Signs of a well-run club

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One time during a site visit to a real estate golf course, I arrived at the gatehouse and told the guard that I was there to visit the golf pro. “He’s a real grump,” the guard said. “Doesn’t have a lot of friends.” Not a good sign — one that told me a lot about the place, namely that the atmosphere there was on the toxic side.

After 35 years of golf course reporting, I have finally figured out there are some telltale indicators of a well-run facility. Here are the most important of them.

1. Key personnel are on the same page. The general manager, director of golf and superintendent share the same basic commitments, meet regularly, confer on complex decisions, don’t back-bite one another to members and guests, and show respect for each other. Whatever differences of opinion they have are kept private and resolved behind the scenes. They present a common front.

2. Senior staff shows respect for subordinates. The management team members know their frontline personnel and take a genuine interest in their well-being, advancement and skillset. Hourly staff and junior employees are considered part of their team. Veteran employees are valued for their loyalty. Management defends the rights and well-being of the staff in the face of any perceived or alleged indiscretion, whether in the form of sexual or ethnic harassment or mistreatment by the membership.

3. Management is always looking to improve. They are open to suggestions and are willing to listen — even to crackpot ideas — rather than being defensive. If they think an idea has potential merit, they will explore it. If they think an idea is not so well-conceived, they will explain why and how.

4. Rules are kept to a minimum, and only to those that are enforceable. There is nothing in golf more off-putting than walking up to the clubhouse door and seeing a long list of regulations telling you what is prohibited and what is allowed. Of course, a certain decorum is to be expected. But there are ways to go about it and ways that are excessive and obtrusive. And it’s particularly galling when enforcement of the rules is in the hands of subordinate staff members ill-equipped or hardly in a secure enough position of employment to tell longstanding members or their guests what they should or should not be doing.

5. Rules are kept simple. The more detail and specificity to rules, the more oppressive and unwelcoming a place is. I’ve seen rules posted about which rooms in the clubhouse are appropriate for cell phone use, how long women’s skirts can be, what color of men’s socks are appropriate for shorts, when and where jeans are allowed, and who can wear hats indoors and how (not backwards!).

6. Members are clients, not owners. Just because you buy a car doesn’t give you license to run the dealership. The same goes for golf courses, even those that are equity membership. There’s a certain humility that needs to prevail in which the golfer acts out of respect for the institution and the traditions of the facility and there’s an awareness that a certain culture prevails. That entails respect for employees, the grounds and long-term sustainability of the place.

7. All of this pertains to the superintendent, as well, when it comes to course setup. At a well-run facility, there is flexibility in the day-to-day presentation, owing to the mutability of weather, day-to-day usage or staffing. No reasonable club should specify rigidly in advance what the green speed or fairway firmness will be. There are times, such as major tournaments, when goals can be set as benchmarks. But promising in advance or seeking to meet extreme metrics in the face of unusual weather conditions is a formula for trouble.

8. A great indicator of a well-run facility is a general manager who protects the golf course. That means not overloading the place with potentially lucrative outings if it prevents the crew from engaging in needed maintenance practices that require an empty golf course. It means backing up the superintendent if conditions require “cart path only” play or outright closure. It also entails coordinating long-term budget and Cap-X policy so that the club’s needs are being met rather than the golf course being forced to adjust downward because of bad planning.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).