By Bill Brotherton
Middleton Golf Course, for 53 years a favorite of golfers of all skill levels, closed on March 31. In its last days, hundreds rushed to play the 18-hole, par-3 layout one last time.
The 52-acre site on Route 114 will be reborn as a town center. At a Special Town Meeting on March 19, residents voted to approve the $3.8 million purchase of the course. Plans are to build a fire station, with police headquarters, Town Hall and a senior/community center to follow on about 20 acres. The rest of the land will remain open green space.
The town was eyeing another parcel, about half the size at the same price, behind Angelica’s Restaurant, when the family of Middleton GC founder Bart Brown surprised town officials with its offer.
Initially the plan was to operate the course for two more seasons, but potential legal complications tied to the purchase and sale process forced the Browns to close sooner. Irrigation system issues also might have played a role in the decision to shut down.
Dozens of golfers from the course’s heyday were expected to reunite, play 18, and bid the course and staff farewell on its final weekend, just as North Shore Golf went to press.
While working at Polaroid, Bart Brown, a weekend golfer at Bellevue GC in Melrose, dreamed of opening a golf course. He and his wife, Peg, purchased the Johnson Farm on Route 114 in Middleton in 1965 and hired Geoffrey Cornish to design the course, the North Shore’s only 18-hole par-3 and one of only three in the state. John Theo was brought onboard as head PGA golf pro. The course opened in 1966 and was a success from Day One. At its peak, it accommodated 50,000 rounds a year.
Brown, who retired in 1988 at age 68, leaving his daughters and sons-in-law in charge, was a creative, savvy businessman. He presented clinics by nationally known teachers Bob Toski and Peter Kostis, hosted a yearly NEPGA pro-lady tournament and an annual North Shore junior championship.
Getting young people involved, especially the kids in the neighborhood, might have been Bart Brown’s greatest contribution.
Chris Costa, twice nominated for the NEPGA’s Teacher of the Year Award, started Middleton’s Junior Program, introducing thousands of North Shore kids to the game of golf. Many, including Jane Frost and Cathy MacPherson, went on to become pros themselves. Others, like Wayne Guyer, became excellent amateur players, winning club championships and competing successfully at the state level.
Gloucester native Costa was around for 44 of Middleton’s 53 years. He was working with Ron Ryan at Rockport GC when Brown offered him a job. There were five golf pros on staff at the same time during Middleton’s golden era, early ’70s into the ’80s.
“It was great working with Mr. Brown. He was a Harvard grad, smart, intelligent, with new and great ideas. He helped me so much. He really cared about people,” said Costa, who holds Middleton’s course record, a 7-under 47, circa 1976.
“The course might have been short, 3,200-yards, but it was still a challenge for the good player and a fun layout for the beginner.”
Brown, Costa and the longtime Middleton crew are held in great esteem. “We gave golf lessons, two or three each week, for the kids in the neighborhood. They picked up balls for me for a number of years. There were at least 20 to 25 kids who lived next door or across the street. Some of them became pretty good players.
“We would put notes on all the doors in the neighborhood, asking the kids to join us. That was one of Bart’s best ideas. It got them involved with golf. The kids got to play every day at no charge,” said Costa.
Costa’s daughter, Jennifer O’Connor, is in the business, too, as the owner of Holly Ridge on the Cape, which was formerly owned by the Brown family. Jane Frost has her teaching center close by.
The suddenness of the closing threw Costa and other staffers for a loop. Costa will work in two places this season, at Richardson’s range across the street and at Nahant Golf Club, offering lessons at both places. Nancy Hamson, another familiar face in the Middleton pro shop, will work in Nahant as well.
Wayne Guyer, who delivered a eulogy at Bart Brown’s funeral in 2015, is one of the neighborhood kids who was turned on to golf by Costa and the staff. He went on to win six Middleton club championships, and club titles at both The International and Salem Country Club, where he’s been a member for more than 20 years.
“Middleton has been a huge part of my life. I lived in the Brigadoon neighborhood adjacent to the golf course. I just crossed the street and walked past a couple of holes and was there,” said Guyer. “At least 10 of us went every day. Most of my group was really into it. … From 1972, when I was 10 or 11, I was there from dawn to dusk, almost every day. We were put to work, picking up balls on the range, filling the Coke machine. We got to play free golf. They were happy to share golf with me. Mr. Brown, Bill George, Chris Costa, George Lavoie, Steve Tricca … all solid people.”
