How to turn around a tired golf course

How four facilities got their stride back, and what struggling courses can learn from it
The Tides Inn Resort in Irvington, Va., listened to the community and worked out a deal to save Golden Eagle Golf Club.

In business, a great success story is good for everyone -- the owner, the employees and just as importantly, the customers.

So when a struggling golf course turns its operation around, it's great for the facility as well as the golfers. And in most cases it also benefits the community.

For example, at Golden Eagle Golf Club at The Tides Inn near Chesapeake Bay in Irvington, Va., the semi-private/resort course involved the community to help it become the only surviving facility with a championship golf course in Lancaster County.

Just south of Dallas in Crandall, Texas, new owners have completely turned around Rusted Rail Golf Club (formerly Creekview GC) to also become a favorite hangout for folks in this bedroom community. Rusted Rail was listed as no. 1 on Golf Advisor's most improved course list in 2018.

In Oxford, Mich., near Detroit, 27-hole Copper Hills Golf Club (No. 3 on our most improved list) is also enjoying resurgence after improving playing conditions as well as its relationship with the community.

And in Phoenix, municipal Papago Golf Course has always been busy, but it's become a true place to hang out with its new modern clubhouse, enhanced practice facilities and community involvement.

All four of these operations have made changes in several key areas. Some are more important than others, but we would argue that almost any course within easy driving distance of population centers could find success, too, if it stressed most of, if not all, these core elements.

1. Better course conditions

Unless you can invest in a total redesign, you're stuck with your layout, but course conditions are always going to drive golfers to or away from your course. Greens are most important, followed by fairways. At Rusted Rail, they spent nearly $1 million on course repairs as well as clubhouse improvements. It was a course that was ready to go under a couple of years ago, but new drainage, irrigation improvements and improved maintenance practices brought the 7,000-yard course back to life.

This was the first time I've been out to the new Rusted Rail since it was re-done and was extremely impressed. The new owners have clearly put a lot of time and money in to this facility. The old clubhouse is completely gone and rebuilt. New tees and greens were put in and look great.
- Reviewer ars07c (10/18)

The same could be said for Copper Hills, too. And not only are course conditions better there than they were a year or two ago, but they've also cleared out brush and some swampy areas to make the course more playable. "There are enough forced carries out there already," General Manager Glen Busam said of the 1997 layout. "Nobody likes looking for balls." Copper Hills also recently hired a new superintendent, Chris Bertrand, an alum of Penn State University's esteemed turfgrass program, to ramp up conditions even more.

And at Golden Eagle, head professional Don Nelson says even though the excellent George Cobb design as well as the natural beauty of the rolling wooded terrain that surrounds a 50-acre lake around a 50-acre lake overcame some of the course's maintenance issues in the past, improved maintenance is helping to bring the course back to relevance.

2. Improved customer service

This seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how many reviews we still get on Golf Advisor from players who report that golf shop staff didn't seem to care whether they were there or not. And yes, we get it; lots of assistant pros and shop personnel work long hours at pay rates that are less than optimal, but it's imperative if you want your operation to succeed that golfers feel welcome. It doesn't take much. Call them by their names, thank them for their business and be genuinely interested in their feedback. At Rusted Rail, they make a concerted effort to know their customers by on a first-name basis when appropriate, and the same is happening at Papago, Copper Hills, Golden Eagle and other facilities that are experiencing growth. "We really want people to feel at home here," said Rusted Rail GM Eddie Martinez.

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3. Being part of the community

Golf courses, especially in less populated areas, can be a focal point of the community. That was certainly true in Irvington, which is located in the Northern Neck region of Virginia. Last October the Tides Inn Resort announced that it would be closing the golf course. Two courses in the county had already closed in recent years, so the locals would no longer have golf. But in this case, a couple of members approached the owners of the resort and worked out a deal to keep the course going after a partnership was established between the Tides Inn and the Golden Eagle of Irvington, LLC. With the support of the community, which viewed the course as an asset, membership has almost doubled and the resort is doing its part to promote the course as well. "Many people in the community didn't want to see this golf course disappear," said Wilson of Golden Eagle, which has hosted three state amateurs and also serves as the home course for local school golf teams. "They really rallied the wagons."

A comeback story for the ages: Goat Hill Park

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4. Step up the food and beverage

They make a pretty fair chicken breast sandwich at Rusted Rail Golf Club in Crandall, Texas.

It's amazing how many golf facilities fail in this area. They already have a customer base at their restaurant, so why not make the grill or 19th hole a place where golfers will want to eat or hang out? The key is to not overcharge and deliver a quality product with a concept that fits the cilentele. Few places are doing that better than Papago Golf Course, which officially unveiled its new Lou Grubb Clubhouse back in December. Of course it helps if someone generously donated a few million dollars like the Grubb Family did, but the principle of all this applies anywhere. At Papago, Lou’s Bar & Grill, which can open up to outdoor dining, features a great menu, craft beers and signature cocktails and the place has been rocking with golfers and nongolfers alike.

