Courses, Destinations & Lifestyles

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GolfStyles Spotlight

Upscale to Downscale & Staying the Course

by Jeff Thoreson

20 years ago when Bob Sturges stood on the first tee of the golf course he was about to debut to the public, he had a vision. The course that spread out before him just a couple of minutes off Interstate 270 in a bucolic rural setting in Frederick County, Maryland, with eye-pleasing views of the distant Maryland foothills would be a place where golfers would come to experience what they couldn’t get closer to the city – a private country club experience that didn’t require an initiation fee, monthly dues or a food minimum; just a daily fee.

Now two decades on, that’s pretty much what he has – an upscale daily-fee course where players might have to drive a little farther to get to but are rewarded with excellent service, conditions and amenities like his new Bar 19 with a panoramic view of the course. But how he got from 1998 to 2018 didn’t follow the script of a well-crafted business plan. Instead, it has been 20 years of innovative ideas, seat-of-the-pants changes, creative marketing brainstorming, and a willingness to adapt to not only a totally different golf economy, but a vastly different golf demographic. And then there are the technological changes that have revamped the way a golf course does business. Everything from aggregating tee times to collecting green fees is entirely different from two decades ago. And all this is before we even start talking about the way social media has changed the game for course owners.

In 1998, Sturges opened Worthington Manor in the midst of the biggest golf boom since Arnie hitched up his pants, flicked away his cigarette butt and led his army to fall in love with the game. But most of the changes modern course owners have encountered were unforeseen, regardless of how good the view was from the first tee.

That year was also in the build-it-and-they-will-come era of golf course development. The National Golf Foundation was telling developers they would need to open a course a day in this country to keep up with the burgeoning demand that would come from the youngsters who were taking up the game and the oldsters who would soon be retiring to the fairways.

Well, the Baby Boomers are retiring but for some reason they largely decided not to take up golf. The youngsters who were once excited about the game are now the Millennials who are shunning it. Sturges and Worthington Manor have managed to stay true to their original vision, and many others have as well. But some courses that were once considered among the best in the region, some among the best publics in the country, simply haven’t been able to maintain.

In looking at which courses survived, which courses died and which courses went from the best to just one of the rest, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to their fate. Forces have worked on different courses in different ways to create an almost random selection as opposed to a Darwinian evolutionary-like survival of the fittest process.

Clearly, golf was over-built when the Great Recession hit in 2008, and that one-two punch knocked out many developer dreams of catering to cash-flush golfers of the pre-recession era. Predictions of the number of new players entering the game fell woefully short, and the huge number of players entering, but then leaving the game was never anticipated. The NGF’s mid-1990s edict about opening a course a day to meet that burgeoning demand was farther off line than Jordan Spieth’s now-famous driving range shot at last year’s Open Championship.

A sampling of course owners and general managers throughout the Middle Atlantic gets us nowhere in trying to pinpoint the reason the game has been unkind to some upscale courses but not others. You might argue, as any real estate developer building anything from a strip mall to a golf course would, that it’s location, location, location. But that doesn’t explain why two courses a few miles apart in Middletown, Maryland, have encountered entirely different fates. Why?

Certainly the difficulty of the course appears to play a factor. Courses like the awesome Virginia duo of Royal New Kent and Stonehouse between Williamsburg and Richmond were built with the idea that maybe golf should be a good walk (or ride, in these two cases) spoiled; that the idea of the game being a walk in the park wasn’t want players wanted. Instead, courses like these offered a mental and physical challenge that, as it turns out, almost no golfer was up to facing. When an 8 handicap shoots 100, he’s not likely to return, and now both RNK – which in 1996 was named the best new public course in the country and in 2007 Golf Digest named it the 16th most difficult course in America – and Stonehouse (the best new course in the country a year later) are gone. But other built-to-be-hated courses like the P.B. Dye Club in Ijamsville, Maryland, which appeared just 10 spots below RNK on the Golf Digest list of treacherous tracks, sallies on. Why?

And just as certainly, the ability of the ownership and the commitment on its part to maintain the upscale attitude during lean times has played a role. At Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Maryland, the thought of being anything but the best public course in the Middle Atlantic was never even entertained, and as a result the Pete Dye-layout has been the epitome of upscale public golf for all of its 20 years. But every owner has its breaking point and there is only so much money to be spent before the “For Sale” sign is hung. And that’s where Bulle Rock now finds itself, dangling uncertainly under a For Sale sign, its fate not yet determined but its commitment to being the best unwavering.

It appears throughout the history of upscale public golf that the For Sale sign may not come with the kiss of death, but it likely means the course won’t recover from what ails it. Once a course changes hands, it usually signals that the downward spiral has become a vortex but, again, not always. Musket Ridge Golf Club in Myersville, Maryland, changed hands and the new owner has not only kept it competitive in the upscale market, but made it even better than it was.

