Thursday, November 21, 2013

'Green' Saturday

green saturday.001

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Tree Paradigm

Beautification committees, along with renegade green chairmen have ruined many golf great holes, and for that matter, entire golf courses throughout the United States.  Well-meaning as they may be or have been in the past, there has been a recent groundswell of clubs who have said enough.
Once great layouts, designed in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40‘s...sadly look unrecognizable today.  The fifty-yard corridors with multiple options and uneven fairway lies have been replaced by U.S. Open-sized landing areas with (obligatory) over-grown clusters of trees on courses that rarely hold anything more than a local invitational tournament once per year.
There is a reason why golf participation is shrinking.  Sure money is a factor, but difficulty and time to complete a round are frequently cited as reasons some drop the sport altogether.
The reality is, few eighteen handicaps enjoy searching endlessly for balls on twenty-eight yard wide fairways.  Most aren’t adept at hitting off bare lies under trees or worse, hitting off exposed roots.  And as these same golfers age, so do the trees they are forced to play around.
Unfortunately, unless your club was designed pre-1950 by the likes of a Ross, Raynor, Tillinghast, or Mackenzie, the very mention of cutting a single tree is tantamount to concreting the club pool or removing Hot Dogs from the menu.
The fact is trees, while beautiful and life-sustaining, have little value when it comes to the actual play of golf.  Trees should be the backdrop, not the focal point, with very few exceptions.  The evidence of this philosophy is backed by many of the top 100 courses  in America who believe par should be defended on the ground.  Meaning, if a player hits a shot to an “approved” position, the degree of difficulty for the next shot should be rewarded appropriately.
When the true impact of trees are brought to light, it is interesting that the burden of proof to ‘cut or leave be’ is always laid upon the person with the chainsaw rather than the neophyte, young or old, who has never taken the time to study the basics of golf course architecture.  I’ll admit, this process isn’t an easy one to broach as it relates to Private Clubs and Club members, but the best starting point should be to challenge the existence of each and every tree, regardless of age.  This could sound like semantics, but instead of asking “why cut”, the real question should be, “why keep”?
Defending par via trees, (or what my friend, Vinnie Kmetz likes to call, ‘sky bunkers’) in truth, is ignorance.
A.W. Tillinghast believed, “we may play around trees but certainly the only route to a hole must never be over or through them…we must not have them directly by our putting greens (and) not too close to the line of play”.
H.S. Colt said, "a tree is fluky and obnoxious form of a hazard, because a tree can obstruct and/or stymie one ball without even affecting another ball located just a couple of feet away”. 
The first thing to consider when assessing the value of any tree on a golf course is whether or not you can live with the negative impacts they have on the surrounding turf grass, namely thin or bare lies, whispy grass, and/or exposed tree roots.
P1070712 The surrounding turf here doesn’t stand a chance. can find your ball, but would you want to play off of this?
Jeff Harris of Harris Golf, a Maine-based course developer, contractor and operator, said, “The final and easiest argument to make against trees on the golf course comes from an agronomic standpoint.  Simply put, trees have no agronomic benefit to the turf grass on the golf course. They create shade, steal moisture, and out-compete turf grass for vital nutrients.
My week old Vokey played from beneath a tree.
The second factor to contemplate is the impact on playability for all handicaps.
Does a single tree or cluster of them hang over the fairway?  Is an eighteen handicapper with a twenty-yard slice typically blocked by a tree after hitting the fairway (i.e. planting trees in the corner of a doglegs) while his low-handicap counterpart on the same line twenty yards ahead has a clear shot?  Do players frequently lay-up because of a tree or cluster of them?  If so, they need to be removed.
hole3 Here we have a twenty-five yard landing area with a small creek at the end of the fairway...and this ubiquitous tree which seems to block mostly mid-high handicaps who have neither the length or accuracy to do anything more than punch out on this 397 yard par 4.  How good would this hole be if the tees were moved up 40-50 yards and this giant eyesore was removed?
