Sage Valley Golf Club
AT A GLANCE
• Location: Graniteville, S.C.
• Opened: 2001
• Members: Approximately 300
• General Manager: Dave Christensen
• Superintendent: Chuck Green
• Operations Manager: Lee Mackay
• Food & Beverage Manager: Jonathan Marks
• Executive Chef: Trace Weitz
• Head Golf Professional: Daniel Seawell
• Membership Director: Linda Voldness
• Member Services Director: Kristie Pittard
• Wildlife Manager: Brad Harmon
Managers at many club and resort properties frequently cite Disney, Ritz-Carlton and other well-recognized service organizations when describing the standards they try to adhere to and the best practices they strive to emulate.
When talking with staff members at Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville, S.C., you’ll hear references to those companies, too. But you’re just as likely to hear comparisons drawn from examples not usually associated with the country club world. Such as—gasp—Waffle House.
"The three steps to great service are giving a warm welcome, providing a magic moment, and then offering a fond farewell," says Dave Christensen, Sage Valley’s General Manager. "You always hear about how Disney and Ritz-Carlton are so successful in promoting and achieving this—but I’ve seen it happen at a Waffle House, too, if the entire crew is on board with the idea.
"And really, what epitomizes what the club business should be all about, more than those three steps?" asks Christensen, a 30-year industry veteran who was an award-winning manager with ClubCorp before being lured to Sage Valley by owner Weldon Wyatt when it opened in 2001. "Goodness knows, if they can do it at a Waffle House, it should be what we’re always trying to do in clubs, too."
Boiling down the essentials of the club business to that three-step focus—and understanding it’s not something that can only be provided in a stuffy, glitzy or highly commercialized setting—is why Sage Valley has quickly established itself as a special place in its own right, despite where it’s located.
The club, you see, happens to be just 11 miles across the Georgia/South Carolina state line from a city called Augusta. But there is no truth to the widely circulated myth (no doubt perpetuated by the fact that members wear green jackets) that Weldon Wyatt decided to build Sage Valley because he couldn’t get invited to join a certain other well-known club in the area.
Wyatt, in fact, openly expresses admiration and respect for the traditions, achievements and reputation of Augusta National Golf Club, and credits it as a model for some of what he’s created (the most prominent example being Sage Valley’s already-impressive wine program, built by Frank Carpenter, legendary steward and sommelier for Augusta National’s world-class cellar; Wyatt coaxed Carpenter from retirement to create similar prestige for Graniteville).
But make no mistake, Augusta National is not the model for Sage Valley. Nor is any other single existing club or golf course.
As reflected by the title of a book about Weldon Wyatt and Sage Valley that was published last year by noted golf writer Curt Sampson—A Vision, Not A Blueprint—this was never a copycat or go-someplace-one-better project. Just as Weldon Wyatt made his original fortune by following his entrepreneurial instincts to help Wal-Mart change the face of American retailing (Wyatt Development became the biggest builder of the stores in the Southeast), he also started out on his own path, using his acute, common sense-oriented intuition about what people would enjoy, after turning his attentions to the club business.
Dave Christensen’s accounting of his experiences as the club’s General Manager, in fact, really amounts to a series of tales of how he’s suddenly been asked over the years to do things like 1) bring world-class wild bird hunting, using mule-drawn wagons, to the property, or 2) add well-appointed "cottages" that have a uniquely comfortable character, for special levels of social or corporate entertaining, or 3) erect a chapel where members or visitors can slip away for reflective moments and that will also eventually house a history of the Wyatt family, the mill towns of the surrounding area, and the fast-developing legend of Sage Valley GC itself.
"I have to laugh when I hear [club industry] colleagues talking about the ‘master plans’ for their properties," Christensen says. "This is literally a place where you might go to bed at night and have dreams about things that could be done here—and then come in the next day and find that your owner wants you to implement them."
