Why am I a Golf Course Business Consultant?
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I believe I am more experienced in the golf course business than almost anyone. I've been at it for over 50-years in Canada and the Southern USA.
I started in this business in the middle 1950's raking bunkers at a Toronto, Ontario public golf course known as Tam-O-Shanter Golf Course. We called it 'Tam'.
Tam was one of the 'thresholds' that opened up golf to the masses. It became more than a golf course. By 1959 it had a big public swimming pool, a banquet room seating over 500 people, a full service fine dining room, a 20-sheet curling rink, a full size hockey rink (Toronto Maple Leafs practiced there), and an 8-lane bowling alley. Tam even had an indoor golf school (which I ran for one winter).
I worked in every department at Tam from 1956 through 1962. At one time or another I was a curling rink 'rink rat', a bowling alley pin boy and automatic pin setter mechanic, a dishwasher, assistant golf pro, and a swimming pool attendant. I also did my time on the golf course maintenance crew cutting cups etc. I was also on a crew that installed an irrigation system, and built several new fairways, tees, and greens.
I worked my way into the pro shop at Tam, eventually joining the Canadian PGA as an assistant professional in 1959. I was an apprentice under pro, John Evelyn. I held my PGA card until 1967.
In the long hot summers at Tam we hosted endless golf outings, some with over 400 players. By 1959, the golf course was so busy we operated a 6-minute tee sheet (40-players an hour). We also had 100 rental sets that went out, sometimes twice a day. I cleaned the rentals clubs every day. I also re-whipped the woods, re-gripped woods and irons (grips were wrapped in those days), re-set sole plates, straightened shafts, and tightened wood heads.
In 1960 I could handicap a 40-player score sheet in about 100-seconds (Callaway handicap system). We managed outings from start to finish setting the groups and starter sheets, taking and handicapping scores and even setting up the prize tables. Some of our large corporate outings tied up Tam for an entire Saturday. They would make it an entire day of golf, swimming, eating and drinking well into the night. I’d seen my share of fights and weird activities during those summers.
In January 1963, Canada's leading golf entrepreneur, Bert Turcotte, invited me to work at his 'in' golf school located in one of Toronto's wealthier neighborhoods (Torontonians know the Eglinton-Avenue Road area). Working that golf school was one of the most grueling jobs I ever had, because myself and four other golf professionals taught private lessons at 1/2 hour intervals from 10: AM to 10: PM (really!). We took an hour for lunch and an hour for dinner. Our workweek was 7-days, but we got off at 5: on Saturdays and Sundays. I made $3.00 per lesson. From mid January to mid March all of us averaged at least a dozen lessons a day.
When I wasn't teaching I worked with a Scottish clubmaker, Eric Wise, who grew up in Glasgow. He was an assistant to great British pro, Eric Brown, and also apprenticed under Scottish famous clubmaker, John Letters. Eric and I spent a few hours every day repairing golf clubs in his special repair shop in the basement of the golf school. It was enjoyable work and I learned most of the clubmaking skills now long gone since epoxy became the number-1 ingredient in modern club making.
I was a left-hand whipper! It was because I spun the wood head counter-clockwise when whipping, so I was better with left hand clubs. I don't know if was true or not, but I was told the torque at impact of a left hand wood tightened rather than loosened when whipped counter-clockwise.
Now, when I look back, it is so sad to remember that we stripped beautiful hand made leather grips off complete sets of Wilson Staff and other great golf clubs of the day. We would grind down the wooden plugs at the top of the shaft (the wooden plugs were where they tacked the leather grip before winding it down the shaft). A leather grip installed in 1955 would have several steps:
First the wooden dowel tapped into the top of the shaft
The shaft was tapped firmly with a punch to secure the dowel
Next, an underlisting, usually a type of crape paper treated with pitch was wound in layers until is the right thickness and taper.
Then the top part of the leather strip was tacked to the wooden plug at the very top and the leather was careful would down to is full length.
The bottom of the leather grip was secured with grip trim - a thin plastic ring about a 1/2-inch wide. That alone was a skill, as it began as a small 1/2 inch wide by about 3 inches long strip of paper-thin plastic material cut from a sheet with scissors. It was softened with acetate just short of becoming liquid so it could be wrapped around the bottom of the leather and then allowed to dry hard.
(I was not particularly skilled at that job. Eric was an expert and his finished grips were just like the manufacturers turned out.)
Finally, a cap was placed at the top of the grip to hide the tack and keep the top part of the grip from coming loose and apart.
Anyway, we stripped all that stuff off the shaft, cleaned off the remaining pitch and ground down the plug so it was the same diameter of the shaft. We had a trash pail beside us where we threw the removed leather grips.
Turcotte really liked my attitude and decided I would be his manager for a golf center he built in Peterborough, Ontario. Built on barely 63-acres, the 18-hole facility included a lighted 9-hole par-3 golf course, a lighted driving range, a lighted miniature golf course, and one of the best clubhouse designs I have ever seen. Turcotte was one of the 'breakout' entrepreneurs in golf - actually using the same concession planning theaters use (and still use today).
