Much has changed since 1917 when a tournament entry fee at the Highland Golf Club was a new golf ball.
The 40-acre, nine-hole golf club at 261 Wooster Street was founded in May 1900 by 29 men and 27 women who wanted to play golf, said Bill Day, the club’s manager who’s been a member since 1988.
Golf Club president Bob Maler, a 13-year member, said he’s heard that Highland Golf Club is the fifth oldest in New England.
The name “Highland” came about because the club was located on one of the highest points in Shelton when it was founded, Maler said, with views of Derby and Seymour.
The panorama is especially dramatic in the fall when the leaves change color.
“It’s really beautiful,” he said.
Although the rural landscape has remained constant, many aspects of golf club life have changed over the years.
During its heyday, there was a long waiting list to join, Maler said. Today, most clubs don’t have waiting lists.
Fewer people are joining golf clubs because of the economy, he said. In the early 1970’s when the Sponge Rubber Products plant, formerly owned by B. F.Goodrich, was operating on Canal Street, golf club membership soared.
But the 1975 explosion and fire that destroyed the plant changed everything, eliminating thousands of jobs and marking the decline of industry in the Valley, according to news sources.
Golf club memberships also took a hit with the 2007-08 recession.
“In 115 years, this area has seen wars, depressions and recessions,” Maler said. “We’ve survived.”
Today, the Highland Golf Club has a few members in their 20s and 30s, but the child-rearing years have put a crimp in spending time at the golf club.
“It’s a luxury, time-wise,” said Maler, who first joined the club when he played on the B.F. Goodrich golf league. His two married sons are members today.
“We’re always looking for new members,” he said. There are currently 235 members, including 180 full active members.
Maler, Day and Smith agreed that Highland Golf Club may offer the lowest priced private golf club in the state, or at least in Fairfield County.
Choice of memberships fits all needs
In order to attract new members, the club offers different types of memberships and fees.
“We try to keep the dues stable,” Maler said.
The yearly fee for active members is $3,585; a family membership is about $4,000, and a weekday member pays $1,500.
Junior memberships range from $900 for ages 18 to 23 to $1,800 for ages 28 to 35.
A house membership, which includes use of the clubhouse, is $350, and the club offers a special $2,500 deal for the first 15 people joining starting September 15 through the next year.
The first year the special was in place, all those who participated became members, said Day, who first joined the club as a house member.
Day had been club champion at Racebrook Country Club in Woodbridge 12 times and was a state junior golf champion in 1974.
“We’re glad he’s here,” Maler said.
An advantage of playing at the Highland Golf Club is that people can play a quick nine holes, and there are no starting times.
“Very rarely do you wait,” Day said, and there are no daily cart fees.
“The big advantage is you can come here and play when you want,” said Tom Smith, club treasurer.
The club offers Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon “shootouts” with team playing and refreshments.
“You always know you’ve got a game,” Day said.
Also popular are in-house tournaments that take place on opening and closing day, Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day. There’s a Valley New Year’s tournament the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
The club also hosts board tournaments, and the winners’ names are posted on a bulletin board.
It’s the prestige of winning a tournament that’s important, Maler said.
During the tournaments, chef Michele Zoppi prepares a full breakfast, lunch and a dinner buffet, and specializes in Italian dishes.
Zoppi also prepares lunch on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday andSunday and dinner on Wednesdays and Fridays.
It’s her first year as chef at the club, said Zoppi who formerly ran a deli in downtown Shelton and a catering business.
She’s been cooking for 30 years and got her start at her father’s restaurant.
“It’s just what I love to do,” she said, and working at the Highland Golf Club “gives me the freedom to do what I want to do. I enjoy doing it. It’s fun.
“It’s challenging to keep these guys happy,” she quipped.
Challenging can also be used to describe playing the hilly course at the club.
The greens are often situated on top of small hills, leaving ample opportunity for the golf balls to roll down the embankments, Maler said. The tees are elevated and golf balls are easily lost in the woods that surround the course.
Due to the difficulty, the course record of 62 set by George Tanner in 1995, still stands.
The course suits members’ varying styles and routines, Maler said. Some people play alone, choosing holes to play randomly; some play only with their wives; and some play early before heading to work.
The course opens at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, at noon on Monday and at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. The official closing date is at the end of October, but this past year, golfers played into December.
“We keep open as long as we can in the fall,” Maler said.
The course survived this past winter’s harsh weather when layers of ice were formed as snow melted, suffocating the grass.
But the grass has returned, under the care of grounds superintendent Ishmael Franco.
Some area golf courses weren’t able to open this year due to damaged grass, Maler said.
The Highland course was expanded in the 1980s and ongoing repairs have included redoing the bunkers and sand traps.
The clubhouse was originally located on Jefferson Street, and the current clubhouse was built in 1927 and added onto over the years.
Repairs are being done to the building, the porch has been remodeled and the front has been modernized.
The club’s banquet hall is rented out for events, and the club hosts its own St. Patty’s night, Italian night and Christmas party.
The atmosphere at the club is “very relaxed,” Maler said, and joking around is often the order of the day.
“Sometimes you have to have a thick skin,” Smith said.
The welcoming nature of the club is an attraction.
“It’s not hard to break into the crew,” Day said