Wynstone Golf Club celebrates 25 years and makes plans for a flourishing future.
Words by Donald Liebenson / Photography by Joe Shuman
While the calendar proclaims May and June, and not December, for Eric Allain, General Manager of Wynstone Golf Club in North Barrington, this is the most wonderful time of the year. The seeds, literally and figuratively planted during the club’s recent golf course renovation, have taken root.
“The golf course is as green as can be,” Allain says. “It looks just beautiful.”
Allain joined Wynstone in February 2014 after serving as General Manager for more than two decades at Lake Nona, a celebrated private club in Orlando, Florida. Let’s repeat that: He left year-round golfing weather in Orland, Florida for Chicago. But beyond shaking off the oft-brutal winters and fleeting springs, the 57 year-old said it was time for a new challenge.
That challenge, in part, he says, is to expand the culture of the traditional gated community golf club to attract young families by combining an elite golf experience with all the inclusive amenities of a country club.
Wynstone marked its 25th anniversary last year. It is the only private Nicklaus Signature Golf Course in Illinois, meaning that the Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus, designed the 18-hole course. Golf Digest ranks Wynstone as among the top 20 private golf courses for 2015-2016.
It is the scenic centerpiece of the Wynstone community. As the ethereal voice whispered to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Wynstone comprises 750 acres on which 334 of 437 homesites are estate homes. The golf course is 240 acres.
In terms of scope and size, Wynstone harkens back to the 1980s heyday of the gated private golf course community. “No developer today would devote that much property to the golf course,” Allain notes. “But in 1989, that, along with Jack Nicklaus’ name, was going to be the big draw in what was then a prosperous time.”
Those times abruptly ended with the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent recession. Even an ultra high net worth community such as Wynstone was not immune. It has faced several challenges from an aging membership base to marketing the pastime to increasingly apathetic Millennials. A 2014 Bloomberg report quoted a National Golf Foundation statistic that 200,000 players ages 35 and younger “abandoned the game” in 2013.
It is Allain’s job to develop Wynstone’s long-range strategic plans and ensure that the quality of the golf experience is not diminished while maintaining membership and bringing in new members. “The General Manager wears many hats,” he said. “(In essence) he’s the COO of the club. It’s a very hands-on position; you’re constantly raising the bar. Our membership efforts so far this year have been very successful. It proves that there is a healthy market for new club memberships if you are committed to providing the correct mix of amenities, services, and family activities.”
This commitment was demonstrated last August when the golf course was closed to begin a thorough $2.6 million renovation which was conducted under the guidance of Nicklaus Design (“so we maintain our Signature Design status,” Allain says). All the greens, fairways, bunkers, and tees have been redone. New car paths have been created.
The renovations to the course, as well as overall club upgrades, are key in bringing in new members, who may not be as tradition-bound as previous generations.
“The target market for any private club is the young family,” Allain says, “that’s the sweet spot; 35-45 year-olds with two or three children. They are typically moving up (in their careers), starting their own business or taking over the family business, and they are moving back to the suburbs.”
The challenge, Allain explains, is that golf does not fit into their busy, “instant” lifestyle, where networking is done on the Internet rather than the 16th green.
“This has been going on for more than a decade,” he says. Golf and country clubs of today are very different than our fathers’ club, where dad worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and then on Saturday morning went out to play 18 holes. Young families are so involved with their kids’ lives. There is soccer or gymnastics. There is tutoring. Families are pulled in so many directions that time is critical.”
But time, too, is critical for golfers; the time to play 18 and perhaps an “emergency nine,” the time it takes to get better. “People like to play golf, but because of time constraints, might go to the driving range to hit balls with their kids for a half hour,” Allain observes. “Or they might just play nine holes instead of 18.”
Wynstone is adapting to this new normal, which is why, in addition to the renovation of what Allain calls, “arguably the best modern golf course in the Chicagoland area,” it has also invested in family-oriented country club amenities. “If a club doesn’t fit a family’s lifestyle, these prospective new members are going to go elsewhere,” Allain says.
That includes casual dining opportunities, with fun family inclusive social events and welcoming outdoor eating areas with fire pits. “Smart and successful clubs have expanded so they offer a variety of opportunities for family members,” Allain says. “It’s about keeping in step with your non-private competition in the area. You’ve got to go out and see what types of restaurants your members go to and what types of food they enjoy.”
In addition to dining opportunities, Wynstone has also recently renovated its fitness facility and will be instituting non-traditional activities, such as an upcoming fly-fishing workshop. The club also has a swim team and golf and tennis youth programs.
“Chicago is such a short season,” says the former Orlando resident. “People want to be outside. You only have four months to take advantage of the summer weather.”
At Wynstone, Allain is striking a balance of exceptional service and a less stuffy atmosphere. “It’s more relevant to how people live their lives in 2015,” he says. “So, on one of those busy nights around dinnertime, when the kids are just out of practice, mom and dad will say, “Let’s meet at the club.”
Wynstone Golf Club is located at 1 S. Wynstone Drive in North
Barrington, 847-304-2800, wynstone.org.