IMG_2702Par 5 shown from approximately 240 yards away.  ‘Sky bunkers’ on the left force players to lay-up to the right (boring), when four (actual) bunkers already block approaches (two shown) and two more bunkers in the foreground block lay-ups, laid up too far.  This could be a great (and difficult) risk/reward 2nd shot as the green in the foreground is sized to received a short iron.
Third, does a tree or cluster block a prescribed landing zone; meaning in-flight or on its descent.  If so, it should be removed.
Hole9_CorvallisThis is what Dr. Brad Klein calls, ‘Vertical Bowling’.   
Twenty-eight yard wide, pinched in fairways = no fun.
P1090561This can quickly become a par 8 for the player with a twenty yard slice.
Fourth, how much are trees costing your club in maintenance each year?
We have already discussed how trees increase water and chemical demand by robbing adjacent turf from nourishment, but what about the time your maintenance crew spends mowing around trees, and if the turf isn’t dead (yet), trimming?  Have you ever considered the additional time to continually sharpen and purchase new blades that are impacted by exposed tree roots or worse, re-pave cart paths due to their close proximity to a tree or cluster of them?
Tree roots eat blades.
P1000273 Don’t cut trees, instead repave?
Some members may frown upon the use of natural areas to replace tree corridors, due to the increased chance for lost balls, but the fact is, they save thousands of dollars every year in maintenance costs.  If your fairways are pinched in like bowling alleys, natural areas may be a tough sell, but with a proper rough buffer, natural areas increase aesthetics and turf quality.
Fifth (and this point really comes down to personal preference) are the vistas gained by opening up the course, in general.
Holston Hills Country Club in my hometown of Knoxville, TN went through a massive restoration a few years ago and the results speak for themselves with regard to the stunning views now afforded on so many holes that were formerly cluttered with trees.
IMG_2418Holston Hills Country Club, 10th hole.
IMG_2414Holston Hills Country Club, view across #18 and beyond
So what factors should one consider when deciding to keep trees?
  1. Does it form a sound barrier from adjacent housing, but not impact shot-making?
  2. Does it provide an aiming point in the distance for tee shots, but not typically impact a properly played shot to the fairway?
  3. Does it shade a bench on a hole where back-ups occur and but not hang over the tee box?
  4. Does it provide safety for players on neighboring holes from errant shots, but not affect playability or shot-making?
“This is all well and fine, but my course was not designed by a Ross or a Raynor.  Most of our membership is older and believe that trees add beauty, and when cornered, many fear the course will become too easy for better players”.
It really doesn’t matter who designed your course.  What matters is the overall enjoyment and playability for all handicaps.
Yes, courses with more of a pedigree are easier to ‘clean-up’, but to claim the course will become too easy for the better player is hog wash.  First, low handicappers make up less than 5% of your membership, so who cares?
Second, they aren’t affected by twenty-eight yard wide fairways and ‘sky bunkers’ like the high handicappers that make up the majority of a clubs membership.  If anything, handicaps might improve by a shot or two for the high handicapper, but many positives will be gained by thinning out needless trees.
Alister Mackenzie stated, “there are more mistakes in designing a golf course by attaching too much importance to the element of luck and there is too much of that very element in having to negotiate with trees”.
Donald Ross thoughts were, "as beautiful as trees are, we must not lose sight of the fact that there is a limited place for them in golf." 
So why is there so much reluctance, obstinance and even anger when it comes to ‘smartly’ discussing the return of lost corridors and the improvement in turf quality when greens committee across the country meet?
When you look at the shear volume and clarity with which the greatest architects who have ever lived have opined, one can only conclude the fight is an educational issue.
After all, how many green committee’s require their participants read at the very least, Donald Ross’s, “Golf has never failed me”, Mackenzie’s, “Golf Architecture", or the more recent work of Tom Doak’s, “The Anatomy of a Golf Course”?
If influence, stubbornness, playing ability, and/or tenure continue to be the hallmark of a ‘good’ green committee member, than the greats of our past and their beliefs about how a hole or course should play will be just that...history.
With sound principles and a little self-education, I bet many of us are playing on unpolished gems!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reciprocals 2.0