Let’s start by going back to Worthington Manor, where owner Sturges isn’t surprised that 20 years after opening his remains one of the top destination courses in the Middle Atlantic, but is shocked by how he got there. He opened in the era of golf expansion where all a new course had to do was open its doors and players would come. Of course, there was traditional marketing that needed to be done, but as the game contracted Sturges realized traditional concepts were becoming the persimmon driver of the 21st century. He was willing to adapt and was one of the first on the social media bandwagon. Now he’s doing things he couldn’t possibly have imagined on opening day. He keeps in touch with his customers via Twitter, letting them know each morning if there’s a frost delay or what the cart rule is. The course Facebook page is updated almost daily. Sometimes posts promote the indoor golf simulator, sometimes it shows the upcoming weather forecast to entice players to come out. Sometimes it’s as simple as a picture of a cloudless sky over the first fairway.

He and his staff are constantly coming up with promotional ideas to keep one step ahead of the competition. This spring Worthington Manor offered a double rain check if more than one-tenth of an inch of rain fell during your round. And when players arrive at the course, they don’t have to go into the pro shop. Worthington’s iPad-based point of sale system means you can pay your green fee while you’re hitting balls or on the putting green or chatting with your foursome.

“I’m shocked at the things we’re doing,” Sturges says. “I never could have imagined.”

In Middletown, Maryland, the last 20 years have been a tale of two golf courses. At Maryland National ownership remained committed to the upscale model through the downturn in the game. It has maintained its country-club-for-a-day status on outstanding service and conditions that are better than most private country club courses. The drive to Middletown is easy to make when you know you’ll be playing on fast and true greens, carpet-like fairways and plush rough that doesn’t get burned out in the summer heat.

“For us, our ownership group decided it was in our best interest to maintain our upscale level no matter what,” says general manager Ethan Lester. “That gave us the ability to keep standards high. … We are still known for the quality conditions and in return we have increased our rounds allowing us to sustain. Location and quality conditions are high on that list, but I believe the ability to look long term versus short term has paid off for us here.”

About four miles away, Richland Golf Club, which opened as an upscale venue called Hollow Creek in 2002, had difficulty maintaining that level as the game began to contract a few years later.

While the layout was solid, it clearly wasn’t up to the caliber of Maryland National or the third nearby course, Musket Ridge, another Frederick County course that opened with an excellent design, good conditions, and quality service that have been able to maintained.

As there became fewer golfers making the drive to the area, Hollow Creek became the odd course out. It was eventually sold, renamed and is now largely a course for local players with a green fee more affordable and on par with other small-town style courses in the Middle Atlantic. It is not necessarily a bad thing that courses drop from the upscale level to the community course level. There has always been a segment of golfers looking for a bargain and fewer courses fighting for the dwindling number of upscale players willing to drive and pay makes each a little stronger. It’s just that it has been surprising which ones have been forced to make the transition.

In 1996, Augustine Golf Club was one of the first courses into the country club-for-a-day pool, and it made a splash so big that golfers from throughout the Middle Atlantic flocked up or down Interstate 95 to play. The Rick Jacobson-design won a clubhouse wall full of awards and it was the most sought-after public tee time in the Middle Atlantic.

So how did Augustine go from the best to just being in the pack with the rest? The deep-pocketed foreign owner who spared no expense in building the course and clubhouse likely didn’t foresee the competition that would develop between his course in Stafford and the Northern Virginia golfing population base. In 1996 D.C.-area golfers were willing to make the drive because there was no Laurel Hill, Potomac Shores, Stonewall, Westfields or the myriad of options closer to the city.

And he certainly couldn’t have considered the traffic congestion that would develop on I-95 that would make it almost impossible for a D.C.-area player to book a tee time at Augustine and get to the course and back without having to deal with the almost-all-day creeping brigade of commuters. So play on the weekend, you say? Negative. During the summer, vacationers leaving for their annual beach week in Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks turn I-95 into a slow-moving caravan of SUVs packed to the gills with beach umbrellas, coolers, canvas awnings, collapsible chairs, and, yes, golf clubs. But they’re on a beeline for the beach and fly right by the exits for these golf courses.

In 2011 Augustine was sold to the Raspberry Golf Trail, which has tried to resuscitate it but never managed to return it to the status it enjoyed during its glory days. Now it languishes somewhere between slightly above the municipal level, but below the upscale tier. Augustine isn’t the only course in the I-95 corridor that has had to adjust.

In the infancy of the country-club-for-a-day model during the mid-1990s, players were wont to escape the congestion of the courses around the nation’s capital and I-95 was a quick way out of town. The superhighway led to Lee’s Hill in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Built in an area where the local golfing population, and consequently the play on the course, was considerable thinner than back in the city.

