After it became clear that a high-profile name wasn’t enough on its own to ensure a top-notch club operation, a new management team was turned loose to revitalize the Port St. Lucie, Fla., property—and in the process, add new luster to the brand.
When the PGA Golf Club was built in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in 1996, the road leading from the front entrance to the parking lots, clubhouse and bag-drop stand was given the clever name of “Perfect Drive.” And with the world’s largest working sports organization, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America, in place to own and operate the property on behalf of its membership of 28,000 golf professionals, there was every reason to believe this would be a new club venture with a long and down-the-middle future from the start.
|AT A GLANCE
PGA Golf Club
Location: Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Fifteen-plus years into the club’s history, however, a lot more evidence could be found of how the PGA’s efforts to manage its new branded property had skittered into the rough, or gotten lost altogether. While as many as 150,000 rounds were being played on the property’s four courses, only a handful of PGA pros had taken advantage of special membership opportunities that were extended to them, and even fewer were bringing groups from their clubs to show off their organization’s namesake venue. When PGA members came to the nearby PGA Education Center to pursue continuing-education classes, their prevailing feeling about the club that had the same logo on its buildings and golf cars that they were wearing on their sleeves tilted a lot more towards embarrassment than to pride.
To their credit, as they began to look ahead to 2016, which would mark the club’s 20th anniversary as well as the PGA’s 100th, the directors of the PGA came to recognize there was more to running an exemplary club operation than just hanging out a well-known shingle. A new direction was set, and resources were allocated, for sweeping improvements of the golf courses, a major renovation and expansion of the clubhouse, and an influx of new management talent.
Once it committed to remaking its approach to the club game, the pace at which PGA GC is now playing, and the scores it’s been racking up, have been impressive. The golf courses have moved back up in rankings, and the work of Director of Agronomy Dick Gray in leading their revival earned him recognition as TurfNet’s 2016 Superintendent of the Year. The completely overhauled golf shop has won consecutive Platinum awards from the Association of Golf Merchandisers. Membership numbers have jumped, including a significant boost in the PGA-member category. Food-and-beverage sales have been boosted as much by the club’s dining venues becoming go-to destinations for the non-golfing public as from how they’re now being used and enjoyed by members and golfers.
Equally significant is how the club has now been established as a primary showcase for the best of what the PGA brand stands for. Several displays of player and tournament memorabilia that had been housed in a less-accessible and -frequented nearby museum have been relocated permanently to the golf club’s clubhouse, and places and times have also been planned for special displays that can add to the appeal and experience of visiting the property, such as a recent showing of the Ryder Cup Trophy.
“We’re further along than we expected,” says General Manager Jimmy Terry, PGA, of the progress he and his management team have made since 2013, when Terry and many of the other current department heads arrived on the scene. “In the first year we were putting out a lot of fires, but we were still able to get focused on our main goal: doing whatever was needed to restore the PGA Golf Club to the level of operational excellence that fits with the PGA brand.
“By any measuring stick, we’ve improved and moved much closer to that goal,” Terry adds. “And as we have, we continue to see just what we really have here—and all that it could be.”
Starting the Stampede
The most pressing and immediate need in 2013 was to register improvement on the quartet of measuring sticks that represented the conditions of PGA Golf Club’s four golf courses (three courses, Wanamaker, Ryder and Dye, are on the main property; the fourth, St. Lucie Trail, is located a couple of miles east on the other side of Interstate 95).
[Editor’s Note: In April, the PGA of America announced that it would be putting the St. Lucie Trail GC up for sale, along with the PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance.]
The search to find someone with the right combination of experience and expertise to meet the challenge soon led to Gray, an Indiana native whose career started in the 1960s at Pete Dye’s Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., and then shifted to Florida, where he helped to construct Dye’s Loblolly Golf Club course in Hobe Sound, and also led a regrassing project at the acclaimed Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta.
Gray, who’s old-school enough that he still prefers to be thought of as a greenkeeper, admits to being “flabbergasted” when he first saw the extent to which the condition of the PGA GC courses had been allowed to lapse, and allows that he probably wouldn’t have taken on the challenge at such a late stage of his career if it weren’t for his loyalty to Dye and his respect for the organization and club’s brand. “Nobody should be better than the PGA of America,” he says.
That belief led Gray to establish a straightforward, but ambitious, standard—”tournament-ready every day”—for the club’s courses going forward. To date, the Wanamaker and Dye have been regrassed with Celebration Bermuda, and selected features of the other courses have been renewed as they await their turns for full makeovers.
“The ‘rugs’ were all pretty worn out, but the courses are again reflecting what was intended originally,” Gray says in assessing the progress that’s been made. And while restoring their appeal, he’s also made strides in bringing new efficiencies to the operation, through maintenance practices like the “stampede.”
“We shut tee times off from 11 to 12:30 once a week on each course, so our crews can mow all the fairways at once,” Gray describes. “Just by eliminating the idling they would have to do if they have to stop for golfers on the course, we’ve used 5,000 fewer gallons of fuel per year.”
Sharpening the Inside Game
After Gray arrived at the start of 2013 to begin the process of reviving the PGA GC golf courses, he was quickly followed during that year by new managers who brought experience from several properties within the TPC Network, which is operated by the PGA Tour.