Ask a perspective member behind closed doors about one of the knocks against joining a Private Club, outside of monthly dues + steep initiation fees and they will probably cite, ‘having to play the same course again and again’.
It is a valid concern, especially if they have a good selection of upscale public options already available, but in reality, it should be a non-issue.  The problem is, few clubs have formal reciprocal agreements in place as an option for this often heard objection, and fewer actually use them to their benefit (as a selling point).
Forty and fifty years ago, Clubs and Club Professionals were honored when an out-of-town member of another Private club chose to visit their club for the day.  In certain pockets of the Northeast United States it is still the case, with many clubs charging cart/caddy fee (only) or fully comping the guest(s) round as a courtesy to the members Golf Professional.
For the most part, that courtesy is dead today.  Instead, we have companies like Private Club Network, The Outpost, and Elite Tee who have (sadly) cashed in on something that should be part of any Private Club membership.
“C’mon, our members know if they are out of town and want to play another Private Club…all they have to do is speak with our Head Professional and he can, in most cases, arrange it”.
I won’t deny that many members (probably) know this, but why then do the aforementioned businesses even exist?
  1. Communication – fewer and fewer Clubs are engaging one another like in years past.  Part of the reason is, there are more clubs in existence, but many don’t see the value in driving three hours away with a few key staff members to share best practices with clubs that are outside of their market, yet could be a strategic partner.
  2. Ease/Convenience – some members feel like they are asking for a special favor by requesting a tee time out of town and don’t want to feel like they owe their Pro.  One call or email to third-party, for some, feels better and is often faster than ‘putting’ their Pro out.
  3. Open pricing – once you become a member of one of the third party groups, you receive a complete list of courses, by state and by city, each with corresponding fees.  Open pricing means members don’t have a chance of being embarrassed because a reciprocating course came back with a higher-than-the-member-was-willing-to-pay-fee.
Elite Tee, one of the more popular third party web-based reciprocal businesses, piled on with this email just this morning, “If you belong to a private course, chances are you already have reciprocal deals with local courses, but they are often informal agreements which must be pursued by getting one course pro to contact another. After consulting with many Head Pros the common consensus is that they feel that they are spending more and more time arranging rounds for their members and it takes them away from their primary responsibility as a Head Pro. This arrangement usually results in confusion over how much should be charged and a feeling from visiting golfers that they are somewhat of an inconvenience”.
If this doesn’t insult your Head Golf Professional and his staff, than maybe Elite Tee has a point?  A five-minute call is a hassle?  If this is true, than our industry is in worse shape than I ever thought.  I can only guess how “inconvenient” ordering shirts or wedges must be?
Obviously, there is a market and more importantly, a benefit to Private Club members being able to play an occasional round away from their home club.
One club that gets it, is Stafford Country Club, in Stafford, NY.  The club sits on a classic, Walter J. Travis design and reciprocates with twenty-four clubs within the area.
I recently spoke to Julie Haile, Golf Shop Manager at Stafford CC about the details of their reciprocal program.  The club is a model for how to administer and view reciprocal agreements in their proper light.
Mrs. Haile said, “We view reciprocals as an extension of our own club, as do the other clubs in the area.  We aren’t trying to make money on our agreements as much as give our members a place to play, on the off-chance they don’t want to play their home club on a particular day or for instance, when we have a tournament going on.  With that said, we have all agreed to extend this privilege for cart fee only.  Members are already paying enough in dues, and if we have the space in off-peak times, we are happy to have guests much the same as other clubs are happy to have our members.  We see it as a win-win for everyone within our Private Club community”. 
I asked Mrs. Haile about how the membership would feel if they took the program away and she quickly said, “I think we would hear about it!  We did around 500 reciprocal rounds at our club last year and sent out close to 800 rounds to our sister clubs.  Members can play a maximum of (3) rounds per year at neighboring clubs with our closest club being forty-five minutes away and our furthest is probably three hours out”.
Mrs. Haile went on to say, “the neatest thing is when a guest comes to one of our stag nights or plays in one of our daily events.  Even though they aren’t our member, we try and make them feel like they are, and treat them as such.  You would be surprised to hear some of the ideas we get from guests and vice-versa”.
I intentionally spoke with multiple clubs that didn’t have a formal reciprocal program in place.  When I was able to reach the Head Pro, the conversation was usually abrupt and dismissive with concerns such as:
  • “…too difficult to administer”.
  • “We don’t think enough people would use them”.
  • “We don’t want just anyone playing our club”.
When I spoke to the Assistants instead, who all asked to remain anonymous, the conversation was quite different with many agreeing it would be a great way to keep members and add value to their overall membership.
Getting started is exceedingly easy and with cold weather upon us, now is the best time to move forward:
  1. Draw a 180 mile circle around your club and determine like clubs for each city.  If you are a full service Country Club and still have an initiation fee, for example, seek out sister clubs (who you probably already know well from PGA chapter meetings) and introduce the idea.  Two clubs per city or area would be ideal.
  2. Determine a fair price for the member.  Is this a service for your membership or a way to build a fitness center by years end?  By in large, the more you ask in fees, the less likely many members will utilize the service.
  3. Set a fair number of times visiting clubs can utilize the service.  Some limit reciprocals to (4) rounds per year, others allow (1) round per month.
  4. Agree on when members can utilize the service, for example, on holidays or weekends, or after certain times in the afternoon.  Standardization is best when setting agreements up with multiple clubs.
  5. Determine how the member will pay for the service.  Some allow charge-back privileges while others believe having the member use their credit card is simpler for everyone.
  6. …And most importantly, advertise the program to your membership!  If they don’t know about it, they won’t use it.  And with regard to perspective members; utilize the service as a sales tool.  This could be the one benefit that tips the scales in your favor.
Many clubs that adopt a formal reciprocal program report higher member satisfaction than those who do not.  Could this be a great opportunity to promote cross-town interclub and/or Ryder Cup type matches?  What about “cross-over” weekends where a couple of times per year each club actively promotes playing a sister club? What if your next great idea came out of a member visit to a reciprocating club?  All good reasons to get started now!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Genius idea #6

