LESSONS IN ADVERSITY
A Progress Report from the National Golf Course Owners Association
A challenging year brought out the best in many owners and operators while giving us reasons to rethink our approach to business.
It was a hell of a year; I just don’t know any other way to put it. It was a year many want to forget because of personal and professional hardships. But 2009 was also a year that bears remembering because of the lessons it taught and the truths it reinforced.
Many of us grew up hearing our parents recount the struggles they and their families endured during the Great Depression. By comparison, this past year was a day at the beach. Not that it wasn’t tough in the strictest sense for millions of Americans, including any number of golf course owners and operators. But there were no breadlines, no rationing, no real Hoovervilles. And when we sat down at the table with our families at Thanksgiving, there was much for which to be thankful. We work in an industry that is affected by economic cycles like any other. But the game is timeless, as steady participation numbers reflected during the past year. The luster surrounding an individual star may fade, but golf goes on, just as it has for centuries.
But if adversity really does bring out the best in us, then 2009 extracted a lot of what makes golf great and reinforced many of the qualities that distinguish those who own and operate our nation’s courses. In this year’s annual letter to NGCOA members, in addition to providing the traditional overview of your association, I want to highlight some of those people and the valuable lessons they reminded us of.
Grinder Gets Just Rewards
The past year called for a special type of resolve. On the PGA TOUR, they call it grinding. It’s what even the greatest players have to do on those days when they don’t have their best stuff: they simply put their heads down and focus on the next shot, grinding out the best result possible.
That’s also the approach many owners and operators needed to keep their businesses going and to continue to offer four-hour respites from the prevailing economic doom and gloom. I hope Lawren Just doesn’t mind if I refer to her as a grinder; I use that term with the greatest respect. Lawren, mother of five, grandmother of six and owner/operator of Persimmon Ridge in Louisville, Kentucky, is a textbook example of the value of perseverance. Her story dates to 1989, when Persimmon Ridge opened as one of the nation’s most respected new private courses.
Lawren and her husband, Elmore, the founder of persimmon clubmaker Louisville Golf, were forced to sell the course a year after it opened when their lender unexpectedly demanded payment on the first $500,000 of their loan. Distraught over the loss of their beloved course and millions of dollars in debt, the Justs also found themselves battling the new owner for the purchase price of the course that Lawren has called her sixth child. But Lawren’s and Elmore’s prayers were answered in 2000 when, in a righteous turn of events, they were able to buy back Persimmon Ridge.
Tragically, Elmore passed away only two months after the course returned to the family. But Lawren stepped up to the challenge of independent golf course ownership and has overseen the renovation of several areas of the course as well as a $1.5 million addition to the clubhouse. Membership has grown, too, and the dream of two young entrepreneurs finally seems secure. I was inspired by Lawren’s story, which was featured in Golf Business magazine (A Just Cause, January 2009). “To be in your own business, you eventually risk everything you have,” Lawren said. “You have to love what you’re doing.” Passion and perseverance – that’s a formula for success in any economy.
Return on Investment
“The harder I work, the luckier I get,” is a line first attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, the famous motion picture producer; but it is also often used by golfing legend Gary Player. In 2009 we were again reminded that, more often than not, our returns are in equal measure to our investments. The East Potomac Golf Course is a case in point. One of the first courses to sign up for the golf industry’s player development program “Get Golf Ready,” the course six blocks from the White House on the Washington Mall doubled the number of participants in its golf school in 2009 and has even bigger plans for this year.
Under the direction of General Manager Tim Krebs, the program was widely promoted on the Play Golf America Web site, as well as Craig’s List, Facebook and Twitter. In addition to six group lessons, East Potomac’s golf package included a $20 range pass, complimentary round on the par 3 courses and a complimentary hour on the range. “We already had an established junior program, but the national (Get Golf Ready) program gave us additional credibility and validity,” Krebs said. “This year we are tweaking the concept a little to develop custom programs for seniors and elementary schools.” Maybe most gratifying, 100 percent of those participating in the Get Golf Ready program at East Potomac have come back to play at least one round.
East Potomac was one of 1,136 facilities certified in the program’s first year. Seven hundred courses reported an average of 25 attendees, and more than 17,000 participants had been confirmed in the program’s first nine months. The golf industry has been talking for years about coming together to grow the game. Get Golf Ready is the best evidence yet that we’re finally doing just that. In my role as chairman of Golf 20/20 in 2010, I look forward to continuing to coalesce the resources and passions of our allied associations behind the growth of the game.
Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box
Innovation and creativity are valuable characteristics in any business, and we’ve seen numerous examples among golf’s owners and operators. One that caught my eye this year came from Irvington, Virginia, and the King Carter Golf Club, where owner Dave Donofrio is taking a novel approach to bringing kids into the game. Actually, he’s borrowing a page from Little League baseball – a game that hundreds of community kids play on fields bordering King Carter’s eleventh and twelfth fairways.