In those days golfers were willing to pay a premium green fee and some more on food and beverage. They were more willing to make a drive to avoid the backup at the starter’s shack that had come to define public play around the city. Courses like Lee’s Hill became a nifty day trip, a way to get away, spend a pleasant day on the course with friends and get home in time for dinner. Lee’s Hill was the pioneer in the I-95 corridor, opening in the fall of 1993. It was the very first course review written by this magazine, then called Washington Golf Monthly. We wrote that Lee’s Hill would “assume its rightful place … (among) the best publics within a 90-minute drive of Washington.”

And it did – for a while. Here we are 25 years later and Lee’s Hill is an afterthought of a destination course. Most of its play comes from the Fredericksburg area. And that’s now what owner Jamie Loughan strives for.

“We try to own the local market,” says Loughan, who has been in the golf business in the Fredericksburg area for 32 years and bought the course 10 years ago. “That doesn’t mean we don’t get people to drive down here, we just don’t get them like we once did. Back then people didn’t think anything of driving an hour to play golf. Now in 2018 what we face is many more golf courses up the I-95 corridor.”

Loughan recognizes that traffic can be an issue, and while it has hurt courses along the I-95 corridor, it may have helped courses to the north.

Worthington Manor’s Sturges says that may be the reason he still gets a lot of play from Northern Virginia golfers – it’s a reverse commute for them.

The original owners of Stonehouse and Royal New Kent golf clubs between Richmond and Williamsburg, Virginia, spent millions building the two monumental – and monumentally difficult – courses. RNK was an oversized tribute to Irish golf with expansive fairways, deep bunkers, huge greens, and rugged manmade terrain designed to replicate the Irish experience. Stonehouse was a tribute to traditional American golf. The courses were named the best new course of the year in back-to-back years in 1996 and ’97 thanks not only to their creative design elements, but their artistic postcard looks from hole to hole.

Their excessive difficulty meant adding to the $100 green fee the monetary cost of losing half-dozen balls and the psychological cost of taking a scorecard thumping and the realization that you will have little chance of playing to your handicap when you return.

The grandness of the two courses also meant a maintenance budget that could only be fulfilled with a premium green fee. As golf faltered and fewer players were willing to pay that premium, cutbacks had to be made. That started the downward spiral that led to a weekday $45 round that included lunch, which led to an unsuccessful effort to sell the courses and then to the closing of both last year.

There is any number of similar examples of courses starting hot on one side of the recession and either not coming out the other side at all or coming out weakened and struggling for years before succumbing. But there are also some success stories.

Musket Ridge in Myersville, Maryland, got into that downward spiral triggered by a construction cost in which the financials might have worked had the game continued its expansion of the late 1990s, but clearly didn’t work in a contracted golf economy. The For Sale sign went up and the outlook was gloomy.

A new owner bought the course for considerably less than what it was built for and was able to complete a wedding and banquet facility in a market where such a facility was sorely needed, enabling the course to attract non-golf revenue.

“We care deeply about golfers and have a great team working to capture that business,” says Damon DeVito, president of Affinity Golf Management, which has operated Musket Ridge for both the previous and current owners. “Now we have a deep pockets owner with no debt and we’ve diversified revenue to include a lot of group business-like events. So we’re less dependent on rounds and weather.”

Yet other courses – most notably the award-winning layout at Mattaponi Springs in rural Rutherford, Virginia – have been on the market for years with no takers. Perhaps it is this wonderful Bob Lohmann-design that most acutely defines what we can probably assume is the end of the upscale revolution.

Twenty-five years ago golfers excitedly referred to the new phenomena of country-club-for-a-day public golf as the “upscale invasion,” and we excitedly waited for new course openings, which came at a pace of several each year. We couldn’t wait to get out and play them.

Now we’ve played them all many times. It has been more than a decade since a new course opened in the Middle Atlantic. The thrill of the destination course has subsided, and we have all settled in with our favorites, most within a reasonable distance of where we live. Rising gas prices and a general apathy toward fighting traffic any more than we have to has diminished our willingness visit courses we were once lured to.

We no longer necessarily think public golf as upscale versus municipal. We look for courses that are nearby, pleasing to play and in good condition. And these days at almost every course, whether it was once considered upscale or merely municipal, there are bargains to be had for the price-conscious player. Most have agreements with tee time aggregators, which offer deep discounts on rounds at excellent courses, and, if not, peak time rates give way to late-morning and afternoon discounts, which give way to twilight rates a few hours later. The days of setting a price and having customers happy to pay it are essentially gone.

On opening day at Worthington Manor, Sturges never would have imagined that one day he would give away a free lunch with a paid round of golf. But that’s just another of the successful marketing plans he has implemented to turn customers into regulars – regulars who have helped him keep Worthington Manor competitive in the diminishing upscale arena. [END]