Gypsum golf course rebrands to shed the country club image
Tom Buzbee thinks it’s time to put the fun back into the game of golf.
The way he sees it, the sport needs to re-evaluate where it’s at and realize the game has gotten so difficult, exclusive and expensive that it is hemorrhaging popularity.
As the PGA professional and general manager at Gypsum Creek Golf Course, Buzbee is in a position to try something different.
“We are the ‘Cheers’ of golf courses here — where everybody knows your name,” said Buzbee.
That means Gypsum Creek Golf Course has rebranded itself. It is no longer exclusively touted as a Pete Dye championship course, even though that label is still accurate. These days, Gypsum Creek is also the place where kids are welcomed to learn the game and never-ever golfers can gather to socialize and pick up pointers.
Buzbee said the approach is a reflection of the larger Gypsum community and it is also paying off for the bottom line. While Gypsum Creek actually opened in 1997 as the semi-private Cotton Ranch Golf Club, it was purchased by the town of Gypsum in 2010 and began its life as a municipal course. That first year, Gypsum Creek recorded a total of 4,600 rounds. During 2015, the course recorded its best season ever with 17,400 rounds. That’s a more than four-fold increase in five years and there’s not many courses around the nation that can boast that type of success.
“Running a golf course is kind of a rough proposition these days,” Buzbee said. “Eagle County is a perfect example of why.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a golf course building boom. The result is there is a plethora of courses throughout the nation. In Eagle County alone, there are 14 courses that serve niches from the ultra-exclusive to the very affordable. Buzbee said that Gypsum Creek has worked hard to find its place in the county golf scene.
As a golf professional for 36 years, Buzbee said he was involved in golf course design and construction and he was part of the crew that built fancy, expensive courses.
“I have come to realize that I was part of the problem,” he said. “Golf is hard enough already, and people want fun, easy things to do.”
As he looked for ways to amp up the fun at Gypsum Creek, Buzbee took a look around the community and decided Gypsum Creek needed to shed its country club image.
“There were a lot of locals who thought the course was off limits to them,” said Buzbee. “It took a couple of years of town operation to remove that invisible barrier.”
He credited the popularity of the Creekside Grill, the restaurant at Gypsum Creek, for bringing in some of the new crowd. Then when he took a look around the community, Buzbee decided the course needed to capitalize on something Gypsum has in spades: kids.
Start them young
Gypsum Creek Golf Course is a proud partner in the Colorado PGA’s Golf in Schools program. The physical education program offers four sessions of golf education to middle and high school students.
“We had 380 kids from the middle school and 60 kids from the high school that came to the course four times in May. It gets the kids jazzed for the summer,” said Buzbee. “We have the third largest Golf in School program in the state.”
Buzbee knew that kids wouldn’t respond to country club golf, so when they arrive at the driving range, they see the golf pro in a Spiderman suit. He extols them to hit the ball pick-up cart (often being driven by a teacher) to win a prize.
“We are not too concerned about the rotation of the right arm or the position of the shoulder,’ he said. “We just have a blast. I had one girl come up to me and say, ‘Wow, golf isn’t dorky.’”
When the school year ends, kids are welcomed back to the course with the First Tee program and special $5 rates. Where the kids came, their parents followed.
Fun for all
Like all courses in this valley, Gypsum Creek makes a fair amount of money selling rounds to out-of-state visitors. That’s especially true during the early and late parts of the season when the course is the first to open and the last to close. On that count, 2015 was epic.
While Vail and Beaver Creek were busying hosting the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, Gypsum Creek was open for business.
“We opened for the season on Feb. 6. We has such a killer head start for the season, and we were only closed for 58 days last year,” said Buzbee.
At Gypsum Creek the price for a round of golf, with a cart, ranges from a high of $69 to a low of $39. If that is still a bit pricey, the course offers special programs including Fun, Free Friday. At 6 p.m. all are welcome to meet up at the driving range for socialization and informal instruction. There’s lots of never-evers as well as more seasoned golfers who enjoy the camaraderie.
Worth an investment
Buzbee noted that the key to Gypsum Creek Golf Course’s new success isn’t out there on the links. It’s all about the ownership, he said.
Back in 2009, things looked pretty bleak for the course. The property was offered at a bankruptcy sale and there were no bidders.
“But the town knew that standing in the hallway of the county building isn’t the best way to buy a golf course,” said Buzbee.
Instead the town of Gypsum worked with the course creditors to negotiate the purchase. The first year, the course battled some serious turf issues and Buzbee noted it took four years to totally eradicate the problem.
“Last season was the first year we have been totally free of that,” he said.
But the true test of Gypsum’s commitment to the facility is happening in 2016. Next year the top capital project Gypsum will tackle is to overhaul the old and dilapidated irrigation system at the golf course.
That project won’t come cheap. Early estimates indicate it will cost about $1.8 million.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow,” Gypsum Town Manger Jeff Shroll said. “We are looking at funding options for that work.”
Buzbee likened the conditions at the course to what happens when a homeowner faces the 20th year in their house. At that point, appliances need to be replaced and the carpet is showing wear.
“Perry Dye — Pete Dye’s son — visited the course in the fall and at the 20-year point, it’s just time to spruce things up,” said Buzbee.
“The problem with the irrigation system is you spend all this money and you can’t see it,” he said. “There are a lot of courses where that expense closes the course.”
But the new system will be more effective and more efficient, and it will breath new life into the course, said Buzbee.
Buzbee said the town’s decision to invest in the course is a signal that Gypsum Creek has become an important part of the Gypsum landscape.
“We really are a community asset,” he said.