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The Little Club That Could

CSGA (October 18, 2020) At 120 years, Madison Country Club has come of age.

That at least is the sense you get from talking to members about the changes the club has undergone in recent years and its new approach to letting the world know about what for decades was, well, a secret.

“We’re kind of tired of being the best-kept secret in Connecticut,” says President Ed Detmer. “For the past couple of years we’ve made a conscious effort to raise our profile. Because we feel that we can hold our own with the top-tier clubs in the state.”

The CSGA agrees. At its annual Volunteer Outing, held last week at Madison, Executive Director Mike Moraghan announced that Madison will receive the CSGA’s Distinguished Club Award for 2020, both for its renewed willingness to host CSGA events such as the recent Mid-Amateur Championship, and the continuing willingness of Madison members to volunteer for the association as rules officials and executives. Detmer, for example, a longtime CSGA tournament volunteer, is a member of the CSGA Executive Committee, as is fellow member Jim Healey.

For Madison, the refreshed approach begins with its Willie Park Jr. golf course, which, five years ago underwent a major renovation, led by architect Brian Silva. Not that many improvements to the course were not made before then, but the re-grassing, reconstruction of several greens and a subtle re-routing, were finished then, giving Madison members a dramatically different golfing experience. “Over three decades we looked at individual sections,” says Silva. “And then four or five years ago, we were able to stitch it all together.”

That stitching was a turning point for the membership. “Members have finally stopped talking about the old course,” laughs Detmer. “Now it’s just our course.”

The course is the core of the club. Though its name (country club) suggests otherwise, it’s all about the golf at Madison. “Our history always has been as a golf club,” says Detmer. “We’re not a country club really. There is no restaurant, no tennis, no pool. And the membership and leadership of the club has always stayed true to that. We’ve been a low-key golf club, understated, perhaps.”

Silva calls Madison “the little engine that could. No fancy clubhouse, no pretension, just a continuing desire to improve.” Even with changes, Silva says, the historical Madison, the place where players such as the great Bill Whedon learned the game (by hopping over a rock wall on what is now the 13th hole), remains. “What we did four or five years ago was really to pull together some of those changes and make the course more of a whole. So instead of losing its personality, I like to think that we enhanced it.”

One of the key players in Madison’s renaissance, Detmer and Silva are both quick to point out, is Superintendent Mike Chrzanowski, who has been with the club for 35 years. “Mike has been so important,” says Silva. “Over the years he would say things like, ‘What if the green moved over here? He always said something smart, had an idea that worked. Mike and the people at the club have always worked to make it better.

“I think the membership, the golf committee know how much Mike knows about the course. They kind of stay out of the way,” said Detmer. “This award is really for both members and staff.” Chrzanowski and longtime head professional Frank Carta accepted the CSGA award on behalf of the club.

This year’s Mid-Am demonstrated that all of the decisions made over the past 30 years and especially five years ago, have accomplished what club leadership sought: A top-tier championship venue. “We had two players [Ben Conroy and Cody Paladino] recognized to be among the best in the state, both former professionals who each finished at four under,” said Detmer. “Our members felt that the course stood up to the best.”

Thanks to the course renovation and to the more open attitude toward the golf community as a while, Madison is much healthier club today. At a time when many clubs struggle for members, it has a waiting list again. “But we never want to turn people away from learning about the club,” says Detmer. And why would they?

“It’s a special place, says Silva. “They really have a feel for golf.”