The region is showing a 5% growth in people playing golf, with Windsor Parke Golf Club in Jacksonville, a formerly private facility that now relies on public access, reporting that it keeps players coming back through a stellar food and beverage department at the clubhouse, high-level course conditions, and customer service.
Despite national trends that shows the number of golf courses continuing to decline, the sport remains popular in North Florida, the Jacksonville-based Florida Times-Union reported.
David Reese, president of Florida’s First Coast of Golf Inc., a nonprofit group that helps market the area’s links and golf facilities to golf tourists from around the world, said there are currently 68 courses running from Nassau County to Flagler County, with 44 of those 68 courses offering public access. The highest count of courses on the First Coast was in the ’90s, when the figure reached 72, the Times-Union reported.
A big factor for the First Coast is that ideal conditions for golf—great weather—runs from fall to spring, and that buoys the industry here, Reese said.
“Northeast Florida is tied with Naples for being tops in the state” according to National Golf Foundation figures from September, Reese said. Northeast Florida is showing a 5 percent growth in people playing golf as well, compared to the same period as a year ago, the Times-Union reported.
Jimmy Powell, Director of Golf at Windsor Parke Golf Club in Jacksonville, is doing what he can to make sure customers keep coming to the semi-private 18-hole course. Powell said the club actually only has about 100 “members” who pay a $195 monthly fee for a single member and $225 per month for a family membership. Those memberships also provide access to the Julington Creek Golf Club. Both clubs are owned by the same company, the Times-Union reported.
But it’s the general public playing the course that sustains the business with daily greens fees ranging from about $50 to $65 per round. Powell said membership is the base of the business, but the effort to attract public players is a matter of survival. “We have to give value for money,” Powell said. “We have to give more than what someone’s paying for, almost.”
Individual service with a food and beverage department at the clubhouse, high-level course conditions and customer service are the elements that keep players coming back, he said.
“People are choosing to spend their money with us instead of something else,” Powell said. “It’s not golf against golf, to put it in those terms. The question is, ‘Am I going to bring [friends] to play golf or am I taking them somewhere else and go out to dinner.’ We don’t take that for granted.”
Reese’s organization primarily attempts to bring golf visitors to the area through regional, national and global marketing, advertising and promotions. According to Reese’s organization, golf tourism brought in an estimated $161 million in economic impact for the Northeast Florida region in 2014. That’s mainly for the players coming here to hit the links, not the impact of The Players tournament in Ponte Vedra in May, the Times-Union reported.
Given that, the maintenance of the industry on the First Coast is essential, Reese said. “It’s a huge deal. It’s quality of life and local residents get to enjoy it. It serves as one of our area’s largest beacons to come visit here,” Reese said. “I would attribute the stability to being in the state of Florida—and the temperature bodes well for us.”
Alan Verlander, executive director and chief operating officer for Jacksonville Sports Council, said the golf industry in North Florida has become one of the most important in sports business for the area, the Times-Union reported.
“If you’re looking at participatory sports, golf is still a huge deal,” he said. “As we are trying to recruit different [sports] events here from all over the country, we sell our climate and we sell the fact that you can play golf and we have the world’s best golf courses. That is in our sales pitch.”
Verlander acknowledged the business model for sustaining a course is drastically shifting from the private and exclusive clubs. He said market realities are dictating that many private courses virtually have to invite players from public, non-club members if they’re going to be profitable, the Times-Union reported.
“Twenty or 25 years ago, you had these private clubs that had huge initiation fees and big monthly retainer fees just to go play golf,” Verlander said. “What I’ve seen in the last few years is that, in an effort to boost their membership, initiation fees are just a fraction of what they used to be. And then monthly fees are a fraction of what they used to be. They are really trying to make it affordable to the average consumer.”
That effort in touting affordability goes to the greens fees for non-club members, too. Brown Golf Management LLC of Bluffton, S.C., which bought Windsor Parke and the Julington Creek golf clubs in May, specializes in making predominantly private golf facilities into profitable ventures that rely heavily on public access, the Times-Union reported.
In fact, Brown Golf’s purchase of the two clubs from previous owner Prudential Life Insurance Co. was a substantial bargain. Prudential paid about $13 million combined in the 1990s. Brown Golf acquired both facilities for a combined $2.7 million, the Times-Union reported.
“Whenever we are evaluating a property that we’re going to purchase, we do a total competitive analysis within that marketplace,” said John Brown, owner of Brown Golf, which owns 15 golf facilities and manages another 15 in seven states. The company started with one course in 1979.
One of the serious competitors to the courses Brown Golf owns is municipal courses. That’s the case with the Windsor Parke course. Barely 5 miles away and a 10-minute drive is the Jacksonville Beach Golf Club, which is owned by that city. Annual memberships there cost $107 and greens fees for 18 holes for non-members costs $45 on the weekends with a golf cart, the Times-Union reported.
Brown admitted that’s a bargain but said the amenities are not the same at municipal courses. Plus, he said, the price for semi-private courses with public play are getting closer to municipal rates. “We’ve got to be competitive with that,” he said.
“But I will tell you it is much more difficult for a municipal to compete with me because the payroll structure that is offered there, although we pay the same amount of money, the benefits packages that are offered at municipals are off the charts for the most part. That jacks up their costs and puts them at a competitive disadvantage to me,” Brown said.
The profit margin at a private club is substantially higher than a municipal course and of course local governments prefer that, Brown said. Brown said semi-private courses make up the difference with more frills and options, the Times-Union reported.
“Anybody who joins our clubs, all of their golf instruction for them and their extended family is free. It’s absolutely free and for me it’s the greatest retention tool in the world,” he said.
Brown has detailed insight into the municipal golf course operations. His company manages one in North Carolina. But in an era when hundreds of golf courses close each year, Brown sees his company as a financial savior of struggling facilities. Ultimately, Brown admitted he targets exclusive private courses for acquisition because he sees a better shot at making a profit, the Times-Union reported.
“We have bought clubs that have been fully private clubs in the past and we got our hands on them because they went through a bankruptcy or had some kind of problem or issue. We convert those, if you will, to semi-private,” Brown said.
The semi-private approach for both Windsor Parke and Julington Creek courses will apparently already pay for itself. Brown said the 2016 projected revenue at Windsor Parke is about $2.5 million and Julington Creek is projected to bring in between $1.6 and $2.2 million, the Times-Union reported.