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COLUMN: Members have mixed feelings over golf clubs' future

Change in operators at Vespra Hills, National Pines provides 'clarity after rumours surrounded the future of both,' columnist explains

Area golfers now have answers regarding the immediate future of National Pines and Vespra Hills golf clubs, two of the Barrie area’s top private clubs.

Vespra Hills, an underrated gem on the outskirts of town near Snow Valley, announced to its members two weeks ago that it was entering into a partnership with ClubLink, the golf course conglomerate.

The second domino fell this week when upstart operator Purposeful Golf announced it was signing a 21-year lease to run National Pines. ClubLink will finish out its current lease this season, ending a 20-year run. National Pines will be Purposeful’s second course after it entered a similar arrangement with the Ridge at Manitou, a course in cottage country near McKellar.

“National Pines has a rich legacy as a great member club with a course that was long regarded as one of the best in the country,” Chris Gale, founder of the Purposeful Group, said in a release put out by his company.

“We are excited at the opportunity … and are pleased to be partnering with an ownership group who share our vision for the future.”

Both moves provide clarity after rumours surrounded the future of both National Pines and Vespra Hills, whose owner, Cinder Warren, died two years ago.

“It doesn’t change anything. It’s a great opportunity for (ClubLink),” said Brent Miller, ClubLink’s vice-president of business operations. “… We plan to (integrate) our operation with the Vespra Hills staff and to take advantage of what they already have in place.”

For members, much uncertainty remains.

“Not sure how this can end up better for us,” said one Vespra Hills member via text message regarding whether he and other members may be required to join the wider ClubLink network, at greater expense, to remain at Vespra Hills.

For now, its members will be allowed to play their course under pre-existing membership dues agreements and conditions. That could change, as many golf industry people expect, if ClubLink eventually buys the property.

Not everyone is unhappy, taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I don’t hate this,” said one member, pointing out he will keep his options open for now and will not be joining the ClubLink network right away.

The main advantage to such a development is that ClubLink allows its members to play its other courses, though the next-closest facilities are about an hour away, both north and south, of Vespra Hills.

The management deal with Vespra Hills keeps ClubLink’s collective tees pegged locally despite now losing National Pines. The conglomerate also shed Bond Head, about half the distance to Toronto on the west side of Highway 400, several years ago.

Vespra Hills was started by golf industry legend Mac Frost and his wife, Beth, whose family property became the course. Frost, a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran who saw active service in England during the Second World War, died in 2005 after the club had just opened, but it remained in the control of his family, who ably ran it for about two decades.

Miller, for one, went to great pains to praise the club the Frost clan had built.

Warren was Frost’s daughter, and the course moved to its current owner, Dave Caldwell, upon her passing.

The ClubLink announcement was the first significant sign of what Caldwell’s plans are moving forward. ClubLink typically owns the courses in its network, though it does have two Quebec tracks it manages in much the same way it will now with Vespra Hills.

“That’s completely Dave’s decision,” Miller said regarding whether ClubLink is looking to buy Vespra Hills from Caldwell.

Attempts to contact Caldwell directly were unsuccessful and a call to Vespra Hills staff was not returned.

National Pines’ future had been up in the air for a few years because the looming expiration of its current lease with ClubLink was an open secret. It is a mild surprise that the family that owns the property is keeping it a golf course — the land near the Barrie-Innisfil border is highly coveted for development purposes.

National Pines remaining open is a plus because there is a sense the area’s private offerings are sparse. The Pines, Vespra Hills and the Barrie Country Club, of which your humble scribbler is a member, are the three private clubs around Barrie, a catchment area that has grown tremendously.

“The multi-decade lease signifies more than a business agreement,” said Michael Ceci, speaking for the owners, in the same Purposeful Golf release. “It represents a shared vision for the future.”

ClubLink, which had hoped to hang on, and its members who use National Pines as their home course may not share that vision, and move to another course. More than a dozen switched to other ClubLink clubs in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s announcement.

ClubLink, in announcing National Pines will be changing hands in November of this year, made no mention of Purposeful Golf’s takeover; instead it encouraged its members to move to other courses in its network.


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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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