Staying the Course

Whether it's a daily-fee course owned by a municipality or a private 18-hole championship course in an exclusive community, golf industry management professionals agree on one thing: The condition of the course ultimately determines the success of the property. And, the condition of the course depends on the expertise of the superintendent no matter if he works for a board of directors at a member-owned club or if he is employed by a corporation that manages multiple resort courses.

Achieving the right course conditions can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Member-owned clubs most often employ their own golf course maintenance staffs. Golf properties owned by municipalities, individuals or corporations sometimes manage the property themselves and sometimes hire golf course management companies. In all cases, the maintenance staff is supervised by at least one professional superintendent and sometimes by regional superintendents if there are affiliated courses in the area.

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Superintendents employed by management companies universally agree that the benefits of their working arrangements are exceptional. Autonomy in their work, a built-in network of superintendents, career options and advancement, and knowledgeable bosses with similar backgrounds are some of the reasons superintendents like working for management companies. The question then becomes whether those benefits translate into value-added for the properties run by the management companies.

THE EVOLUTION OF GOLF COURSE MANAGEMENT COMPANIES

Golf course management companies evolved because country clubs, resort courses, municipal courses and other golf facilities are businesses first, recreational outlets second. Many courses were struggling because they were being run by members, owners or corporations inexperienced in the business of golf.

Brad Kocher, senior vice president of golf course management for Dallas-based ClubCorp, recalls the way his company's founder, Robert Dedman, summed it up in 1957. “The country club business is nobody's business because it's nobody's business.” That view, and the ability to show golf course owners how he could run their clubs better, gave Dedman a head start in an industry with more than 100 companies today.

“In the eighties, course owners realized that it made sense to run them with common business approaches and cultures,” explains Dean Horn, owner of Franklin Golf in Auburn Hills, Mich. “It's not just about cutting expenses. A lot of people can do that. Growing revenue is the future of this industry.”

HOW MANAGEMENT COMPANIES WORK

Golf management companies come in all shapes and sizes. They conduct business in a wide variety of corporate structures with business models mostly of the owner-operator and management-only varieties.

Franklin Golf, a two-man operation, manages four properties. It owns two of them. In a unique arrangement, the grounds maintenance on one public and one private course managed by Franklin Golf is outsourced to Davey Golf, a division of Davey Tree Service.

“The biggest advantage we offer to course owners is cost containment,” explains John Kirtland, who is in sales and marketing for Davey's Golf and Sports Turf Division. “For the length of the contract, the owners know exactly what's going to be spent each year. For them it becomes a fixed cost. We use that annual budget in a more efficient way because of the size and scope of our operation.”

KEEPING CUSTOMERS SATISFIED

Robert Hertzig, golf course superintendent at Valencia Country Club in southern California, believes his employer, Heritage Golf Group, brings a lot of the same benefits to the courses it owns and manages. With about 35,000 rounds, a 365-day season and PGA Tour events, Hertzig says meeting the members' expectations is his biggest challenge.

According to Hertzig, members have no direct control over the management of the course, but they influence greatly how the course is maintained. “The member advisory board at Valencia tells us what the members want,” comments Hertzig. “This is a high-end property and the members deserve full-time, professionally qualified people to take care of the course.”

Heritage offers its member clubs benefits such as national purchasing agreements based on volume buying. The clubs also benefit from rebates on equipment purchases. Hertzig hires his own staff, about 25 people, and he networks frequently with other Heritage superintendents.

With a structure similar to Heritage, ClubCorp owns about 90 properties and 140 18-hole golf courses. Those include eight at Pinehurst in North Carolina and the equally famous Firestone County Club in Ohio.

ClubCorp utilizes a tiered structure for superintendents. Kocher interfaces with three senior regional superintendents who have responsibility for 17 regional superintendents. The regional superintendents are responsible for four to five properties in the same area.

“ClubCorp has good systems and processes that help us manage consistently,” explains Kocher. “We have exclusive, preferred agreements with vendors to help contain costs of material, equipment and supplies.”

Although courses managed by ClubCorp, Heritage and other corporations give members no direct involvement in course management, they are also spared the assessments endured by many member-owned clubs.

“That's not to say that we never raise dues and fees,” Kocher says. “We do have to use income from those sources to maintain and upgrade the properties.”

Jeffrey Seeman of Long Island Golf Management, Inc. sees that dilemma as a conflict of interest and consequently only manages courses owned by someone else. “I don't look at the bottom line first,” says Seeman. “I look at the turf conditions first and aim for the best conditions in the long run even if it means a little less income in the interim.”

Long Island Golf Management prides itself on doing what golf course owners can't do, don't know how to do and just don't want to do. Everything from running pump stations, to testing lightning equipment, to complying with New York State pesticide regulations is in the company's playbook.

“One thing we're doing is working with developers and architects before a new course is designed,” explains Seeman. “Long-term maintenance is often overlooked. They put of eye candy on the courses without being cost and maintenance sensitive.”

Seeman also helps his clients look at the environmental impact the course will have on a community. “We look at the soil science and chemistry as they are applied to golf courses.”

RESIDENTIAL GOLF COMMUNITIES

New developments are prime candidates for golf course management companies. Hundreds of new communities are built on golf courses by developers who are not in the golf course business. In fast-growing areas such as Atlanta, owners are turning to corporations to buy courses and manage them.

Hamilton Mill in the northeast Atlanta suburbs is a case in point. It was recently purchased by Heritage. Mark Snyder worked as an assistant superintendent there for five years before the sale, but his instincts told him the course would be sold. He started looking for work elsewhere.