I just got back from Myrtle Beach, SC with my family and upon our arrival, the front desk rep recommended what felt like a time machine restaurant.  Doobie Brothers, followed by Toto, followed by The Little River Band.  Dark interior.  It should have been called a "lounge".  

And of all places...I find Sugar Scrub in the bathroom for their guests...but I wouldn't use it, members only like the "Club Classic" brand.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Referrals 2.0

A steady flow of referrals is and should be the lifeblood of any relevant club.  Traveling the Southeast for over fifteen years and playing multiple guest rounds has (unfortunately) taught me one thing:  Clubs just don’t care as much as they pretend to when it comes to bringing new people in.
Why do I say this?  Because they all do the same two things:
  1. Hound their membership for referrals with poorly incentivized programs.
  2. Ignore the guests that walk in their doors every day.
Number one is the easiest to fix.  Number two, however, takes a little creativity, but with a concerted effort, can easily separate you from the pack when it comes to attracting new members.
A few years ago, I was tapped to join a selection committee for a new GM at my club.  Like most private clubs, ours was struggling for members and was looking for someone that could bring fresh eyes and perspective to an aging membership.  The gentleman we selected in the end, Jerry, demonstrated the most creativity and promised a new direction and attention to detail we had not seen.  I was skeptical.
After meeting with him in person and discussing membership recruitment and the concept of multiple touches, Jerry latched on immediately and said, “you let me know ahead of time that you have a guest, and and I’ll handle the rest”.
A few weeks later, I set up a round with a couple of business associates.  Per Jerry’s request, I phoned him a day early to let him know who was playing, what time we would arrive, and a little about each guest.
When we arrived at the grill room before our round, Jerry came out and personally introduced himself to each guest, chatted a bit, and brought us an appetizer (on the club).  When my guests entered the pro shop, they were introduced to the Assistant Pro, Justin, and each were given a locker for the day.  Justin shook their hands and said, “we have range balls ready for you if you would like to warm up.  We also have your names on your cart for today, I’ll follow you out and help you load up for your round.  We really appreciate you coming out”.
Midway through our round, one of my guys sees a cart in the distance coming our way.
Guess who?  You got it!
“Hey guys, I just wanted to thank you again for coming out.  If there is anything I can do, please let me know.  I hope you have a good rest of the day”.
Both of my guests had played at the club in the past, but both beamed, “…we have never been treated like this, anywhere”!  
On a 1-10 scale, how memorable would you say this round was for my guests?  Did this take a little time, effort, and coordination to pull off?  Sure…but this is what the concept of multiple touches and being memorable is all about.
When your members bring guests, what do you do to make them feel special (and make your member look good)?
  • Invite them to an upcoming clinic?
  • Do you ever meet them on the range to offer a tip or two before teeing off?
  • Give them a voucher for dinner?
  • Do you send them a hand-written thank you for playing?
  • Do you invite them back to play with your head pro personally?
  • Do you have a personal policy to meet all guests in the 19th hole after their round to get their opinion on your club?
If you are (still) struggling for where to find new members, chances are they are walking through your doors every day, you just have to look for them.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Genius idea #5

This is my friend Lamar's locker, pretty impressive!  Equally impressive is the forethought of the club to recognize his achievements.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's Rarely the Money

