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January 2018

High and Mighty

By Steve Donahue

Highland Greens has developed an established reputation over its 50 years in operation, as the Sabo family has poured its heart and soul into one of Connecticut’s most loved and adored golf courses

Highland Greens might be one of Connecticut’s most well known golf courses. That’s no small feat considering the family-owned operation is a nine-hole, par-3 layout tucked away in the tiny town of Prospect.

Fact is, Highland Greens—which turned 50 in 2017—rings familiar with golfers statewide because it’s Connecticut’s only fully lighted, regulation-size, par-3 course, and is where countless golfers played their first round of golf.

“We try to bring people into the game and keep them in the game,” says managing partner George Sabo, whose family has owned and operated the course from the beginning. “All the stories people have had about their memories of Highland Greens over the 50 years has been really great.”

George’s father, George Sabo Jr., a WWII veteran who died in 2012, founded Highland Greens. The golf course property had been his family’s farm. When George Jr. retired as a telephone lineman in the 1960s, he entered Democratic politics and was elected Prospect’s first mayor.

Then, after hiring architect Al Zikorus, George Jr. built a golf course. “We’ve been running it since,” George says.

George’s grandfather—his mother’s father—was a golfer and cut down a set of clubs for George. The youngster fell for the game immediately.

“I was the only one who developed a love for playing the game, as well as knowing the inside of the golf course and running it,” George recalls. “I guess it was natural I was the one who stepped up and was the one to oversee things here starting in the early 1990s.”

“My grandfather taught my mom to play,” George explains. “The first time my father saw my mother, who became a schoolteacher, she was on a street corner with her golf clubs waiting to play golf at the old Chase Country Club. My grandfather was one of our janitors and cleaned the bathrooms on Sunday mornings. I helped him when I was 3 or 4 years old. Whatever he swept I’d dump into the dustpan. From being his assistant janitor I moved into different areas of the operation.”

George, his five sisters and brother all worked at the course. The girls worked inside in the snack shop and pro shop, as did the brothers. George also worked in the kitchen, but spent most of his time on the course learning that side of the business.

“We’ve hired a lot of family friends and people who have gone on to distinguished careers,” George says. “In fact, Prospect mayor Robert Chatfield [in his 41st year in office] worked here for years in the 1960s.”

George is big on details, like maintenance. “We have 100 percent country club conditions between the greens, tees and green surrounds. You’d be amazed if you remember what it used to be like.”

At its peak, about 40 percent of the rounds were played under the lights. Today it’s about 20 percent, because senior-day play has increased thanks to special senior rates and new golf cars introduced because the course is hilly.

George is completing renovations of the green complexes, green surrounds and bunkers. Material pulled from the bunker renovations will create a wedge course or short course with tee boxes 100 yards and in within each hole geared toward youths 10 and under.

An alternate, elevated tee box on No. 8 provides a different look, extending the hole about 15 yards to 20 yards. George is also retrofitting the 1,000-watt metal-halide light system on the 63 light fixtures to an LED equivalent in order to enhance the night-golf quality.

“That energy bill is a cost driver, so the alternative is LED lighting,” George notes. “It gives us a better-quality light and saves significant amounts of money on our energy bill’s bottom line.”

Major clubhouse modernization renovations are scheduled for completion by fall 2018.

“We’re investing in some of the infrastructure so it can go on for hopefully another 50 years,” George says. “We’re looking at a remodel to give the after-golf some sticking power. We will re-orient the pro shop and grill room and have an open deck facing the ninth green, so people can sit up high and watch the last tee shots coming in. Any risks we take with the bottom line will be very manageable.”

Other plans positioning Highland Greens for future success will be bottom-line driven. “You can get into the red very quickly if you’re not careful,” George cautions. “We’ve seen an uptick in rounds played for about four straight years. I’ve been much more involved doing the marketing. It’s very difficult to do any advertising in the local market because of cost, so I’m relying on my website and a little bit of advertising, and also promotional things when I offer passes and prizes when I can keep our name out there.

“We’ve seen an increase. We’re positive with the way things are going, so we’re investing in things that help the bottom-line perspective and, at the same time, improved conditions,” he adds. “We’re also reinvesting in our irrigation system, which will save money on the bottom line. The driveway will also be repaired.”

Steve Donahue is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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