While embracing its “golf club” identity, The Concession GC strives for distinction with all that it provides to its membership.
“The Concession” is the name given to the famous photo that was taken at the end of the Ryder Cup in 1969, after Jack Nicklaus, playing for the U.S. team, conceded a short putt on the final hole to Tony Jacklin, of the combined Great Britain-Ireland squad, to allow that year’s competition to end in a tie.
Some of Nicklaus’ own teammates, including U.S. captain Sam Snead, weren’t particularly happy about his gesture, thinking Jacklin should have been made to sink the two-footer. But their grumbling was quickly drowned out by the widespread reaction from not only the rest of the golf world, but from beyond the sport as well, that praised Nicklaus for an exemplary act of sportsmanship
AT A GLANCE
The Concession Golf Club
Location: Bradenton, Fla.
Annual Golf Rounds: 11,500
Unfortunately, few examples of similarly memorable gestures from golf, and sports, have followed Nicklaus’ lead in the ensuing 45 years. But the spirit of “The Concession” has been revived in Bradenton, Fla., first through a golf course co-designed by Nicklaus and Jacklin and then by The Concession Golf Club, which was built around the course. The club is now operated by an ownership and management team that has set out to make the world well-aware of the property, while also bringing new and permanent prominence to the inspiring story behind it.
Renewing Old Ties
The process of bringing “The Concession” back to life began in 2004, when Jacklin, who was now living in Bradenton, contacted Nicklaus after hearing that a developer was planning to have Nicklaus build a course for a new project in the area. While Nicklaus had not co-designed a course in his career to that point, he once again “conceded” to make an exception, so he could collaborate with Jacklin. A plot of 1,400 acres that had never been farmed or developed, and used only for hunting, was found near Bradenton that was deemed ideal for creating a distinctive departure from the usual look of golf in Florida.
“Most golf courses in Florida all have similar topography,” notes Terry Kennelly, who joined The Concession GC as its Superintendent from the early days of the course grow-in, and became the club’s General Manager last year. “But with the big majestic oaks and native palmettos and all of the wildlife that we have here, you really don’t feel like you’re in Florida—it’s a lot closer to feeling like Hilton Head or somewhere else in South Carolina.”
The unique look and feel was further enhanced by the fact that this was one Florida development where homes were purposely kept away from the course. That helped The Concession immediately gain favor with golf purists, and the course earned strong reviews from the moment it opened, including Golf Digest’s “Best New Private Course” award in 2006.
Being tied to a real-estate development, however—even one where the homes were kept out of sight and out of mind from golfers—had its downside in the mid-2000s. Plans for completing other parts of the club, including building a clubhouse, stalled when Florida’s housing market cratered.
When it became clear the developer might not ever follow through with those plans, one of The Concession GC’s original members, Bruce Cassidy, stepped up to arrange financing as a silent partner, so the 33,000-sq. ft. clubhouse could finally open in 2009. As the clubhouse neared completion, Cassidy, who moved to Bradenton in 2006 after selling his Ohio-based company, Excel Mining Systems, worked out an arrangement to become full owner of the club and have the real estate component separated into a venture that would share The Concession name, but otherwise operate independently.
Ready to Move Forward
Finally—a full six years after Jacklin and Nicklaus began to discuss the idea of a golf course and club built around the values embodied by the grand gesture of sportsmanship they were associated with—all of the pieces to pursue that vision were in place. Under the new ownership, the vision was quickly refined to make it clear that The Concession GC would be a golf club first and foremost, and one that would be operated in an unpretentious fashion and with very few rules. The rules that would be imposed would revolve around ensuring full respect for golf, and for those who came to The Concession to play the game.
The immediate problem, however, was that there just weren’t many people around to enjoy the course or follow what rules did exist. To ramp up awareness about all that The Concession GC had to offer, Alan Pope, a former executive with Wyndham Vacation Resorts and Disney who had once played golf professionally, was brought on board in 2011 to be the club’s Sales and Marketing Director.
“The first year I got here, it was pretty dead,” Pope recalls. “There were maybe 50 members. But I was a salesperson with a big database, and I saw a place that got me very excited. I really didn’t have to do anything special—I just started calling people who I knew would have the same appreciation and passion for a place like this, got them to come out here, and they started joining on the spot. And then the momentum just snowballed, as they went and told people who they knew about what we had here.”
Awareness of the course was further heightened by attracting collegiate and junior championships to the course; this May, The Concession GC will host both the men’s and women’s NCAA Championships.
And to further elevate the club’s prestige and strengthen its connection with great names in golf, the club hosted the inaugural Concession Cup last year—a competition designed to be, as Pope describes, “the Walker Cup for mid-amateurs.” The hope, says Pope, is that the Concession Cup will become a bi-annual event that may, in a nod to the club’s connection with Jacklin and the Ryder Cup, be taken to courses in Great Britain or Ireland as part of an alternating rotation with The Concession GC.
But even if The Concession Cup is always held in Florida, Pope is confident, based on its initial success, that it will take firm hold as a respected and acclaimed event. The positive reaction to the first one, he says, was “over the top—a lot more than I expected. And I think it proved to ourselves that we would want bigger tournaments to come here—and to others that we would be a great place for them.”
More Than Expected
All of these developments—along with the facts that annual golf rounds showed a 25% increase last year, membership has swelled to over 200, and Pope says he now gets “four calls [inquiring about membership] a day”—attest that there’s still a place, in today’s family-oriented club world, to pursue a golf-focused strategy successfully.
But another surprising development is that The Concession GC has also emerged as a “golf club” with a distinctive dining offer—distinctive enough, in fact, that the club now has 70 “culinary members” who buy a $2,000 annal dining credit and then come to the clubhouse to spend much more than that over the course of the year, even though they have no golfing privileges.
The club’s dining operation is directed by the “Zac and Mac” team—Food and Beverage Manager Zac Mendiola, a first-level sommelier, and Executive Chef Mac DeCarle, who was invited in 2010 to present a dinner for the James Beard Foundation. They, and most of the rest of the F&B staff, have been together at the club “essentially from day one,” Mendiola says, and all brought fine-dining restaurant experience to The Concession. That makes it possible to position and operate all of the dining outlets as “restaurants at a club, rather than club restaurants,” Mendiola says.
Having a distinctive dining offer has proved to be extremely valuable in “solidifying” the appeal of Concession membership for those who are primarily attracted to it for its golf, Pope reports. Further appeal is expected to come from new on-site lodging options that are currently being completed, especially for national members (the club currently has 50 in that category, and would like to double that number, on its way to total membership in the 350 to 400 range).
And, while those at The Concession proudly tout that the club does not have tennis, a pool or other typical country-club features, its managers concede that the future could bring other new amenities into play. “I can see us adding a fitness facility, and maybe some grass or red-clay tennis courts that would be really special, or finding a place to have a hunting club,” says Pope. “You don’t want to say ‘never’ to anything.
“But we’ve shown already that there are a lot of people who are still happy to join a club that’s primarily just about great golf,” he adds. “And I know from all the interest I’m getting, as more people hear about us, that there are still a lot more people like that out there.”