Collaborating with other managers who were already on staff and could offer several years’ worth of experienced insights into what had, and hadn’t, been working at PGA GC, including Head Golf Professional Holly Taylor, PGA, and Director of Marketing Adriana Vizcaya, the new team set out with a renewed commitment to the mission, as described by Terry, of “providing a high-quality golf experience and championship playing conditions that reflect positively on the PGA membership and association.”
To fully deliver on that promise, the off-course aspects of the experience also needed to be addressed. A long-overdue clubhouse renovation and expansion project was pushed ahead to greatly improve locker room, food-and-beverage, and retail amenities and offerings, along with the overall impression that anyone would get just walking through the doors and down the halls.
The transformation of the club’s golf shop to award-winning status was brought about not only through a physical upgrade that improved lighting and displays and created a more inviting shopping atmosphere overall, but also by the expertise of another key addition to the management team in 2013. Merchandise Manager Ashly Olson applied her previous experience as an assistant buyer and supervisor for The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado to completely overhaul and broaden the club’s product mix.
“There were no real floor fixtures or displays,” Olson says of the shop’s previous look. “We put an equal emphasis on lifestyle items for women as well as men, and gave the women’s half of the shop more of a boutique feel.” Overall, Olson estimates, she now maintains and rotates what’s for sale from an inventory of some 100,000 stockkeeping units, to greatly enhance available variety and keep what’s on the floor always looking fresh.
Similarly, where food-and-beverage service in the clubhouse, prior to its renovation and expansion, was at best mundane both in terms of what was served and where, the club is now the scene of lively F&B activity, day and night, in distinctive venues that feature equally appealing food.
The new Taplow Pub (see photo, pg. 20), described by Terry as “British pub meets American sports bar,” has been so well-received, it’s become established as a reason all its own to go the PGA GC—and quite often as a spur-of-the-moment destination. “It’s not unusual for 50% or more of the people eating [in Taplow] to be non-golfers,” Terry says. “On Fridays it can do 600 covers between lunch and dinner, with maybe eight of those as reservations.”
Under the direction of Baudier and Director of Food & Beverage Josh Cobbs, a renewed emphasis on food quality and presentation has also helped to bring in the crowds. The club recently won a “best burger on [Florida’s] Treasure Coast” award, with a bun that’s “branded” with the PGA logo (see photo, pg. 20) helping to garner special attention for the dish.
“People take their phones out and take pictures [of the bun],” Baudier reports. “We just saw it as something we could do to tie a special bow on [the dish].
“More and more, people eat with their eyes, so we’ve been really focusing on presentation and how to make the center of the plate the star of the entree,” he adds. “And anytime we can find an effective way to use the [PGA] logo to help serve as a reminder of who and what we are, we think it’s good to try to do that.”
The reception for PGA GC’s new F&B venues and menu offerings has been so strong, the club’s managers are working closely with another PGA-owned property, Valhalla Golf Club, to help it implement similar ideas as part of a renovation and expansion project that Louisville, Ky., property is preparing to undertake. “We think it makes sense to develop synergies [between the two properties] and have consistency between what we’re both doing,” Terry says.
PGA GC’s clubhouse renovation also created special new rooms for members of the club that have also become scenes of steady activity. “We have a big happy-hour following, and regular attendance of around 125 for Trivia Nights and 200 for Pizza Nights,” Baudier reports. All told, the pace has picked up to where he thinks the club may “sniff” $3 million in total F&B revenue this year, with 75% of that coming from a la carte business.
Reasons to Join
Much of the momentum being seen and felt inside the clubhouse and on the golf course is being fueled by a surge in membership that reflects positive reaction to PGA GC’s revival, and also speaks to the appeal of new categories that have been introduced as part of increased efforts to spread the word about all that the club now has to offer.
“When we started, we had 500 total members, and very few who were PGA pros. And we had no social members at all,” Terry says. “Now we’re already at 900 total members, with 160 PGA pros who have annual or seasonal memberships, and 300 social/sports members. We haven’t set a membership cap, but I think we’ll be at a point where we may do so in the not-too-distant future.”
The growth in membership has also brought a significant shift in how PGA GC’s 130,000 annual rounds are divided between member and public play. “When we got here, member play was 38% of total rounds,” Terry says. “Now it’s right around 50%.
“As a semi-private operation, we want to be on the higher end for the public side, and in the middle for the private side,” he adds. “It’s hard in the golf business to make hay in the middle [as a private operation], but we think we can be an exception. And we see the private side as one of our best paths for growth.”
With member play showing a heavy seasonal concentration, though, the PGA GC team wants to continue to seek opportunities to balance the two sides as much as possible. With the New York Mets holding spring training in Port St. Lucie, there are ample opportunities to tap into that large and avid fan base, and PGA GC’s managers have worked actively to market special packages and develop working relationships with the team. The St. Lucie Trail facility, which has been reopened to the public after a period where it was operated as the private PGA Country Club, is also being put at the forefront of community outreach efforts, with special rates being extended to residents of the county, and its facilities being promoted as the club’s primary event venue.
“It’s probably a five-year project to get to where we want to be with both the member and public sides,” says Baudier. “This is a monster of an operation, and it’s a freighter, not a speedboat. When something as big as this lacks consistency and loses sight of its goals, it’s not something you can turn around overnight.
“But the PGA is extremely committed now to giving us the tools to take it to the next level,” he adds. “There’s a lot of potential—and we have a ‘sales force’ of 28,000 absentee owners out there who can help us reach it, as long as we make them proud enough to think of it as their place, too.”