The Irresistible Charm Of Richter Park
In 1937, Stanley and Irene Richter, a wealthy couple from New York, bought a working farm at the outer edge of Danbury, Conn., for use as a vacation home. Stanley died 30 years later, and not long afterward Irene gave the property to the city, which turned the house into an arts center and much of the farm into a nine-hole golf course. (The Richters once raced horses on what's now the fairway of a claustrophobically skinny par 5.) The city added more acreage and, in 1974, opened a second nine. Very quickly, Richter Park earned a reputation as one of the best munys anywhere—as it remains. The routing meanders up, down and around some very large wooded hills, and there are miles of old stone walls and a couple of seriously picturesque reservoirs. No two holes look even slightly alike. After I'd played the course twice, I could walk it in my mind.
Getting a weekend tee time at Richter used to be next to impossible for anyone who didn't pay residential property taxes in Danbury. Local men would line up before dawn on Tuesday mornings, and the pro would allocate spots by drawing proof-of-residency cards. I live in another town, almost an hour away, and my friends and I used to wait till October, then endure repeated busy signals before asking politely about cancellations. We'd also sign up for the Danbury Amateur, a flighted two-day tournament, which in those days was a non-Danburyian's best opportunity to experience the course on consecutive high-season weekend mornings. The course's allure is strong. There are groups of regulars who don't actually live in the city but do have residency cards, which they obtained by pooling their money to buy what one of them described to me as "the cheapest Danbury condo we could find."
Nowadays, tee times are easier to come by, even for non-residents, thanks to the Internet, the recession and Richter's head pro and director of golf, Brian Gehan. The reservation process is simpler and more transparent. The club now offers discounted website specials and a program called PAR Pass (for "Play As a Resident"), which allows outsiders to pay $400 a year to be treated like locals. Gehan grew up in Danbury. He played his first round of golf at Richter, in the early 1980s, when he was in junior high. He liked the place so much that, over the next two decades, he managed his life with a view to doing exactly what he's doing today. "I wake up every morning and say, 'I'm going to Richter Park,' " he said.
On a recent Tuesday, I arrived early so that I could tee off with the Richter Park Ladies Golf Club, which has a Facebook page, a full-event schedule and a president with a glamorous name: Sharon Stone. Stone had an interclub match that morning—the Richter women were playing teams from two private clubs—so I joined Jane Mathew, who is the mastermind of most of Richter's women's and mixed events; Heidi Winslow, a superior-court judge taking a half-day vacation; and Kathy Boggan, a long hitter who got longer whenever Winslow reminded her, on the tee, that she was angry at her husband. Winslow, in her legal capacity, advised Boggan that she wasn't required to tell me what their disagreement was about, but she did anyway. The issue (which is too complicated to go into) isn't marriage-threatening, but thinking about it did add 20 yards to Boggan's drives.
Mathew has been a member of the women's club since 1991 and has held every office except treasurer. She persuaded a number of women to sign up for the 2013 Amateur, and she helped set the theme for this year's women's member-guest—"It's a Jungle Out There"—at which she wore a safari jacket and hat, and knee-high zebra socks. On the day we played, her main preoccupation was the upcoming Richter Cup, a two-day mixed event in which husbands and wives don't play together. "Everything I do nowadays is a spinoff from Richter Park," she said
Mathew's husband is a talented amateur woodworker. He recently built two benches for the course using wood from an ancient oak tree that used to stand beside the 14th green. He is also an aspiring pyrotechnician, which is to say that he creates fireworks. "We've had a few close calls," she told me. But her husband's hobby has also brought benefits. Not long ago, she accompanied him to the annual convention of Pyrotechnics Guild International, in Pittsburgh, and when the fireworks got boring she went out by herself and played golf.