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New Director Aims to Improve Norwalk Golf Course

NORWALK, Conn. – Shelly Guyer wants to increase the number of rounds played at Norwalk’s Oak Hills Golf Course, make some much-needed capital improvements and stabilize the finances. It’s a tall order in a shrinking golf market with a limited budget.

“I wouldn't have agreed to do it if I didn't think we could be successful,’’ said Guyer, who was named the executive director in February.

He has played golf at Oak Hills for nearly 13 years and is president of the men’s club. He retired after a long career at Merrill Lynch in 2007 and works as a rules official for the Connecticut State Golf Association.

His main focus now, however, is improving Oak Hills. The number of rounds slipped to about 35,000 last year, down nearly 10,000 from its high from 2007. Longtime pro and former executive director Vin Grillo resigned last year, and the course missed a bond payment last fall. Guyer, in conjunction with the course’s authority members, has several ideas for winning back golfers and increasing revenue.

The first step is to replace some of the infrastructure.

“The bunkers, the tee boxes, the fairways, the sewage system, they could all use improvement,’’ Guyer said. “We have $80,000 a year for capital projects, and we’re trying to use that money judiciously.”

Because of the course’s financial troubles, expenditures of more than $5,000 have to be approved by the Norwalk Board of Estimate and Taxation.

“There are a lot of things popping up that we hadn't planned for,’’ Guyer said. “That has made things hard.”

One improvement golfers will notice is a new fleet of carts. Guyer hoped to have the carts in time for Monday’s opening day celebration, but they have been delayed and should be available by the end of May.

“A couple of years ago, the decision was made to keep the carts and try to repair them as we went along,’’ Guyer said. “We had 20 carts that didn't work at all. It wasn't a cost-effective decision.”

There also have been some improvements on the course, including a new tee box on the 13th hole and improvements on some of the bunkers. One of Guyer’s main goals is to improve pace of play. Some golfers took more than five hours to finish 18 holes last year, a plodding pace that infuriates many players.

“We plan to have more rangers on the course to help maintain the proper pace,’’ Guyer said. “We’re hoping the cost of the rangers will be offset by increased play.”

Guyer’s other big push is to put a head professional in the pro shop. Currently, the shop is vacant and golfers cannot purchase basics, such as balls and tees. The head professional also is the primary contact in handling outings, lessons and clinics. They play a huge role in the financial success of the club.

“We need to have the golf shop operational,’’ Guyer said. “If we don’t get the approval for that, I’ll have to go to Plan B.”

Oak Hills is not alone in its battle to attract players. The struggling economy has been a primary factor. “I think we have lost more rounds than other places,’’ Guyer said.

Guyer said Mayor Richard Moccia and the city’s governing bodies have been accommodating as he tries to bring Oak Hills back to a prominent role in the Fairfield County golf scene.

“They've been bending over backwards for us,’’ Guyer said. “They want us to succeed.”

There already are encouraging signs. “Play was up in March in April,’’ Guyer said. “That’s a good start. If we can get up to 40,000 rounds this year, I’d be thrilled.”

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