Middleton has impacted his life in other ways. Guyer, who owns a successful insurance business in Danvers, insured the course for 25 years. He even met his future wife at Middleton when his doctor, Ed Sirois, showed up one day with daughter Jean in tow. Four years later Wayne and Jean married.
Employees at Middleton have been extremely loyal. Steve Tricca, who has served as course superintendent and/or general manager, arrived at the club in July 1966. Linda Lacroix arrived 37 years ago.
Lacroix, one of those neighborhood kids, said she “started here at 15, and years later my kids worked here. My first job was cleaning the toilets,” said the longtime president of Middleton Golf.
During one rainy Friday, Tricca reminisced: “So many people have come in here since we learned the club was closing, so many people who had played golf or worked here or both. Mr. Brown built a golf business that thought about people first. Through the ’70s and ’80s, it seemed every kid 10-12 years old from the neighborhood came over to play.
“Middleton attracted lots and lots of beginner players,” Lacroix added. Seventy percent of those were female, she said. More than 900 players had signed up for golf leagues. Lacroix worked to find all of them a new home course this season.
“It was a comfortable place. It’ll be missed. Everyone who’s walked through that door lately says it feels like a death in the family. So many people had a connection with Middleton Golf Course. … Special trees were planted by families in memory when someone passed away.”
Lacroix said the thing that most sticks in her head are the crazy events, such as the fall scrambles, when golfers dressed in Halloween costumes, and the glow-ball tourneys held as soon as darkness set in.
Wayne Taylor, an 8-year employee who held myriad jobs, summed up his feelings in two words: “This stinks,” adding he’s going to miss the job, his co-workers and the players.
St. John’s Prep and Masconomet Regional High held tryouts here. Prep golf coach Joe Rocha grew up nearby and played here. Tom Rourke’s North Shore Community College teams practiced here.
Jane Frost, the Beverly native who got her start here and will be inducted into the Ladies Professional Golf Association Teaching and Club Professionals Hall of Fame this fall, is saddened by the course’s closing.
“There is just so much history at Middleton and its place on the North Shore is so unique. For me, I am so connected with Middleton as a player and as a teacher. I started my Ouimet Marathon there and raised a lot of money. That event provided the seed money for the WGAM Scholarship Fund, so I feel that so many good things have happened not just to me but to so many people. I mean, we had one of the most popular pro-ams around with the Middleton Pro-Lady. I’m just heartbroken over this.
“I will always have a very special place in my heart for Middleton. And from some of the postings I’ve seen on social media, I am not alone.”
In a statement, the Brown family (daughters Sarah George, Katharine Brown, Janet Parker, and their children) said they are proud of what their parents and grandparents, Bart and Peg, planned and built. “They retired from active management of the business 30 years ago, in 1988, handing it over to a second generation that has now reached retirement age. For quite some time the value of this property has outpaced its commercial viability as a golf business, and the time has come to close up shop.
“The family is especially proud that Middleton Golf Course has been more than just a business. It has helped to preserve open space, clean air, water and other natural resources, while also being a recreational and educational resource for the community.
“Now, in 2019, the family is very happy that a substantial portion of the land will continue to provide green recreational space, as well as a central location for future municipal purposes. We feel that this would be the best use of the land, and we know our parents would approve wholeheartedly.”
The family had resisted higher offers from developers through the years.
In a letter to his local newspaper, Boxford resident Don Johnson wrote, “Many went to Middleton, young and old, to learn the game of golf. Many of us left with so much more than that.
“Bart Brown’s vision allowed people of all ages to learn the game, but it was the young in particular who learned not only how to “click” a golf ball but so much more, good sportsmanship, playing by the rules, how to conduct yourself on good and bad days, win or lose, high or low scores, lessons that carried far beyond the golf course. … I dare say these graduates of ‘Middleton Golf Academy’ hardly play a round of golf without thinking of the lessons learned at this very special place.
“I thank Bart, Mrs. Brown and the Brown family for what they have provided us over the years. The ‘Academy’ might close, but its spirit will live in many of us for a long time to come.”