Mastering the Planning Process at Sunningdale Country Club

Sunningdale article 2024

Sunningdale Country Club, Scarsdale, N.Y., is successfully implementing its Strategic and Facilities Improvement Master Plans to add clubhouse enhancements and other amenities that properly support its historic golf course and provide members with an extended opportunity to enjoy all that the Club now has to offer. 

Named after the renowned golf club in Berkshire, England, Sunningdale Country Club was founded in 1913 in Scarsdale, N.Y. The Club quickly established its own reputation in the U.S. by engaging Seth Raynor in 1916 to redesign the golf course it had purchased on an historic and breathtaking site in Westchester County. It then opened a stunning new clubhouse, designed by leading architect Robert Kohn, two years later. Demonstrating this commitment to excellence from the start quickly filled Sunningdale’s membership rolls, and for more than one hundred years since, the Club has maintained preeminent status among New York metropolitan-area clubs. 

As Sunningdale progressed into its second century, however, its leadership recognized the need to begin to plan to bring its clubhouse and other facilities up to date to match the standards it was upholding for its golf course. The course underwent a major renovation in 2017 under the auspices of acclaimed architect Mike DeVries while retaining the classic style of the original Raynor design. A new plan for facility improvements and expanded amenities was also seen as essential for adapting to the evolving needs of the Sunningdale membership’s changing profile, as well as the broader societal and lifestyle changes taking hold to affect how all private clubs would need to appeal to future generations of members.

The Club formed a Strategic Planning Committee at the beginning of 2020 that was tasked with developing a comprehensive Strategic Plan to define Sunningdale’s Mission, Vision and Values, identify needed changes to its governance structure, and delineate the key characteristics of the Club’s unique, multi-generational culture. With input from members gained through extensive focus groups, surveys, committees and direct communication, and undeterred by the disruptions presented by the pandemic, the Committee successfully completed and presented its Strategic Plan to members early in 2021. 

The direction and principles embodied in the Strategic Plan then guided development of a comprehensive Facilities Improvement Master Plan that would seek to dramatically enhance members’ overall enjoyment and extended use of the Club, while also positioning it properly for the future. Here, too, extensive member input was relied upon, to properly balance members’ preferences and priorities with fiscal prudence. Sunningdale’s leadership was also assisted by Club Benchmarking, which conducted an asset reserve study, and McMahon Group, which helped to tie the Club’s survey results to industry trends and best practices, so facility improvements could be identified that would not only be most critical for current member satisfaction, but also best serve to solidify Sunningdale’s position for future generations. McMahon also assisted with preparation of communication materials used to provide the membership with full details about the Facilities Improvement Master Plan.

Moving Ahead

Later in 2021, Sunningdale’s Facilities Improvement Master Plan had been finalized and presented to the membership for further input and ultimately, a vote in early 2022 that secured overwhelming approval  to pursue these project phases:

  • Extensive upgrades to the clubhouse, with the primary features being an expansion to showcase a new indoor/outdoor bar; conversion of one formal dining room into a casual grill room venue, and an expanded terrace along the first tee, enabling members to watch golfers teeing off while enjoying food and drinks just feet away. The improvements would also include renovating the clubhouse kitchen for the first time in over 20 years, refreshing its living room décor, and replacing aging heating and air conditioning systems. The changes would also provide some flexibility to host events without necessarily having to close the Club or impede members’ full use during them.
  • The Master Plan also called for construction of a new First Tee building on the current site of the Club’s pro shop/bag room that would incorporate an indoor golf performance center with three hitting bays, a practice putting area, stretching area, an expanded bag room and larger pro shop. 
  • In response to the growing popularity of racquet sports, another phase would replace the Club’s existing Paddle Complex with three new paddle courts, a new warming hut and viewing deck. Additionally, the plan includes the creation of four permanent pickleball courts.
  • Finally, once the member-facing aspects of the Plan were complete, the Master Plan laid the groundwork to completely redo the Club’s maintenance barn so it could properly support the proper care and maintenance of the golf course.

 

Instant Acclaim

With the same steady and careful approach that characterized the development of its Strategic and Master Plans, Sunningdale’s leadership then turned to implementing the various improvement phases. The clubhouse project came first, with construction that began at the start of 2023 and was completed by August of last year.

Reaction to the clubhouse improvements, reports Pam Rubin, a Board member who chaired the Strategic Planning Committee, has been “fabulous,” with the membership immediately drawn to the expanded outdoor bar, new indoor bar and a true grill room for indoor casual dining. Additionally, any concerns that the project, including the redecoration of the 106-year-old living room with its cathedral ceilings, might affect the integrity of the Club’s historic clubhouse were fully alleviated. “The addition of the pub looks like it has always been there, and the decor throughout is emblematic of the Club’s ‘understated elegance,’ “ Rubin says.

All told, it was clear that the clubhouse project had been properly planned and executed to successfully achieve its primary objective: making it possible for Sunningdale members to enjoy their clubhouse with a greater variety of options and for an extended period of time. “We used to shut down our casual dining in October,” Rubin reports. “Our intention was clearly to extend it to now be a 10-month option.” (Sunningdale closes in mid-December for several weeks in the winter.)   

The immediate acclaim that was received for the clubhouse improvements also added to the energy and confidence of both the Sunningdale leadership and its membership as the Club looked to pursue other phases of the Master Plan. It has already broken ground on the 8,500-sq. ft. First Tee Center, with scheduled completion in August. Throughout the process, Sunningdale’s considered approach to master planning has given the Club the flexibility to ensure that no phase will be too disruptive to its operation, and to make needed adjustments as circumstances dictate. Additionally, the Club’s fiscally prudent financing plan for all phases has been created to be equitable for all members, without putting undue stress on its balance sheet. 

With its results to date and prospects for successful implementation of future phases, Sunningdale stands as an impressive example of effective development of Strategic and Master Plans. Internally, it has combined extensive input from its membership with the dedicated work of its Board members, management team and special committees that were formed for the process, and complemented those efforts with the industry expertise and perspectives provided by McMahon Group, Club Benchmarking and other outside resources. 

Through its approach, Sunningdale has stayed grounded and directed by its Mission, Vision (“To be the most recognized multi-generational, family-focused, year-round club in Westchester Country”) and Values, and followed a consistent path to maintaining its preeminent standing in the highly competitive New York metropolitan-area club market. Its successful planning efforts now promise to ensure member satisfaction and the Club’s long-term viability throughout its second century, and beyond.  

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About Frank Vain

Mr. Vain provides consulting and planning services to private clubs throughout North America. Through use of specialized services including membership surveys, strategic planning, operational analysis and facility long range planning, Frank assists club in developing individualized strategies for their unique situations. 

Mr. Vain joined McMahon Group in 1988 and has more than forty years of experience in the management and development of hospitality properties including country clubs, city athletic and dining clubs and residential communities. Frank is Past President of The Country Club of St. Albans, a 36-hole country club located in Missouri, and he is a former partner in Concord Sports Club, a 1,700 member family athletic club in St. Louis. Frank was elected to the Board of the National Club Association in 2011 and served as Chairman in 2019-20. 

Mr. Vain is a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is a featured speaker at the annual Club Managers Association of America World Conference, National Club Association National and Regional Conferences, Major Golf Associations and a regional chapter meeting of club managers and leaders. 

Frank is a regular contributor to industry leading publications like Club Management, Club Director and BoardRoom. He was named the Gary Player Club Educator of the Year for 2012 and 2015 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021 by BoardRoom. He is also a co-author of McMahon’s Club Trends, a recognized industry benchmark on the trends and issues affecting private clubs. 

More articles by Frank Vain
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