Greens With Envy

This is my latest guest column for the #GolfChat Authors project on the topic of great golf course experiences. 

Great golf experiences happen every day.

Take care of the little things, and the big things take care of themselves. 

It is through this simple prism that this author judges golf experiences from one round to the next.  It appeals to an innate sense of fairness, and works just as well at the big-name trophy courses as it does at the multi-grass municipal that cranks through close to 100,000 rounds per year.

It’s an intentionally amorphous standard, with no single factor necessarily more important than another, requiring an examination of the sum of all the ingredients in the golf experience mixing bowl before passing judgment.

What does this mean? In practical terms, has the visit to the golf course exceeded expectations and support wanting to visit it again?  Like it or not, the golf industry is a customer service industry. The more welcomed, appreciated, and fortunate a golfer feels at the golf course, the better the total golf experience will be. It’s not terribly complicated.

Not every golf course can offer the same, over-the-top, amenities as Kapalua’s Plantation Course, or the exquisite closing stretch of holes at Harbour Town. And that’s just fine. For instance, when choosing to visit a fairly mundane golf daily-fee course, one can still have a great experience if the pro shop kills the customer with kindness or if one can finish a round in under three hours.

This is the simple paradigm for public golf courses, whether they be municipal, resort, or privately owned daily-fee clubs.  Excluded from this consideration are the private golf and country clubs, where the golf experience is largely dictated by the rules and preferences of the club itself.

This column attempts to flesh out some of the more finite factors that lead to or detract from a great golf experience, and maybe, just maybe, somewhere out there in the ether, an up-and-coming young golf professional or pro shop manager will read this and give it some serious thought.

The Member Experience

Pretty much any golfer, from the +2 handicap to the gal struggling to break 100, is going to have a great golf experience if they feel like a member or a guest at a golf club, with all the privileges and expectations that go along with it.  The less someone treated like just another customer, or more specifically, an object of revenue, the better the overall golf experience.

Put simply, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the staff to pay attention to the golfers and make them feel welcomed.  Locker room attendants or valets are a luxuries to be enjoyed, not the standard that most itinerant golfers should expect.

Rather, a minimum level of courtesy and hospitality in the clubhouse, from whomever visiting golfers interact with, should be where judging the experience begins.  Far too often, the author has sensed that his very presence is an annoyance, a bother to the staff, which sets an awful tone for the rest of the round.

I recently had an awful customer service experience at the relatively high-end Omni La Costa Resort, that left me aghast and disappointed.  It was a perfectly nice golf course, but I couldn’t reconcile a triple-figure green fee with the lack of any veneer of customer service at all.

This same principle applies to staff interactions outside the clubhouse. If the course is fortunate enough to employ starters or marshals, please let them know that the grizzly curmudgeon routine wears thin quickly.

If a group is a little late getting to the first tee, the chances are they already know it; a harshly worded, demeaning reminder of that fact is only going to put the golfer off further, getting the round off to a poor start. An attitude of accommodation and seeking mutually beneficial solutions helps maintain the opportunity for a great customer experience.

The fact that I vaguely remember friendly, humorous, disarming conversations with starters from my travels to Hilton Head and Indianapolis this year frame my memories of those courses in a positive light.

Expectations for the Course

Course conditions, as a general rule, should be commensurate with the price of the green fees, relative to the other options in the immediate geographic area.  Only the most delusional golfers think that every course operator runs a Coore & Crenshaw architectural masterpiece which has an Augusta National-like unlimited maintenance budget.  Nonetheless, any features a course does possess, should be taken care of properly.

It should be understood that at most non-coastal locations, the condition of the golf course is likely dependent, in large part, on the season and recent weather, and golfers would do well to adjust their expectations accordingly.

Simply put, the gorgeous, manicured conditions at Harbour Town are expected for the price that Sea Island charges for their green fees.  To expect the same standard of golf course architecture and conditioning from a $30 municipal course is insanely stupid.

With that said, there is a hierarchy of wants for a great on-course experiences with respect to course conditions that raises expectations with each successive dollar of green fees paid: greens, green complexes (collar, approach, greenside bunkers), fairways, tees, fairway bunkers, rough, and hazards.

The more expensive the round at a particular golf course, the more these features are expected to be in great shape.  It’s not asking too much for a course to start by maintaining their greens and working backwards down the middle of the fairway towards the tee, making the entire course both as playable and visually pleasing as possible, until they expend their budget.

In particular, the greens need to be in good shape, or that’s the ballgame.  Most golfers would prefer large, fast, smooth, dark green bent grass or ultra-dwarf Bermuda grass greens with gentle contours, and that’s exactly what I’d to find at high-end, golf vacation destinations.   

