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.
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.
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."
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4. Step up the food and beverage
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!!
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.