Editor’s Note: This feature first published on March 31, 2019.
After flooding Jordan Lawson with superlatives, Brian Brown finally caught himself.
“I’m not saying he walks on water,” Brown said.
Maybe not, but in five years as general manager and head pro at Wildwood Golf Club in Middletown, Lawson has rescued Wildwood from drowning in debt. Without changes, and without Lawson’s leadership, Wildwood would be closed today, just three years shy of its centennial.
“That’s just a fact,” said Brown, board president.
“We were on the verge of not making it,” Lawson said. “On the verge of bankruptcy.”
In 2014, Wildwood was down to 197 members, and making payroll was a weekly challenge. Today, the club has 248 golf memberships, 50 social members who have limited golf privileges, 40 pool members and money in the bank.
Brown called the 23 percent increase in golf membership “unprecedented” because private golf clubs are losing 10 percent of their members annually.
That shows Wildwood is “the place to be,” he said.
When the board realized it needed new leadership, it approached Lawson, who began working at the city-owned Weatherwax Golf Course when he was 14. He did every job there, eventually rising to assistant pro.
“We saw all the potential, and he has lived up to it,” Brown said. “He’s the energy center, the idea center. He has energy and vision. He came here with a plan. He didn’t jump to the finish line.”
But he was fast out of the starting gate.
Lawson knew for Wildwood to be successful it had to upgrade its facilities and improve its image outside the city. The first project was renovating the clubhouse to make it attractive to event organizers. Now, he said, Wildwood can host wedding receptions and anniversary and birthday parties that generate cash when the course is closed.
“Game changer” is how Lawson described the new and improved clubhouse.
Staff and members at Wildwood have also remodeled two patios, improved the swimming pool that attracts younger families and upgraded the 18-hole course, and plans are under way to renovate the men’s and women’s locker rooms.
Lawson said all the improvements have enhanced the overall membership experience at Wildwood.
“These members own this place, and they treat it as such,” he said. “My goal is when people step foot on this property, they’re having fun. If people are having fun, they will come back. It was about building fun for everyone. Not just the men, but the women, the kids. Build that sense of community.”
Lawson recently signed a 2 1/2-year contract extension that means he’ll be at Wildwood until at least October 2021. He’d like to retire from Wildwood. His wife of seven years, Lindsey, and their two sons, Luke, 3, and Gabe, 2, enjoy living in the area.
That would be just fine with Rick Renner, of Miamisburg, who joined Wildwood four years ago, after leaving a country club in Dayton. He called Lawson “a great asset” to Wildwood and retaining him as GM was “a must to keep this club moving in the right direction.”
Lawson isn’t about to sit still.
“So much left to do,” he said. “My mind races with ideas.”
Those ideas come with steep price tags. Renovating the locker rooms will cost $70,000, and he wants to repair the cart paths ($160,000) and reform the bunkers ($180,000).
Wildwood must be “incredibly savvy and creative” with its spending, Lawson said. That’s a fancy way of saying it depends on free labor.
All of the construction work has been done by members, Lawson said. That has allowed Wildwood to make improvements that otherwise would have been impossible based on available finances. The 18th hole patio, which is covered and heated, was remodeled by members for $10,000 — $20,000 less than an estimate from a construction company.
Wildwood also is a “more casual” private club than most country clubs. Members drink more beer than bourbon. Wildwood knows its DNA. It’s the perfect fit for a steel town.
Lawson, 34, a 2002 Edgewood High School graduate, said he has “a good feel for this town and what people expect.”
He was the right man at the right time.
“I never feel like I’m going to work,” said the guy who works 60 hours a week, more during the summer.
“But the people genuinely care for me. The people make this course.”
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