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Tee Times Magazine | Minneapolis/St. Paul

Breezy Point

Local Golf
August 17, 2017

New Driving Range at Braemar
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New Driving Range at Braemar
Bakker Crossing #9
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Bakker Crossing #9
By Kevin Norby

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at what golf course owners and architects consider before making changes to their golf course.

In the 1980s and 1990s, American golf architects were building new golf courses at an astonishing rate. Land development was booming, people felt secure in their jobs and the National Golf Foundation had declared that Americans would have to build a golf course a day to meet demand. All of that changed with the housing bust and the economic downturn of 2008. However, for the past two years, we've seen a strong resurgence in the golf world. The nation's economy is getting better, rounds are creeping up and many clubs now have waiting lists again. After years of budget cuts and deferred capital improvements, many of our clients are now calling looking for advice on what they can do to improve their bottom line and increase their share in the local golf market. For private clubs, this often means adding new amenities and an emphasis on attracting new members. For public daily-fee courses, this means looking for ways to increase rounds and green fee revenue.

Here are three things golf course owners are taking into consideration in this changing golf economy:

Define Your Niche
Before making changes, it is important to identify the golf course's niche in the local market. It stands to reason that the typical customer at a private club has different expectations than the typical golfer at municipal course or entry-level par-3 course. Where a member at a private club may be looking for exceptional conditions and a strategic challenge, the entry-level or average golfer is likely more concerned about the price and just looking to have fun. In fact, the average golfer may not be concerned about the strategy of the game at all - they may not even keep score. As golf architects, identifying the target customer tells us how to design the golf course, which improvements are most important and where an owner should spend their capital improvement or advertising dollars.

We often work with market analysts and golf strategists like Golf Convergence to help us look beyond the obvious architectural improvements to insure that the improvements we propose will actually translate into a financial benefit.

Know Your Customer
It's interesting to me how often the owner or Green's Committee Chairman is out of touch with their customer or membership base. Often times this is because they are hearing from the most outspoken 5 or 10% of their customers that what they want are new back tees or faster green speeds. However, in reality, the silent majority may be thinking the course is too difficult, there are too many trees or the bunkers aren't consistent. As architects, we think it's important to involve the golf professional and golf course superintendent. They are the guys that talk to the customers and so usually have a good understanding of what the real issues are at their course. Spending money to reduce forced carries, remove trees and building new forward or senior tees may be money better spent to increase membership and revenue.

In some markets, the smart move might even be to reduce the course from eighteen holes to nine holes or to shorten a 7,000 yard regulation course to an eighteen-hole executive or short-regulation course and re-purpose the remaining land as commercial or residential real estate. It's not uncommon for me to go into a city and find four or five public courses all charging nearly the same rates and targeting essentially the same customer. This would be like having a Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler dealership in the same town, but nobody selling Cadillac, Lexus, or BMW. More often than not, the owner's idea of competition at those courses has been to focus on adding new back tees, building a bigger clubhouse or dropping their season pass rates a few dollars below the competition. They may have spent money to rebuild their bunkers or install a new irrigation system but, at the end of the day, they are still all competing for exactly the same customer and charging essentially the same price. Whatever an own does, before making significant changes, they need to make sure know who their customers are and what product their competition is offering.

Differentiate Your Course
Once they've identified who your target customer is, it is my belief that owners and operators need to look for ways to differentiate their course from their competition. In smaller markets, this may simply mean a renovation geared towards improving course conditions and the visual quality of the course. In larger markets, this might mean re-positioning the course to provide a unique experience and improve playability. For most courses, adding more length is simply not the answer. We've all heard it said, "Golf is too difficult, too expensive and takes too long to play."

In order to increase revenue and improve market share, there are a number of things that can be done to differentiate one course from another. It may be a unique bunker style, an improved driving range or simply new sand in the bunkers. At a private club, the answer may be converting fairway turf, building a new short-game practice facility, adding a swimming pool, exercise facility or other unique amenity.

Kevin Norby is the owner and principle at Herfort Norby Golf Course Architects.

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