We built an additional 9-holes that opened in 1966. We tied it to one of the other nines to create one of the first executive golf courses - ever. It had a par of 60 on 3300 total yardage. It was also unique, because the entire course was sewn in bentgrass - greens, fairways, tees and rough. Wall-to-wall bentgrass became a real learning process for us - good and bad!
Peterborough is a city of 55,000 people about 80-miles northeast of Toronto. Turcotte sent me to finish the golf course and clubhouse, and to put an advertising campaign together for our planned June 1, 1963 grand opening. Man! That was one of the most disappointing things that ever happened to me. Later, I'll tell you two revelations I had and implemented that turned that golf center into an absolute 'cash-box'. In fact, eventually I called the place my 'Money Tree'. And its clubhouse was perfect to make money.
The design of the Peterborough golf center clubhouse is still a strong influence on me today. It was attractive, but almost sneakily laid out to take advantage of every possible concession opportunity. It's the reason I always make money in food and beverage at golf courses I can influence, because the watchword is 'opportunity'.
[Maybe you're starting to see why I get the best out of a golf course business.]
WHY PETERBOROUGH, ONTARIO?
Don't you wonder why Turcotte chose to build a golf center in Peterborough, Ontario? Actually, it was for a very good reason (side bar here):
Peterborough, Ontario was a very conservative blue-collar city of 55,000 people in 1963. It's industry included Outboard Marine Corporation, General Electric Corporation, Quaker Oats Company, Westclox General Time Corporation, a major Coca Cola bottling plant, and others like Ovaltine and Ragu. Sounds of the city were steam whistles and lunchtime bells.
Because of it nature Peterborough was a popular test market for new products before they were introduced throughout North America. Here are a few of products I got to see or taste before almost anyone else in North America:
Captain Crunch Cereal
Tab (Coca Cola)
Tang (Coca Cola
The executives at Quaker Oats and Coca Cola often came to our driving range at lunchtime and I got to know them. They would bring me new products they planned to take to market. I remember tasting Gator Aide and laughed when I thought it tasted like watered down Cool Aide.
The Coke people told me they expected Tab to eventually outsell Coke.
Bert Turcotte chose Peterborough to open his unique golf center to learn how it would be accepted and operated. His plan was to build hundreds like it around North America.
The Peterborough golf center was named 'Liftlock Golfland' because it was located on the banks of the Trent Canal beside an amazing hydraulic liftlock. The lock, pictured here, liftlock moved large yachts up and down the canal with a 60-foot drop and rise. I watched $ millions and $ millions worth of beautiful yachts pass by our golf center for over 25-years. Even the Queen herself once travelled through those locks - right past our golf center!
In fact, the lockmaster's son was one of my employees.
In April and May of 1963 my job was to open the golf center from scratch. I painted, hired, advertised, fired up a new irrigation system, grew in greens and fairways, stocked shelves, lined up suppliers and services, put in phones, paved the parking lot, set up the driving range, set up the snack bar, and prepared very stingy inventory sheets. I was 22-years old, green as grass, but my first love in life was advertising and marketing and I got to do it all myself on that job.
By the way: My salary in 1963 was $80.00 a week, plus a $20.00 a week car allowance. However I got to keep all my golf lesson money, and I earned bonuses for meeting certain benchmarks.
My marketing campaign included all the area media - billboards, radio, TV, and newspapers. We designed a brochure that we handed out at a major 4-way stop intersection - all holidayers from Toronto headed for 'cottage country' - the many lakes surrounding the City of Peterborough.
The experience opening the golf center taught me how to write copy for billboards and newspapers. I wrote my own radio copy and even 'directed' my own television commercials. I learned how to properly design a brochure, what radio times to buy, how to position my ads in a newspaper, and how to design a sale ad. All are skills I retain and implement today.
OPENED THE GOLF CENTER ON JUNE 1, 1963.
I mentioned the opening day at the golf center was one of the most disappointing days of my life. Consider this:
We spend over $4,000 on billboards, brochures, radio and TV ads - all announcing our grand opening on Saturday, June 1st. Saturday, June 1st in Peterborough was a beautiful sunny day, temperature about 80 degrees. I had the clubhouse open at 7: AM, my staff all in place, even nice uniforms on my snack bar girls. By 8: AM I was becoming concerned, because nobody had shown up. Not a single sole! I though, "Not to worry. Maybe Peterborough slept in on Saturdays." By 9: AM, still nobody. Around 10: AM, one the city aldermen, Mr. A. B. Burrows came in. He looked around and asked where was everybody. He asked for permission to play the 9-hole par-3 course. When my clerk asked for $1.25, Mr. Burrows said he was an important city alderman and did not pay for such things. So he went out there by himself, my one-and-only customer - and he was playing for free!