Donofrio’s thinking goes something like this: Why not turn all those Little League teams into a golf league so the Cubs and the Pirates and the Tigers can square off in golf matches as well as baseball games? Plans are for King Carter to begin hosting a competitive golf league next summer, when Virginia’s afternoon temperatures keep a lot of adult players off the course. Play will be from existing family tees set forward to make every hole a par 3. Make it fun for the kids and hope that, in the near term, they’ll pull in their parents and later become avid players themselves, Donofrio figures.
The Children Will Lead Us
Last fall I paid a visit on longtime NGCOA member Al Martell, who helps run Hawthorns Golf and Country Club in Fishers, Indiana. Hawthorns is justifiably proud of its efforts to involve the children of members in all aspects of its operation. In addition to junior golf, tennis and swimming programs, Hawthorns runs kids camps, hosts movie nights, teen dances and offers free child care on weekends so mom and dad can enjoy an evening at the club without worrying about a babysitter. After school, the club’s casual dining facility is a popular place for kids to hang out, do their homework and visit with friends.
Hawthorns believes families are the future of successful club operations. “When we have a family come in here that’s shopping around for a club, we win hands down,” Martell says. “To me, (an emphasis on family) is absolutely the way to go. It’s the only way you’re going to sustain your membership.” Bucking membership trends in 2009, Hawthorns picked up 10 new members, all with children.
Redefining Value in the Post-recession Era
More perseverance, more commitment and more innovation will be required in 2010 because it looks like the long anticipated economic recovery is going to come in fits and starts, rather than in dramatic fashion. But when the worst of the economic maelstrom subsides, there likely will be a new type of consumer left standing.
Experts can’t seem to agree on what post-recession consumers will look like or how they will behave. Some suggest consumption will eventually go back to pre-recession levels. But I have to think that the effects of the recession will linger and produce a more “sober” consumer, one more determined to live within their means and more intent on finding real value before splurging on a second home, a new car or even a round of golf. Retailers and marketers are being advised to prepare by expanding their definitions of value, even incorporating moral or social values into a brand’s meaning. Golf – and all of us – should pay attention. Consumers’ new attitudes and behaviors should
cause us to rethink how we run our businesses.
At the NGCOA, we’re already doing that. One of the areas we have reexamined is advocacy and how we can best represent the interests of our members with regard to regional and national issues affecting their businesses. I’m pleased to report on two strong initiatives:
Your Voice for Golf
), the NGCOA’s legislative resource center linked to our Web site. As those with the most at stake in the success of their businesses, course owners and operators are keenly attuned to how the actions – or lack of action – of government and regulatory groups affect their operations. Knowing that golf is clearly a target of some lawmakers looking for opportunities to fill revenue gaps, we have designed the site to provide insight and clarify the NGCOA’s position on key issues.
The We Are Golf Coalition
is a new approach to exercising golf's voice in Washington that has the support of the NGCOA and leading multi-course management groups along with the PGA of America, CMAA and GCSAA. Similar in purpose to the NGCOA’s Your Voice for Golf, the coalition helps our industry make a compelling case for golf’s contributions to local communities and the national economy. The coalition will build on the 2005 Golf Economy Report, which quantified golf’s annual economic impact as $76 billion and highlighted the fact that golf provides 2 million jobs and $61 billion in wage income. More information about the coalition will be available at www.wearegolf.org
Reexamine, Question Status Quo
This is also a time for owners and operators to rethink their strategies for distinguishing themselves from their competition, increasing participation and growing revenues. Maybe that process will call into question some of the ways you’ve always thought about golf as a game and a business. That was one of our goals as we prepared for the NGCOA’s 2010 Annual Conference in San Diego and assembled respected speakers and business leaders from inside and outside the golf industry for thought-provoking discussions.
But good ideas and support are not confined to the Annual Conference. Your association makes a number of programs and tools available to you every day of the year to help you make informed decisions and operate more efficiently. From purchasing programs that last year saved members more than $1 million to our ever-growing ListServ e-mail community. From the PerformanceTrak financial benchmarking program in collaboration with the PGA of America to player development programs and networking opportunities. I urge you to take advantage of every advantage NGCOA membership affords.
As I close this year’s letter, I want to return to the idea of being thankful. In spite of challenging conditions, I believe we have much to be thankful for. Not the least of which is to work in a profession that brings people and families together for fun and fellowship. At the NGCOA, we’re thankful for the opportunity to serve you. On behalf of our dedicated staff, our officers and directors, I want to thank you for the opportunity to lead this great association. With your help and support, we look forward to another year of distinguished service.
Chief Executive Officer
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