These are bittersweet times for the Ferncroft Country Club family.
The club, opened in 1969 as Topsfield Country Club and beset with multiple owners and rocky financial times over the years, has experienced a resurrection since Virginia-based Affinity Management took over the property in 2006. That resurrection reached a new milestone when Managing Directors Damon S. DeVito and David R. Swales led the celebration July 6 with membership and staff of the grand opening of the $5 million, 11,00 square foot clubhouse expansion.
At the same time, the club is bracing for the departure at the end of the month of “Mr. Ferncroft,” Toby Ahern.
A key member of the staff spanning 25 years, Ahern most recently served as director of business development but is best known as the man in charge of the Ferncroft golf operation for more than half of his tenure.
“It’s been a wonderful place to work,” says Ahern, one of a long list of former St. John’s Prep state champion golf team members (‘82) who have enjoyed success in the golf industry. “I’ve been able to come to work for 25 years and have my own personality. I’ve been able to be myself. And I think that’s made me a better employee.”
An employee, this observer can add, who has brought exceptional value and integrity to the various positions he’’s held since coming to the club in 1991 as an assistant golf professional. That’s all the preparation the Colonial Country Club-bred Ahern needed.
The University of Richmond graduate became head professional in 1992, director of golf operations in 2000, general manager in 2006 and director of business development in 2014. He has been the true ‘face’ of Ferncroft.
“Toby is an incredible person whose talents and dedication to Ferncroft – its membership and staff – have been evident every day he’s been on the property,” says DeVito. “We’ll miss Toby in many ways, but we understand his desire to move on and excel in a new opportunity.”
Ahern, 52, was a product of Colonial in Lynnfield, along with other Prep golfing luminaries such as the O’Keefe brothers, Mike and Lou, the latter the highly respected teaching professional (and accomplished artist) at Golf Country in Saugus. They thrived in Colonial’s heyday when Burt Page ran the golf operation and his father, George, ran the iconic Colonial at Lynnfield restaurant.
“I worked for Burton and the head pro, Billy Max, during high school and college. I flipped hamburgs to start, then helped with the golf stuff,” Ahern explained. “One day Burton pulled me aside after I graduated from Richmond and said he felt it was time for me to move on into the golf game. He helped me get my first job as a pro, as an assistant at Ipswich CC under Billy Ziobro. That lasted two years before Steve Caldwell, the head pro at Ferncroft, hired me as his first assistant. One year later Steve departed and I was promoted. I’ve been here ever since.”
Ferncroft and the hotel atop the hill overlooking the front nine were owned at the time by the Braintree-based Thomas Flatley Company. That was the first of six ownership groups that Ahern worked for during his illustrious run at the club that straddles parts of Danvers, Middleton and Topsfield. Flatley eventually sold the hotel/golf complex to Starwood, who then sold to Merritt Hospitality. The next buyer was Stage Hospitality, followed by Wave Hospitality, leading up to the acquisition byAffinity Management, a leading professional and management consulting firm specializing in private clubs, country clubs, golf courses and equestrian centers. Finally, Ferncroft, its members and staff gained an owner that knew the golf business; an owner that would do wonders for the highly regarded, non-equity club with a first-rate championship course. The latest project typifying Affinity Management’s commitment to the membership is the clubhouse addition, which didn’t cost the membership a nickel. It was strictly a capital expenditure with no member assessment.
“It’s been a new era for Ferncroft since Affinity stepped in,” Ahern said. “I’m glad I’ve been here for all the good things that have happened since they arrived. At the same time, an ever-growing membership has shown an exceptional commitment to make this relationship work.”
Ahern is grateful for a staff group that has helped him along in his career, starting with Paul Johnson, the long-time course superintendent who became director of golf operations before Toby succeeded him. Another is Mike Cassidy, Ahern’s first hire in 2000 who has thrived as golf course superintendent for 16 years. A third is Tim Frazer, a Thomson product who has been Ahern’s close friend since their St. John’s Prep days. Frazer was Ahern’s No. 1 assistant for several years before he moved with his family for a new venture near Cincinnati. He gave Phil Leiss, his head golf professional the past 10 years, lots of credit for keeping the golf operation at a high level throughout and expects the Danvers native to excel to an even higher degree moving forward.
“Phil has been a tremendous asset to the club in every way imaginable on the golf side, from the junior program to teaching to merchandising and tournament management to staffing and everything else,” Ahern said.
“These people and many others joined me in giving the membership and their guests the best possible service, even during difficult times when management changed. But now it’s time to move on and see what’s next in my career path. I don’t k now what path that will take, but hopefully we’ll find out soon enough.
“Regardless, I can’t thank Ferncroft enough. Ferncroft has prepared me beautifully, I know, for whatever is next for me and my family (wife Marion, daughter Grace).”
In his personal letter of thanks to the membership, Ahern said, “The Club has been far more than a job. It has been my passion. There has always been one constant through all the ups and downs, all the ownership changes: a great group of individuals who care deeply about the club, its members and families, and lifelong relationships.”
Ahern may have more worlds to conquer, but his legacy at Ferncroft is rock-solidly engraved in the hearts and minds of those with whom he has been associated for the last quarter century.
Great showing from St. John’s Prep golfer and 16-year-old Bass Rocks junior member Mark Turner to place third in the 36-hole stroke play qualifier (71-69-140), then win one match and advance to the round of 16 at the 108th Massachusetts Amateur at Taconic. Off that effort alone, he’s a favorite to win the Division 1 individual title this coming fall for the defending state champs. Salem’s Steven Dilisio shot 152, Kernwood’s Jake Kramer and Ipswich’s John Hugo 156, Ferncroft’s Charlie May 150 and Athan Goulos 165, Tedesco’s Cy Kilgore 163…Beverly’s Ryan Anderson tied for second with 80-71-151 at the Massachusetts Big “I” Junior Classic at CC of New Bedford. Christian McKenna of Danvers shot 153, Marblehead’s Owen Picariello 155.
Gary Larrabee is a golf historian, author of “Sensation at Salem” and 11 other history-themed golf books, and the 2016 recipient of the George S. Wemyss Award given by the New England PGA.