Municipal Golf: The Best May Be Ahead

By Forrest Richardson, ASGCA and Richard Signer, National Golf Foundation
(Reprinted from Parks & Repcreation Magazine, ©2008 all rights reserved)

When golf arrived in the U.S. it did not catch on immediately. In the early years the transplanted game from the British Isles was reserved for the wealthy. Van Cortlandt Golf Course in New York City would be the first of many "municipal" courses, open spaces that were truly "open." But it took some time for the words "public" and "golf" to be fully joined. While many classic courses were created during the 1920s and 30s, a whopping number were private country clubs. Public courses were often crude in comparison and it was rare to find them on the best terrain. It must be appreciated that ability to move massive quantities of soil to shape and form golf courses was only realized after WWII. Prior to that it was the norm for a golf course to be routed naturally, usually across interesting terrain with very little construction. Golf for the masses was rarely located on interesting terrain, a lesson that modern developers (both private and public sector) seem not to have learned.

It was during the 1950s through the 60s that municipal golf in the U.S. took deep roots. A majority of our golf courses are of this vintage - post WWII and pre-1980s. Parks and recreation departments from coast to coast seemed to get on the bandwagon during this era. Not only was it popular to build golf courses, but it was profitable. A well run municipal golf operation in the 1960s had the ability to return more than $100,000 to the bottom line. Put that in current dollars and it was quite a business. Dig deep into the finances of nearly any busy golf course run by a city in the 1960s or 70s and you will find traces of profits. Often banked in "enterprise funds," or simply returned to the general fund, the dollars from golf were hard to pass up. Even small communities were getting into the action.

Then came the 1980s, 90s and our leap into the new Century. Not only did the face of golf change, but it brought major consequences to the public sector. Municipal golf was now feeling some pain. What was once a windfall component to a parks operation began, at least in many instances, to become a tough business model. The reasons are many, but the primary hurdles in recent times have been increased competition from privately operated courses. As many private developments have been restructured the result is very often lower fees for golfers. At a certain point the "territory" of the typical municipal golf facility is penetrated by increased competition.

So, is there a bright side for Municipal Golf? The answer is a qualified "yes." In our work to help golf courses sort through the issues facing their operations we look for trends. Today, more than ever, the trends we see have common ground. Simply put: Our research and analysis shows that golf in much of the public sector has lost its way. Profits, which were once the norm, are being replaced with red ink and escalating debt. Very often the decisions of management become urgent. Sadly, many once-great public courses operated for the public good are in a crisis situation.

No set of solutions can be applied to every situation. But what follows are the Top Ten areas of concern we see for Municipal Golf. They represent a decent checklist for the public sector golf operation. We suggest that you hold your operation up to each, asking whether everything that can be done is being done. Is your current operation paying attention to these areas? What about future planning? In nearly every situation we have studied, had more priority been given to these essential areas it would have made a great difference for the better.

1. Imitation at All Cost

There is something to be said for imitation. Very often it is the lessons gained from private sector models that get applied to government-run operations. The trick, of course, is to adopt the positive and avoid the pitfalls. For example, choosing the best land for a golf course has always been key to the success of a course. Look at any beloved golf course and you will find pleasing terrain, whether rolling land, dramatic views or a park-like setting. Far too often, especially in modern golf development, left-over land is put to use for golf. This approach, while the results can be great, typically requires more investment to create that positive transformation. In nearly all instances, more operational cost will be required. While it is too late to change the site for existing courses, understanding the reality of a tough site is instrumental to long range planning.

In what areas has your golf operation followed the private sector that may have been ill-advised? Can these be corrected?

2. The Big Budget Mentality

Another form of imitation is the temptation to invest too heavily in golf. While the higher-end municipal course may be the ideal model in one community, it is a very tough path to take when competitive facilities have already embedded themselves in a market. Whether you are dealing with an existing course or have plans for a new course, the greatest benefit of the municipal operator lies in the ability to take a perspective that is not afforded to the private sector. Following in the footsteps of the private golf developer should be carefully weighed. The chances are good that you need not look far to see some failures in golf. Sadly, they are have been too frequent.

Debt service is among the worst offenses. The "Warranted Investment" is too often arrived at by looking through rose colored glasses. A big budget does not always equal a big return. One of the greatest hallmarks of the municipal golf course is the ability to offer an honest and simple product, yet one that is remarkably sought after.

Whether a new project or a renovation undertaking, has there been a "Warranted Investment Analysis" prepared? Perhaps more important, does your team have the capabilities to perform such an analysis?

3. Build It and They Will Come

We know this does not hold true, but we see the belief put to practice all too often. If you are the proud owner of a golf course that may not have been well thought out, you need to understand how that situation might be transformed for the better. It may require tough decisions and wholesale changes to arrive at a new outcome. Fewer holes, a re-tooled course, and redevelopment options for portions of the property are all at play in current times. Golf courses are supposed to be assets. But only when we look at them as assets are we able to get them on track. Do you know the value of your golf operation? Besides its benefit to the community, what is it really worth?