However, as long as the greens have a carpet of grass on them that provides a consistent putting experience from one green to the next, then the course has met its obligation.

Also, bunkers rate special attention because their appearance and condition contribute so much value in framing the course aesthetic and its strategy.  If the course has bunkers, they should be raked a couple of times a week, whether they be full of sand, dirt, clay, or some combination of the three.

The best example I can give of this is the tragic case of Old Silo Golf Club here in Kentucky.  It was the best public course in Kentucky for a decade, but the owners stopped maintaining their bunkers three years ago, presumably for budgetary reasons.  That started a slow, downward spiral of the course conditions that continues today, which would be sad but perfectly acceptable if they weren’t still charging premium green fee prices.

Finally, the condition of the cart paths can have an outsized effect on the overall golf experience for golfers that choose (or are forced) to utilize a cart.  Much like the condition of the parking lot and clubhouse, if no one notices the condition of cart paths, then they are probably fine.  However, if someone need to visit a chiropractor after a round of cart golf, the course is doing it wrong.

I fully recognize that maintaining proper cart paths can require major capital expenditures, so I’m willing to give a little leeway to less expensive courses.  However, if a course operator truly can’t afford to keep up their paths, then maybe there shouldn’t be paths except from around the green to the next tee, if at all.

Get the Little Things Right

A course operator should strive to provide as many of the little extras that improve the golfer’s experience, as they can profitably afford.  While each individual item may not make much of a difference, the sum total of the extra efforts will be universally appreciated.  And discerning golfers will notice and remember when the details are overlooked.

First, for example, have coffee available at least until noon. It doesn’t need to be Dunkin Donuts premium blend brewed every hour on the hour, but a hot, relatively fresh cup of coffee goes a long way on chilly, dew-sweeper rounds. Free coffee is best, but a nominal charge should be fine with most early birds.

Next, change the ball washer fluids regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. There isn’t much worse on the golf course than that vomit-inducing sewer smell emanating from a neglected ball washer that has been cooking for days (or weeks) on end. A little water and a dab of Simple Green or Dawn detergent every few days is a touch that all golfers will be thankful for.

Finally, if a course provides sand or divot-mix containers on the tees or in the carts, make sure that there is actually sand or divot-mix in those containers.  This is a simple step in the cart barn and maintenance daily routines that demonstrates to the golfer that the course cares about its appearance and condition. More importantly, the absence demonstrates the opposite in an oddly disproportionate manner.

These are just some of the minor details and little things that should golf course operators should strive to make routine, but is by no means meant to be an exhaustive checklist.  The customers may not always be right, but they can always be treated appropriately.

The Pace of Play Problem

Much like there is no set standard for what constitutes a great golf experience, there’s no definitive answer for how to manage or improve pace of play at the golf course.

In theory, clubs want a full tee sheet and crowded golf course to maximize revenue. However, unless they are one of the handful of true bucket-list, trophy courses, clubs also, in theory, would like loyal customers and return business, which the six-hour round of golf does not encourage.

Thus, the way clubs resolve this inherent tension between revenue generation and protecting the customer experience can be a make or break factor in evaluating the golf course. Again, the relative cost of green fees help shape the golfer’s expectations of how a course will manage this aspect of the experience.

Rangers and marshals go a long way toward resolving the slow play issues, if the course can afford to employ them.  There’s no need for them to be rude or condescending, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging a little hustle.

Also under the column of, “If the course can afford it,” is an actual starter, at or near the first tee to play traffic cop.  This is an actor that I’d personally like to see empowered, with the help of the pro shop, to manage the tee times a little more affirmatively.

If taking on the additional expense of on-course play managers truly isn’t feasible, then the only real option is to space tee times out in wider intervals to prevent overcrowding and guard against “that one group” of pitifully slow golfers that wreck the pace of play of everyone on the course behind them for hours.

Finally, on weekends or other busy times when there is any semblance of a crowd at the course, courses should enforce a stricter policy of pairing singles and pairs into larger groups.  Sure, getting paired with a dud or annoying golfer can have an adverse effect on an individual’s golf experience, but I believe the cost is worth the risk for the greater good.

The above observations and suggestions represent but a small cross-section of the myriad factors that determine what kind of overall experience a golfer will receive.

The larger take-away, hopefully, is that the details matter, and the better a golf club is at getting those little things right, the more enjoyable their golfers’ experiences will be.

What makes a golf experience great, other than shooting an obnoxiously low score, is leaving the golf course with the feeling that it was a good day and wanting to do the same thing again soon.  Take care of the customers, and they will, indeed, take care of the rest.

Source: David Hill: Greens With Envy