Bert Turcotte was my mentor back in the 60's. When he arrived at the golf center on that June 1st day and saw the place was empty he took me to lunch in town. He told me how to respond to people if they asked why we had no business. He drilled into me the term, "Success Breads Success. Failure Breeds Failure." I was never allowed to say things like, "Business is slow." Or to openly say, "Business is down." He told me, People go where people go. People won't go where people won't go!" Never admit anything but business is great and getting better. Never let on that people won't come to your business.
That empty Saturday morning, June 1st, 1963 was one of the best business lessons I ever had. Disappointing, yes, but I was undaunted and as time went by, people did start coming to the golf center, but it really didn't boom until Mr. Turcotte gave me cart-blanch authority to build the business. He figured it could only improve, as that year, 1963; our entire gross receipts totaled just over $32,000 (by 1975 that was a good weekend).
NOBODY PLAYED GOLF IN PETERBOROUGH, ONTARIO IN 1963
Actually, the golf center in Peterborough was the most perfect scenario for a city where nobody except the 300 rich folks who belonged to the 'Country Club'. There was one more 18-hole course in town, the Kawartha Golf Club (where the late, great Moe Norman first made his mark on golf).
General Electric owned Kawartha Golf Club and employees could join on a payroll deduction plan so membership was quite painless. There were upwards of 400 members at Kawartha, plus a few GE employee golf leagues. I figured there were about 1,200 golf players in Peterborough in 1963. Everyone else played baseball or fished in the summers. However, the match that started the fire in that city was the miniature golf course.
Remember that Saturday, June 1st when nobody showed up by noon that day. Well, by four-o-clock the place was jumping, but not people playing the golf course. There were hundreds there to play the mini-putt golf course. It was this experience that taught me the best lesson in the golf business: "People need a place to start!"
Back in the Tam days, virtually every cashier sale was for a round of golf and a set of clubs - really! I mean a rental set.
In the years after the war (WW II) few people owned a set of golf clubs. Life was somewhat relaxed; people had jobs and a couple of bucks for some fun on a Saturday morning. The fee to play Tam on a Saturday morning was $1.25 (Canadian), 50-cents to rent clubs, and 25-cents to rent a cart. There was no sales tax then, so a $2 dollar bill got you 18-holes, a set to use, and a cart to save your shoulder. The set was a standard 7-piece set (3-5-7-9-putter and a 1-3 wood).
For the (Canadian) purists, the Tam rental sets were made by a company known then as Granger Adanac (Canada spelled backwards). The 1 and 3 woods were cherry finished persimmon heads on Century shafts by True Temper. The irons were also on True Temper shafts with black and red ferrules. The grips were rubber with a wrapped leather appearance, capped at the butt.
The putter was like miniature golf two-way models, much like the famous old Spalding 'Cash-in' center-shafted hammerhead style putter of the late 30’s and 40’s.
Those poor old rental clubs had a tough life banging on rocks, flying through the air, bent shafts, broken grip trim, and many time just plain missing. In fact, some of our rentals were secretly replaced with old clubs from the 20's and even earlier (I still have a few).
Imagine a crappy rental driver switched for a McGregor Eye-O-Matic 2-wood. That sneaky guy!
Meanwhile, we had a sign in the pro shop, "Your own set of clubs! 4 Irons, 2 Woods, Putter and Bag for $39.00." We sold lots of those 'Starter Sets' by Spalding during a summer at Tam. And people bought their golf clubs another way: one by one.
We also sold individual clubs, everything from the one-iron through the sand wedge (pitching wedges were still in infancy). Typically, an iron sold for about $8 dollars, a wood for as high as $16 dollars. Full sets in those days included 2 through 9 irons and 1-2-3 woods. Around 1960 they started the 1-3-4 wood sets and by 1970, the 1-3-5. Also in 1962 (or so) they began dropping the 2-iron and adding the pitching wedge at the other end.
I believe McGregor was the first big club maker to drop the 2-iron, but they pulled a little trick by adding a couple of degrees strength to the iron set so player though they were hitting a 7-iron further, which they were, because they were hitting a 7 1/2 iron, more or less.
Meanwhile, all the big makers of the day started dropping the 2-iron for the wedge, or 10-iron some called it.
Anyway, a golfer who wanted to own a full matched set of clubs on a limited income could build his set one-by-one until it was complete. A model we sold very well in the Toronto shop was by Spalding (the 'Tournament' model). They had slip-on composite grips, True Temper, Century shafts, ferrules, and chrome finished iron heads at $8 dollars each. The woods were cherry finished persimmon wood, whipped with pitched Irish linen at $12 dollars each in the 1 - 2 and 3.
The golf bag was a slim model with plaid fabric trimmed in leather. It had a shoulder strap and a single zippered ball pocket. I could hold seven clubs and sold for about $10 bucks. A deluxe bag at $12 dollars had a sweater pocket.