With the Masters tournament complete, many clubs are excited about the prospect of bringing on new members.  Enticing new people should always be a top priority, but it does little for moving the club forward if at the same time current members are departing.
Two of the biggest head-scratchers as it relates to membership retention continues to be the failure of clubs to recognize who is about to leave…and worse…saving those thatshould still be members, but have resigned.
The first issue is fairly simple and has been addressed in past Pillars of Golf articles.  In short, identify your bottom 10% “spenders” and meet with them (in person) if possible.  Those are the most likely to leave.
The second issue should be loads easier to identify, since most clubs require a thirty day notice before a member can resign, but this is where many clubs freeze.  How?  Many have no step by step resignation process or procedure in place.  In fact,  I would lay money that nine times out of ten, clubs (gasp) don’t even bother to have lunch with the about-to-resign member?
marquee abingdon
Can’t we all agree that keeping a member is at least fifty times easier than getting a new one?
“…but everyone says they are resigning because of the money?  How are we supposed to fix that”?
In the sales world, there is a little known nugget of truth called the “rule of three”.  The rule of three states that, “the (first) reason the prospect/customer gives you for not moving forward is never the real issue, it is usually three levels deeper”.  In other words, money may be a possible indicator of why they are resigning, but likely, not what is really going on.  For our purposes, it would be best to assume it isn’t the money, because in truth, it rarely is…but you will have to dig a little to find out.
It sounds something like this, “Fred, I got your resignation letter and I gotta tell you, I am really sorry to see you go.  I know you referenced financial reasons for dropping your membership and I can appreciate that.  Can we talk a little bit about your experience at the club?  What I would really like to know is…how can we improve”?
More than likely they will open up because, 1) people love to be heard and in most cases, 2) few ask for their honest appraisal.
A brief checklist of every area of your club over lunch is the best approach.  The key is have the member score each question/area either numerically or with a letter grade.  As you work through the questions, ask without justifying or defending, or you will run the risk of shutting them down.  For example, “Fred, you gave our pro shop staff a 7, in your view, how could I move them to at least a nine”?  
If you hear all high marks…than money is the most likely scenario for them choosing to leave.  After all, who would leave if your club hit all of their hot buttons…consistently?
If you hear average to low scores, than you know it is likely more than just money.
For example, “Fred, you mentioned it was hard to get a tee time a week ahead of time…can you tell me a little more about that”?
Fred:  “Well, I usually call 5-10 minutes after the club opens one week ahead of time and inevitably there are three tee times left in a three hour span?  You can’t tell me that in five minutes, 16 out of 18 tee times are already taken”.
Or another…”Fred, it sounds like you are frustrated by the number of outside events we have, can we talk a little more about that”?
Fred:  “We are a private club!?!?  I barely play in the winter due to the weather, then I figure nearly 2-3 weeks in the fall and spring you can barely play due to aerification…and on top of that we book twenty tournaments.  It’s too much”.
One more…”It sounds like you are frustrated by the two sets of rules at the club, can you explain what you meant by that”?
Fred:  “Well…if you are part of Walter’s group, it seems you can drive your cart wherever you want, get drunk in front of my family while dining, and cuss all you want after errant shots…and nobody says a word because he and his group have been here for twenty years.  You guys want new members all of the time, but who wants to come when fifteen guys ruin it for the other 350?  Clubs to me are about respect…for everyone”.
Note:  For the sake of space, I am over-simplifying how easy people will speak up, but the point is, this will/should be done over a 45-60 minute lunch and over that amount of time, and with a sincere attitude to listen and fix things, the real reason(s) will probably surface for their decision.
Once you gather all of the data from the exit interview the next step is to try and save them as members.  Does your club have a hardship or medical leave policy in place?  Can the board or GM, at their discretion, freeze a membership or move the member to a social category for a few months?  If so, offer one of these as an option…90% of the time, the member will take you up on it, and more than likely stay.
“Fred, what if I could put you on a temporary leave?  We could give you some time to get back on your feet.  In the mean time, if we can fix some of the more pressing issues you have brought up and your financial situation improves, do you think we could get you to rethink things”?
With Fred temporarily frozen, now is the time to work on any issues that came to light from your meeting.  More than likely, other members are sitting in silence and could be your next “Fred”.
Most clubs do a poor job communicating why people like Fred leave, but in reality it should be as important as the price of fertilizer going up, a menu change, or whether to add another tournament to the schedule.
Think about how many people resign from your club per year and next ponder how likely they will be to return if you ignore them?
If you don’t have a formal process in place, develop one.  A one-two page questionnaire may seem long, but again, many people will give you their honest opinion if you are truly concerned.  When you consider how hard it (typically) is to bring in new members, the time and effort to save the ones you already have is really small in the grand scheme of things.  And on the off-chance you don’t or can’t save them, you’ll have really good data moving forward.
Good luck!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pro Shop Stimulus?

Are you tired of the dotcoms and jumbo nets stealing your business?  Why not offer something you know they can’t pull off…just to see what happens?  Will you get additional lessons from something like this?  You’ll never know until you try.
golf lesson promotion.001