4. The Competition

It surprises us how often we find that municipal operators do not have a grasp on their competition when it comes to golf. This may be traced to the times when there was little or no competition. Today it is rare to find a market where the municipal golf course enjoys a non-competitive situation. The very same emphasis that applies to business - and indeed the "business" of operating any city, county or park district - is essential in operating a golf course. The days of waiting for the customers to show up in the parking lot, often lined up at dawn for a tee time, are gone. The modern public sector golf operation needs to be oiled like machine, adapting, nimble and reactive.

How long does it take to implement rate changes? Has your system tied the hands of the golf operation? What would it take to be more competitive, and what could that mean to the bottom line?

5. It's Alive! It's alive!

Golf courses are living, breathing entities. Their benefit as open space (an 18-hole course produces enough oxygen for a town of 7,000 people) is evidence enough that they are not static. The investment to build a course pales in comparison to the long term costs of operation, maintenance and capital expenditures. As a golf course operator (and owner) it is imperative to fully appreciate the nature of golf and the reality that each component will eventually need to be replaced, upgraded or restored. The playing conditions and beauty are dependent on what lies beneath the surface. Infrastructure such as irrigation, drainage, and root zones do not last forever.

The details of a golf course are often overlooked in favor or doing things the old way. Turf reduction plans, using less water and having less managed turfgrass can all be accommodated when we look at courses with an eye toward planning. Golf courses are supposed to change - but preferably for the better!

Does your staff, management company or operator realize the dynamic nature of a golf course? Can you identify the people in your organization who think a golf course will last forever without any improvement at all?

6. Lack of Planning

Every golf course deserves a long range Master Plan. Without such a plan daily and seasonal decisions are being made in a vacuum. Each added tree can affect liability, strategy and turf conditions. An expensive irrigation repair may have been more efficient along with a bunker and drainage renovation. The list goes on. Each area of a golf course has a domino effect to other areas. A Master Plan is a means to save money and get the most from your annual investment. It is prepared by a qualified golf course architect in conjunction with key staff; the golf course superintendent, golf director, citizen group members and parks management.

Do you have a Master Plan? Is it up to date? Has it been formally adopted? If not, you may well be running in the dark.

7. The Financial Equation

The counter part to the Master Plan is the Financial Plan. Our experience shows that most municipal golf courses have outdated financial plans. Aside from operating budgets and a list of capital projects and expenses, most public sector operators have not looked far enough into the future. Again, it is planning that is usually the culprit.

Do you know the outlook for golf at your facility? Is it based on a Master Plan? Do you feel it is an accurate picture of the future? Was it developed with true oversight by impartial individuals?

8. Delivering the Best Possible Product

Sadly, a municipal golf experience is often equated with a lesser experience. That is unfortunate. Golf is a game of experiences. Customer service, effective management, pace-of-play and quality should each be held to the highest standard possible regardless of ownership. Training is key. Just as a library or adult center requires an investment in training, so does the modern golf operation.

What is the quality of training in your golf program? Is the training you have in place capable of making a difference? Is the training backed by a commitment to deliver the best possible product?

9. Management Format

There a several management combinations applied to municipal golf. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Finding the right mix for your operation is one of the most important golf decisions that will ever be made.

Was the current management format driven by tradition, necessity or policy? Is it the best format possible? Would a different format lower cost? Would it increase quality? Would it improve the asset?

10. Developing New Customers

Like many PGA touring pros, Billy Mayfair grew up playing a public golf course. "To me it was a place a kid could go and learn to play, have a few Cokes and hang out with friends," notes Mayfair. "What we need are more of those back-to-basics muni layouts where we can bring new people into the game without making it cost an arm and a leg or being too intimidating." Mayfair is not alone in his battle cry. Golf movements such as Golf 20/20 are making headway to insure the vitality of the game. But are the initiatives in line with the facilities? The municipal operator needs to be asking whether their golf courses are compatible with beginning golfers, young players and seniors in addition to holding the attention of seasoned players.

Are your practice facilities programmed to attract new players? Are they in good locations?

To a degree, the future of municipal golf has already been set on a course by the decisions made in the past decade. But, the municipal operator who is able to think outside the box will have the advantage. By asking the questions posed above, the upper hand will be awarded to those who work to overcome the status quo. Implement the right combination of change and getting things done better will position your golf operations for a much brighter future.

It is our view that Municipal Golf is ready for change. Among the directions we see are a back-to-basics movement where quality and experience transcends budgets. When more care is placed on management, attention to detail and the core experiences that have been such a rich tradition of the nation's public courses, it is possible to turn even the most dire of situations around for the better.

Golf courses are a vital part of communities. They have the potential to be sustainable open space, places of enjoyment and recreation spots that cater just as appropriately to the very young as they do our aging population. Mark Woodward, the recently appointed Executive Director of the Golf Course Superintendent's Association of America, has enjoyed a career path that took him from superintendent of his hometown municipal course to getting San Diego's Torrey Pines prepared for the 2008 U.S. Open. Woodward sums it us this way, "The vast majority of people are exposed to the game of golf through the municipal sectorÉI'm very proud of my municipal roots."

All of us in municipal golf need to be proud of our roots. Golf has the ability to pay its own way while serving a great percentage of our population. The attitude today must be a careful blend of planning, creativity and flexibility.

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