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Survival of the Fittest - OR - Fit to Survive

In 1996, when Augustine Golf Club opened it was the quintessential country club-for-a-day venue. Those were the early days of upscale golf and with few competitors at the top of the game’s food chain, it was the destination course of all destination courses in the Middle Atlantic.

Augustine still touts its wall full of “best course” awards from local and national organizations, but the club is not what it once was. Conditions are, at times, horrible. The first-class service has become much more standardized, and the overall experience doesn’t live up to its heyday.

But then, many of its peers aren’t what they once were either. And many of the peers Augustine had in the late 1990s – places like Beechtree in Aberdeen, Maryland, Blue Heron Pines East Course near Atlantic City, King Carter in Irvington, Virginia, Uplands in Denton, Maryland, to name just a few – don’t even exist any more.

So the question becomes: Is surviving as an independent upscale course and maintaining that elite level going to continue to be possible as we deal with a golf economy that is stubbornly stagnant?

Clearly, at this point in golf’s economic evolution, owning a course with a decidedly upscale attitude is still possible. There are plenty of examples, although not nearly as many as 15 years ago. Bulle Rock, Maryland National and Musket Ridge in Maryland are three excellent examples. Wyncote and the Links at Gettysburg in south central Pennsylvania as well. Northern Virginia once had up to a dozen independently owned courses that competed in the upscale marketplace but now, with the exception of the Marriott-affiliated Westfields, you have to go south to Fredericksburg for Mattaponi Springs and Pendleton to find one. Once upscale destination courses in Northern

"All too often
in trying times
owner-operators
tend to cut the
wrong things.
They cut the
maintenance budget. They cut
staff payroll.
They cut
marketing . . .
That can be a
recipe for
disaster.”

Virginia like Augustine, Lee’s Hill, The Gauntlet, Cannon Ridge, The Ospreys at Belmont Bay, Virginia Oaks and Virginia National are now either mediocre local courses or extinct.

Depending on what publications and industry reports you read and who you talk to, the jury is still out on the upscale game’s future. Some are bullish, others not so much.

In a way, the fumbling manner in which some former upscale courses go about business these days makes business easier for the few independent courses that remain dedicated to an upscale product. All the surviving courses have to do is be better than the pack, and that’s becoming less and less difficult. It’s almost like playing poker. Let the competition bury itself.

“It’s simple for us,” says Maryland National general manager Ethan Lester. “We have an ownership group that embraces the vision of high-end destination golf and allows us to continue doing what we do.”

What Maryland National does is provide an Arthur Hills-layout with country club conditions that never waver. The service is always attentive and there’s no nickel and diming. Guests pay one fee that covers golf, cart, GPS and use of the practice facility.

A clubhouse expansion this year has allowed the non-golf side of Maryland National to increase its revenue. Weddings have more than tripled, the clubhouse restaurant, Schroyer’s Tavern, can accommodate bigger parties and outings.

“We decided the ancillary income of food and beverage as well as banquets and weddings is where we could make a huge impact on revenue,” Lester says. “As we all know, golf isn’t getting it done alone.”

A close look at the upscale market these days shows Maryland National is one of the few independently owned courses that has managed to stay on top. A lot of high-end publics have a crutch to lean on. Westfields (Chantilly, Virginia) is attached to the posh Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles resort. Laurel Hill has the Fairfax County governmenet for support. Raspberry Falls has its marketing component the Raspberry Golf Trail. White Clay Creek is an amenity to the horse racing and casino at Delaware Park.

Not having that in-house advantage makes it even more difficult for the independent owner.

But then how does a marquee course like Bulle Rock survive? General manager Damon Klepczynski says many independent owners got on the wrong track as the game’s economy began to falter.

“All too often in trying times owner-operators tend to cut the wrong things,” he says. “They cut the maintenance budget. They cut staff payroll. They cut marketing. I can’t disagree more. That can be a recipe for disaster.”

Those are the things almost every golfer notices, and when a course doesn’t get the greens fee sale, it doesn’t get the potential pro shop sale, the sale at the turn or the post-round beverage sale. And not getting golfers in the door is obviously a problem that has hurt some upscale courses and has been the death knell for others.

“Every course has a website that says the same thing – best playing conditions, best customer service. Consumers are pretty hip today that that’s just lip service,” Klepczynski says.

Klepczynski, who took over at Bulle Rock in 2018, has been at the helm as the owner has restructured its greens fees, created a membership plan and created a post-round atmosphere in the clubhouse that is more in tune with golfers walking off the course rather than a few fine-dining customers that come in nightly.

To the visiting golfer, everything Bulle Rock has come to be known for in terms of quality is still there. But that doesn’t mean Klepczynski hasn’t looked for savings.

“We made a commitment to the maintenance budget, our marketing plan and having quality department heads. We try to get savings when needed from things that least impact the customer.”

That means looking at saving money on big-ticket items like insurance policies right down to the smallest things like buying less expensive table racks to hold condiments.

But not all the golf economic news is dire these days for upscale public courses.

The National Golf Foundation totals the economic impact of golf in the U.S. at $84 billion, up from its $68 billion estimate five years earlier. Of those billions, Virginia’s golf economy contributes about $3 billion, Maryland’s about $1.4 billion, and Pennsylvania’s about $2.5 billion.

That same report says eight of 10 golfers in the country play at public courses and 75 percent of the courses in America are open to the public. On the other side of that coin is that the median cost of a round of golf now is just $35.

But still, with 25 million golfers in this country and 80 percent of them public players (the math works out to 20 million public players) that surely leaves a lot of players willing to play at upscale destination courses.

Tom Clark, who designed many of the Middle Atlantic’s destination courses, says he sees positive movement at many of his once-upscale courses.

“I am really happy to see people putting money back into my golf courses,” he says. “I went to Brickshire (in Providence Forge, Virginia), and it’s 100 percent better. Williamsburg National, 100 percent better. There is some encouragement out there we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Klepczynski agrees: “There’s still room for the high-end daily-fee course, for sure.” [END]