"It's like heaven here," General Manager Daryl Crawford said. "The beauty here is so spectacular, and people really do appreciate the atmosphere."

5. Growing the customer base

All of these courses cater to juniors and encourage them to come with their parents or an adult. Rusted Rail, for example, sells summer memberships to kids in middle school and high school for $99. It includes use of the range and green fees. All they have to pay for is their portion of the cart fees when they share a cart with an adult driver.

6. Better marketing

This can't be undervalued, whether it's hiring a PR firm or simply having a social media presence. Almost all of these courses that are turning it around are figuring out ways to get the word out, though email lists, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Copper Hills does well with Facebook, for example, letting its customer base know about upcoming events, as well as chronicling its course improvements. It's one thing to improve, but word-of-mouth can probably only carry a business so far. It's important to spread the word by as many means possible.

We had an absolute fantastic time. Course was in excellent shape, no delays and friendly staff ... Fantastic views ... Also gave us the option to play either The Hill, Jungle, or Marsh. A must play!!
Reviewer rrsshealyn1 (8/18)

7. Thinking outside the tee box

There all sorts of ways to take advantage of what golf courses can do other than offer golf and some of these facilities that have been rebounding have done just that. Papago offers live entertainment on its patios, which draws a pretty good crowd, and Rusted Rail is getting ready to do the same. One of the more interesting propositions, though, is what Copper Hills is planning on its driving range. Like a drive-in movie theater, the staff is going to install a big screen and have movie nights using golf carts. Again, it's a great way to get the community to come out to your course, and it's something different.

8. Good practice facilities

In a recently published Golf Advisor story, "practice facilities" was listed as one of the most important factors for people considering membership at a private or semi-private club. The same holds true at all facilities. The better the practice facilities, the more time people will spend at the facility, which means they're more likely to buy food and beverage and perhaps play the course, even if it's just a twilight time. Again, Papago excels in this area, having enhanced its practice facilities as part of the recent renovation that included new target areas on the range, a new short game area and a larger practice putting green. While the action does wane during Arizona's blistering summers, in spring, late fall and winter, the range is always busy.

9. Competitive pricing

Yes, we know that many will argue this is what drives everything, but if that were true, the tee sheets at Pebble Beach and other top 100 courses wouldn't be as full as they are. What golfers are looking for is value, and that's all relative. At Rusted Rail, you can play a solid golf course with cart included for under $50, less than that after twilight. It's a fair price at a fun golf course, and most would rather play there than pay $30 at a goat track. Copper Hills is priced dynamically according to season, but right now golfers can play nine holes for just $20. Golden Eagle at The Tide's Inn is priced between $50 and $60 including cart, and Papago, can be $50 or less, depending on the season, which is a real bargain in the Phoenix/Scottsdale market.

Do you have a struggling course in your town? What changes need to happen for it to turn the corner? Let us know in the comments below!

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Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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we have a neglected course here on Newberry fl and they want to sell it and build homes.its zoned recreational and we want it to stay that way. We were a golf community when we bought our homes and now it's an overgrown mess. I. hope you could help .

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Rolling Hills Country Club Arlington Texas

This course is struggling financially. Is there any one interested in a struggling course?...Great community friendships...Lots of Love and Beauty....

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I am the new general manager of Pipestone Country Club in Pipestone Mn. We have a great course our grounds keeper is amazing however I can not seem to get people out to play or eat at our facility. I have upgraded the menu and advertised like crazy where ever possible. This community has always seen our club as a private club and now I am trying to break that stereo type and seem to be getting no where. I would love some in put as to where I can go from here. There has been talk that we will not survive another 3 years...Help

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Plum Tree National in Harvard, Illinois, once a top 100 public course, closed three years ago and now sits empty and overgrown. Would love to see someone follow those nine points and get it open again.

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HGM GOLF ENTERPRISES has soil and plant conditioners which will save 30-35% water cost. When using reclaim water, will help flush out the sodium materials in the water applied.

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Pace of play is so important to me. It’s amazing how many courses are trying to save money and no longer have rangers out on the course to help move things along. In the long run they lose money because pace of play slows down and frustrates the hell out of players. Five hour rounds are not tolerable and Ensures that I will not play that course again.

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I would to see how we can upgrade the Forest Park Golf Course in Baltimore, Maryland 21207. Great course but needs help. Also, need to find away of improving employee salaries. I still believe the community is not engaged or value the golf course.

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Completely forgot pace of play. Most important factor when I choose where I play.

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Rob - you are spot on. The five hour round of golf is hurting the game. The course can be great, but if you don't have time to play it....

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Agree pace is a huge issue, but a lot of struggling courses don't have busy tee sheets.

But yes, I absolutely factor in pace when choosing between my local courses.

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How to turn around a tired golf course