Snyder landed at Berkeley Hills Country Club, a member-owned course in Duluth, Ga. He has been the superintendent there for the past five years.

Contrary to Snyder's perception that his job would be in jeopardy when ownership changed, the vast majority of golf course management companies prefer to retain the existing superintendent. Whatever the reason, it is not uncommon for superintendents to be wary of the outcome when a club is sold. Management companies are still working to overcome that perception.

Brad Kocher of ClubCorp is one example of how a transition to a new owner can actually enhance a superintendent's career. In 1975, Kocher worked for Inverrary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. when it was sold to ClubCorp. He has been with ClubCorp ever since and has advanced to his current senior vice president position.

Snyder, this year's president of Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association, maintains his preference for working at a member-owned club. Since graduating from Purdue University in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in turf management, he's worked in the private club environment.

“A recent graduate might get a shot at a superintendent position faster with a management company,” comments Snyder. “I also think that management companies might get locked into suppliers, so superintendents can't shop around for the best deals.”

MEMBER-OWNED CLUBS

Berkeley Hills board member Syd Samples says the relationship Snyder has with the board is a good one, but he admits that the politics at a member-owned club get in the way of good management sometimes.

“It's tough to get new ideas into the mix in an established member-owned club such as Berkeley Hills,” explains Samples. “However, our membership spoke loudly this year by electing younger people to the board who have fresh approaches and new ideas.”

Like Berkeley Hills, the member-owned Country Club of Rochester (CCR) has never looked into management companies as an option for course maintenance. Green chairman Dave Van Varick isn't aware of any other clubs in the Rochester, N.Y. area who have considered hiring management companies.

According to Van Varick, the key to excellence in course maintenance is to find the right superintendent. Throughout his 28-year membership at CCR, there have been only three superintendents.

Rick Holfoth, the current superintendent, managed a $2 million renovation of the Donald Ross course including an entire irrigation system replacement. The extensive work began last July and took place while the course was open.

“The members have been ecstatic during the renovation,” Van Varick notes. “The project is on time and on budget. I just can't imagine any advantage of hiring a management company.”

ENOUGH TO GO AROUND

Although the more established, financially stable, member-owned clubs might not be wooed by what management companies bring to the table, there are plenty of new golf course communities, privately-owned courses and municipal tracks to keep the management companies growing for some time. The successful ones will have planned growth and stay focused on specific geographic areas rather than jump at every opportunity that comes their way.

As Jeffrey Seeman from Long Island Golf Management puts it, “What's on the ground is proof of how good we are.”

Jane Autler is a freelance writer who resides in Lawrencville, Ga.

LIST OF GOLF COURSE MANAGEMENT COMPANIES

Affinity Golf Management, www.affinitymanagement.com/
American Golf Corporation, www.americangolf.com/
Arnold Palmer Golf Management Company, www.palmergolf.com/
Aymerich Golf Management, www.aymerichgolf.com/
Billy Casper Golf Management, www.billycaspergolf.com/
Boca Resorts Incorporated, www.worldbeachnetwork.com/
Boyne USA, www.boyne.com/
Buena Vista Hospitality Group, www.bvhg.com/
Castle & Cook, www.castlecooke.com/
ClubCorp, www.clubcorp.com/
ClubLink, www.clublink.com/
CourseCo, Inc., www.courseco.com/
Crown Golf Properties, www.crown-golf.com/
Del Webb Corporation, www.delwebb.com/Default.aspx
Environmental Golf, www.envgolf.com/
Evergreen Alliance Golf Limited, www.cybergolf.com/sites/courses/eagl.asp?id=118&page=1500
Fore Star Golf, www.forestargolfinc.com/
Franklin Golf, www.franklin-golf.net/
Freedom Golf Services, www.freedomgolfservices.com/
Golf Event Management, www.golfeventmanagement.com/
Golf LLC, www.golfllc.com/
Golf Matrix, www.golfmatrix.com/
Granite Golf, www.granitegolf.com/
H.G. Golf Properties, LLC, www.hggolfproperties.com/
Heritage Golf Group, www.heritagegolfgroup.com/showintro.asp
Hilton Hotels Corporation, www.hilton.com/en/hi/index.jhtml
International Golf Maintenance, www.igminc.net/igm/
Intrawest Corporation, www.intrawest.com/
IRI Golf Group, www.irigolfgroup.com/
Kemper Sports Management, www.kempersports.com/
Links Group, www.seeq.com/popupwrapper.jsp?referrer=&domain=linksgroup.com
LinksCorp, www.linkscorp.com/
Long Island Golf Management, Inc.,
Marriott Golf, www.marriott.com/default.mi
MasterLink Club Services, www.masterlinkinc.com/
Masters Golf Corporation., www.masters-golf.com/
Maxwell Golf Group, www.maxwellgolf.com/
Meadowbrook Golf Incorporated, www.mggi.com/meadowbrook/
Medallion Golf Management, www.medalliongolf.com/
National Fairways Incorporated, www.nationalfairways.com/
Paradigm Golf Management, www.paradigmgolf.com/start.html
Redstone Golf Management, www.redstonegolfmanagement.com/
Toll Brothers, www.tollbrothers.com/homesearch/servlet/HomeSearch
Troon Golf, www.troongolf.com/
TSC Golf, www.tscgolf.com/
Western Golf Properties, www.westerngolfproperties.com/

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