The Road Less Traveled

Columns - Parting Shots

January 21, 2016


One thing that jumps out at me from our new State of the Industry research, it’s that many of you are finding ways to beat the odds.

Yes, in your departments, there is healthy growth on the operations budget and capital spending lines. Clubs and facilities are figuring out they need to invest in the big green thing because that’s why people show up. It’s lovely to have nice clubhouse curtains and a wine cellar full of old bottles, but the golf course is any facility’s heart and soul of and it’s good to see funding for maintenance and construction.

But our new research shows golf is also beating the odds in a larger sense. Specifically, despite the fact the weather has largely been against us and there’s zero indication more people are spending more money on golf, the number of profitable operations continues to grow. When we first started tracking profitability in 2011, only 33 percent of facilities said they were in the black. Now, that benchmark number has risen to a post-recession high of 45 percent.

There are a bunch of reasons for this: better cost management (particularly in unprofitable F&B departments); improved focus on customer service and marketing; trying new things to attract and retain members and outings; intelligent flexible pricing; investing capital in things that will generate more revenue, etc. Mainly I believe good facilities are aggressively stealing market share from poor ones.

The bottom line is we’re finally getting smarter after decades of fat-and-happy dumbness. The recession was a much-needed wake-up call. Now, we’re beginning to run clubs and courses like real businesses instead of half-assed operations that counted on the rising tide of play or their “everybody knows how good we are” reputations to generate revenues. I also believe there’s more accountability and collaboration at the GM and operations level than ever before. Good managers matter greatly.

This is all good news if you’re part a well-run operation evolving along a healthy path to the future. It’s not such a good thing if your operation is mired in golf’s old business model. The market is beginning to bifurcate. That’s a fancy way of saying the gap between facilities that will be successful for decades to come and those that won’t is starting to widen. How can you tell which path you’re on? Here are a few clues…

If your operational mantra is “we’ll be fine once the golf business bounces back” or “all we need is some decent weather” you should update your resume immediately. Doing nothing is not an option.

If your facility doesn’t have a strategic plan, master plan or even a capital improvement plan that addresses key infrastructure issues, you should consider grabbing your parachute and jumping out of the plane before it runs out of gas. The time to start planning for the improvements you need now is five years ago.

If your club or course doesn’t have a strong culture of customer service and a hospitality-first ethic, you may want to pack your bags. In a future where fewer people are likely to seek the club experience or simply don’t play golf as often, making people feel welcome and appreciated is job one.

If there’s an “us vs. them” mentality among your fellow managers, get off the bus. Working in silos and not being on the same page as your peers is a recipe for failure.

This trend toward bifurcation is real and I believe it will accelerate over the next 10 years. Courses that take the road less traveled – the one of investment, focus and smart management – will do well in a future where we all have to fight for a bigger piece of a smaller revenue pie. Those that stick to the beaten path of mediocrity and selling rounds of golf on price will struggle mightily and, perhaps, fail.

So, the golf market of the future will be smaller, smarter and more focused on delivering customer value in multiple ways. Where does that leave superintendents?

Frankly, all signs point to your stock being on the rise…assuming you are on that road less traveled. There is more recognition than ever before that supers are the critical linchpin in the success of good operations. Furthermore, in the regulated environment of tomorrow where water use and inputs are being watched closely, the superintendent becomes a key resource manager who not only has to manage the golf course but document and defend its value to the outside world. Finally, in the smaller, hyper-competitive world of golf in 2026, having a top-quality course will be a given for successful operations. You just can’t do that without a great superintendent.

is editorial director and publisher of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at or 216-393-0253.