Tim Fries looks out the second-floor window at the banquet center of Glen Oak Golf Course and sees potential.
The gray skies and dismal temperatures this spring might have most golfers depressed, but the new owner of the East Amherst facility is brimming with optimism. In the space he’s standing, Fries can envision one day an indoor simulator – for those times when the weather (like right now) doesn’t cooperate. Outside, he sees space for a vast deck (complete with fire pits) where golfers can unwind after their round with some food and drinks. On the floor below, there is ample office space and a sprawling bar and restaurant that will soon be reinvigorated.
There is even room for what Fries hopes will one day be a permanent Hall of Fame to honor Western New York’s golfing legends. In short, Fries sees Glen Oak becoming the hub for area golf.
“We’re all in. We jumped off the ledge,” Fries joked last week as he spoke about his plans for one of the area’s premier public facilities. “I pinch myself every day. We get up early, come home late. I mean, in the golf business, you kind of dream about having your own and actually doing things with a blank slate.”
Fries and his long-time friend and business partner, Jeff Mietus, got that chance in February, when they closed on a $2.78-million deal to purchase the property at 711 Smith Road.
“Jeff's been awesome with ideas,” Fries said. “He's a marketing guy. We talk every day. We either play golf, or we cut down some trees. We have the power to just make a decision, and do it.”
Fries, 53, is the former head professional at Transit Valley Country Club. He started exploring opportunities for course ownership about 10 months ago.
“When I went on this trek last year, I looked at other golf courses and other opportunities, and this one I kept coming back to,” he said. “It's location, location, location. This place has got so many people that have access to it.
“The advertising budget here I think when we took it over was about $1,000. That's a powerful statement. They didn't have to advertise.”
It’s true that Glen Oak has long held a certain prestige among public courses in Western New York. Originally opened in 1969 (it was called Ransom Oaks then) the course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., one of the most prolific designers in the country. With its huge tee boxes, big greens and challenging bunkers, the course has plenty of appeal for players of varying abilities.
Along the way, though, challenges arose. In the past 15 or so years, there has been an explosion of high-level public courses in Western New York. Places like Hickory Stick in Lewiston, Harvest Hill in West Seneca, Diamond Hawk in Cheektowaga and Arrowhead and Ivy Ridge in Akron all are terrific venues.
“Everyone’s trying hard to go for the same buck, but we feel we can make this a top-level public facility that offers more than just golf,” Fries said. “All of the land we've got here, there's opportunities to do really fun stuff. … Yoga at sunrise, horseshoes, there are a lot of things you can do with the land that we've got. That'll bring eyeballs in that aren't used to golf. If somebody plays baseball across the street and comes over here to get a bite to eat and they look and see 100 kids running around in a junior program, hopefully they'll say, ‘how can I involve my children, how can I involve my family?’ ”
Mietus’ brother, Brian, who owns and operates the downtown restaurant Bacchus, will take over the food and beverage operation at the course. In time, a full-service restaurant is planned, just one of the many upgrades Fries and Jeff Mietus envision. The golf shop is in the middle of a face-lift, with some of the game's top brands now available. Club fitting will also soon be available.
Fries has been in touch with representatives from The First Tee of Western New York, the Buffalo District Golf Association and Western New York section of the PGA about establishing offices at the course, as well as possibly providing a satellite office for the New York State Golf Association.
“To have those associations here, now it's a synergy of ideas of thoughts,” Fries said. “Those are some of the goals we'd like to accomplish. We've invited them all. That way you get really interested people in one place.”
The immediate future (assuming golf season ever starts) involves getting a junior program started. Glen Oak will also host the local qualifier for the Drive, Chip and Putt competition.
“That’s the stuff that’s fun to do as a golf professional. Juniors, who doesn't like teaching kids? It's the future of golf,” Mietus said. "It’s something that every golf facility should have. You should be trying to promote the future of the game. Some kids will get into it, some will quit, some will love it and maybe some will be Tour players. It doesn't matter. They'll know about golf for the rest of their life, and hopefully they'll remember Glen Oak because of it.”
Fries was recently certified as a U.S. Kids Golf instructor. As part of that training, he learned the value of a course having a set of family tees that can be used for juniors or those just learning the game.
“Golf's never been scaled,” he said. “A kid, the first time he picks up a club, he might shoot 150. He's not having fun. So we're going to try to make tees that are appropriate, not for age, but for ability. For men, women, seniors and kids.”
Glen Oak will also be a host for PGA HOPE, a program that introduces golf to veterans with disabilities to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being.
“When you're done teaching the veterans, it's not like shaking hands, it's a lot of hugs,” Fries said. “There is some really good rehabilitation going on with that. The veterans can stay here, play here, maybe even work here. That's a really cool thing.”
One thing that won’t change is accessibility. Fries and Mietus are adamant about Glen Oak remaining a public course. Fries grew up playing at Brighton, while Mietus learned the game at Delaware Park and Cazenovia. Their goal is to run Glen Oak like a country club, but on a daily-fee basis.
“The challenge is there is so much to learn,” Mietus said. “It's a new facility, and I'm trying to learn every square inch of the land. What do the greens do? Where are the wet spots? How can we make this hole better? What was the architect's original design here when he was looking at this hole? How do we have everybody to get the same conditions every day? So there's a lot to learn in that sense. That's exciting.”
Some of the changes have started to take place. For example, the trees on the left side of the tee box on the 10th hole have been removed (slicers rejoice!), giving it an entirely different look. The 18th hole also has a drastically different look thanks to a tree removal designed to better show the risk-reward element of the tee shot.
“Over time, trees have started to encroach on some of the areas of the golf course, so we're pushing those back to where the architect had originally designed how the hole should be played,” Mietus said.
In addition to making the golf course more playable, Fries and Mietus also have an eye on trying to speed up pace of play. One commonly recited reason for golf’s stagnation – data from the National Golf Foundation for 2016 shows that 23.8 million people played a round on a real course, a 1.2-percent decrease from the previous year – is the amount of time it takes to complete a round.
Given his background at a private course, Fries is familiar with expectations regarding course conditions.
“What can we offer and give the folks here who come to play every day?” he said. “Can we give them better greens? Can we give them a faster pace of play? Can we give them conditions that they're like, ‘wow, this is great. I'm going to come back.' From a customer-service standpoint, we're trying to give that to the public that's going to come out here.”
Fries and Mietus plan to form focus groups to learn even more about what their customers want.
“What we know worked at other courses and other facilities, we bring it here,” Mietus said. “All those experiences at all the different clubs we've been at throughout the years, you take that knowledge and information. As a golfer, I'm going to be playing here a lot, too. I want it to be nice. I want it to look the way it should look. We're definitely working toward that. Will be exactly where we want it in the first year? Probably not, but every year it's going to get better.”