by RONA MANN / Photos by Jeffery Lilly


DSC02525-copyIt’s the power you wield every time you make a purchase. Every time you select a movie, decide on where you’re going to vacation, what you want to eat and when, and where you choose to worship.

We make an awful lot of choices in our lives, some pleasant, some unpleasant. So when you have the opportunity of making one of those pleasant choices, like buying golf equipment and/or sports apparel, why not make it a choice that quickly will become a delightful habit.

“I don’t know how you’re going to say this,” begins Mark O’Neil, “but it’s so important to get people to support local business. So many people are under the misconception that if they buy at an independent store in a nice community like Old Saybrook, they’re going to pay a lot more than at a chain or big box store. In our case, that couldn’t be more wrong.”

“Our case” is the 7000 square foot shopping emporium known as Essex Golf and Sportswear, a mainstay on Main Street right in the heart of downtown Old Saybrook. “The perception is we’re going to charge more because we’re local and an independent business, but in actuality the price of a driver here is exactly the same you would pay for that same driver at Dick’s Sporting Goods or Golfer’s Warehouse.”

Mark O’Neil is a pleasant man…he’s your next door neighbor, your trusted friend, your old pal from college days, all rolled into one. Together with Mary, his wife of nearly 36 years, they delight in unlocking the door and turning on the lights seven days a week because they know their customers personally, they enjoy what they do; and most of all, they know what they’re  talking about when it comes to golf and sportswear apparel.

Mark O’Neil is golf personified. He’s done it all. From working as a certified golf pro, to teaching, building courses, and troubleshooting properties for the PGA, he is supremely qualified, yet never flaunts it. The O’Neils have moved 17 times in 28 years since Mark was the  “fix-it” guy for the PGA and heavily relied upon to make properties evolve from floundering to outstanding…which he did. Golf is simply what he does, but it is not solely who he is. He’s met   the famous and infamous, played golf shoulder to shoulder with Bill Clinton when he was President and built, managed, and worked at some of the most exclusive golf courses in the country. Yet his head is firmly on his shoulders, not turned by names nor titles.

DSC02433-copyAfter having a family, the O’Neils desired stability and a good school system, so when the PGA  asked him to take over TPC River Highlands in Cromwell (home of the Traveler’s Championship, arguably the largest sports event in Connecticut), they settled here, opening their first store in Essex. Within three years the O’Neils quickly outgrew the small space and moved to Old Saybrook where they’ve been for the last nine years, amassing a clientele not just of golfers, but of people who appreciate a quality sportswear line. “Look,” says Mark, “a great pair of slacks is a great pair of slacks whether it’s worn on the golf course or somewhere else.”

His wife Mary, whom he unabashedly adores (“I love coming to work every day with my best friend”), is no slouch either in this arena. Coming from a solid banking background, she is a  natural athlete who has competed in a number of different sports, is the sole buyer of apparel for Essex Golf and Sportswear, and possesses the uncanny ability of being able to remember every customer who’s come into the store…their likes, dislikes, and even their sizes!
“The nice thing about being here every day is listening to our customers,” says Mary. “That’s how we get to know them and what they want and need.”

Whether that customer is a beginner with little idea of what equipment to buy, or a “pro” who knows exactly what he or she wants, the O’Neils are ready with a smile and quick handshake to help, guide, and deliver. “A woman who wants to buy something for her husband and doesn’t know anything about the sport or the equipment never needs to be intimidated here,” says Mary. “We’ll take care of her.”

There isn’t a famous brand name that is not carried by Essex Golf and Sportswear where the O’Neils happily take trade-ins when their customers buy new. Demo clubs are on hand so people can try before they buy on the mock putting green; and always professional club fitting, repairs, and re-gripping services are offered on site. These are not just people who wanted a retail business and chose to operate a golf equipment store; these are people who know golf to the very core of their beings and therefore provide their community “the security of buying  from us.”

The store is chockablock with bags, carts, clubs, travel covers, balls, range finders, stylish apparel, and a full line of products for juniors, so they can start off playing early with the proper equipment.

Make no mistake, the names you know are all there: Nike, Ping, Titlelist, Callaway, Ben   Hogan, Greg Norman, Wilson… a stunning half million dollars in inventory! But the most  important names at Essex Golf and Sportswear are Mark and Mary O’Neil, he of the rock hard f irm handshake that tells you he has gripped many a club, but many a customer’s hands as well.  She of the solid business background, the winning smile, and the desire to do whatever it takes to get to know a customer and keep them coming back.

Essex Golf and Sportswear is what business should be about. People who know their field  inside and out, people who love doing what they do, who are good neighbors to the local  merchants as well as the community.

Not a tough choice, is it?

Essex Golf and Sportswear is located at 118 Main Street in Old Saybrook
(860) 510-0655