And make no mistake, Christensen and his staff are not responding to the eccentric whims of a rich ownership that is just impulsively adding more gadgets to an expensive toy. The move into hunting, for example, was prompted primarily by Wyatt’s desire to add another unique and memorable activity—but he was also well aware that it’s a $75 billion industry, compared to golf’s $25 billion.
"Everything is thought out first in the context of what else can be done to provide another opportunity for people to enjoy each other’s fellowship in an environment that’s relaxed and without any sense of snobbery, yet still refined," says Christensen. "And yes, we as staff here have a bit of a luxury, in that making money is not ownership’s primary motivation.
"But it’s funny," he adds. "I spent plenty of years in club operations where everything was driven by numbers. And when that’s the case, you can always find a way to make the numbers come out as you need them to. But it often comes at the expense of a negative balance, in terms of how members and guests feel about their experiences.
"Here, from the start, we’ve proved again and again, with each new thing we’ve gone into, that if you combine top-quality facilities and products with a constant focus on service and making people feel special, the money will come."
Piling Up the Wows
The only real "master plan" ever to exist at Sage Valley, in fact, has been to strive to always provide a "double wow" for everyone who visits the property—one when they arrive, and another after they’ve left and looked back on their experience.
"The first one is actually easy to achieve; you can get that from the impact of your facilities," says Christensen. "It’s the second one that’s the real challenge, especially as time goes on and you are dealing with not only repeated visits from your regular members, but also the added expectations of new guests, because of what they’ve heard about our club."
And so it is that everyone at Sage Valley—starting with Weldon Wyatt and his son Tom, both of whom are ever-present on the property to constantly interact with members, guests and staff—is focused on continually reviewing and reassessing existing quality and service standards and looking for new ways in which they can be further enhanced.
Take, for example, the club’s core golf offer on its championship, Tom Fazio-designed layout (Sage Valley immediately leapt onto all major lists of top courses after its opening). From the outset, Superintendent Chuck Green has been blessed with state-of-the-art technology and an impressive level of maintenance support. (After Green told Weldon Wyatt how sub-surface aeration and moisture-removal technology would help to preserve top playing conditions for Sage Valley’s bentgrass greens even through the harshest summer heat, Wyatt not only agreed to put in a system, he bought the company that provides it, and moved it to South Carolina.)
But as easygoing as Green is while riding his pristine course as his energetic border collie leads the way (doubling back frequently to "herd" his golf car), he can only chuckle when asked if it’s true his department is the closest thing to be found to an auto-pilot operation in the world of course maintenance.
"That’s what a lot of my [superintendent] buddies think," he laughs. "If they only knew. It doesn’t matter how good something may look, you have to always try to find ways to make it better. As soon as you think you’re in a comfort zone with a golf course, that’s when you’ll start to have nothing but trouble."
The same thinking and attitude can be found throughout all Sage Valley departments. And even though the club has quickly closed in on its initial membership target, Membership Director Linda Voldness and Member Services Director Kristie Pittard still display the vigor of a marketing department that has yet to receive its first initiation-fee check. They spend their days brainstorming about how to add new calendar events, make existing ones bigger and better, and dream up new service touches for the Sage Valley experience.
|General Manager Dave Christensen directs a staff that stays focused on providing magic moments, even when it’s not a holiday.|
The key to adhering to the "magic moment" focus and ensuring "double wows" in all operating areas, says Christensen, is to never let matters of efficiency or fiscal concerns get in front of a decision that adversely impacts service.
"Because of our location, we are constantly picking up people at airports," he notes as an example. "Let’s say you have three different people arriving within a half-hour of each other. An efficient focus would say, let’s ask the first person if he or she would mind waiting until we have the other two. A true service focus would say, let’s use enough vehicles so no one has to wait, and so we can get everyone here to experience the property as quickly as possible—because that’s what they’re coming for.
"The busier you get and the longer you keep doing something, the harder it becomes not to revert to a comfort zone," Christensen says. "We are constantly reminding ourselves that we can never be that way at Sage Valley. "