in and look at what we have available to us in Oakwood and properties and start to lay out some ideas on how that might take shape.
“But they are also capable of transforming an 18 at Audubon to really great nine.”
Kulpa said the Indigo folks have discussed using alternate tee locations on a 9-hole Audubon layout, giving more diversity to the round. He said they also want the shabby par-3 to be more of an “executive” course that would appeal to a wide range of players.
“So we’re looking at a golf operator who is really positioned to grow the sport and the game here in Amherst,” Kulpa said. “They have wonderful PGA relationships and we’re looking forward to working with Steve Bartkowski and the (Western New York) PGA group. I’m not writing Glen Oak out of the equation but rather figuring ways to meld our program with theirs.
“At the end of the day, we end up with a couple of big, bold initiatives that are going to propel us to do things that are good for the game but also preserve what people already like.”
That means keeping prices reasonable for the golfers who call Audubon and Oakwood home. He wants the leagues and the high school teams to have access to their usual Amherst venues. Having a partner like Troon should ease the transition.
“There’s work ahead of us,” Kulpa said. “Nothing about this screams immediacy, except for our current facilities needing to be operated.
“The transition now has a face to it,” he said. “It’s not just the town saying, ‘Trust us’. It’s ‘OK, we are bringing in the best company we could find to help us’. It’s not just us guessing at it anymore. I don’t want to make us sound incapable, but let’s face it. I have some good ideas, but you’ve got to have the expert.”