Vail Valley private golf clubs thriving by pushing their paradigm
EDWARDS — What do you get when you put more than 200 golfers from around the country on one of the premier courses?
You get a good time, also known as the Troon Cup. You also get to look at the new face of private golf clubs. That face tends to be younger and more interested in lifestyle than golf.
Troon Prive manages Cordillera, and more than 250 other golf courses and private clubs around the world. Every year they put together a two-day event for members at their many far-flung clubs. This year, it’s 55 four-person teams at Cordillera, and it’s at Cordillera because Jim McLaughlin and Mike Henritze wanted to show off. McLaughlin is Troon Prive’s senior vice president. Henritze manages the Club at Cordillera.
“Our 500 Club at Cordillera members, staff, agronomy crew, F and B professionals and Troon Corporate team welcome the competitors as we showcase all the Vail Valley and the Club at Cordillera have to offer,” Henritze said.
The recession hammered golf and lots of other luxury industries, but many of golf’s wounds were self-inflicted.
Between 2009-2014, clubs all over the country were going bankrupt and closing. Cordillera and Brightwater, south of Gypsum, both went bankrupt but managed to remain open.
Course designers were trying to create the next championship layout, leaving casual golfers so frustrated they wanted to sell their clubs, said Kevin Denton, membership director for Frost Creek, south of Eagle.
Tom Weiskopf designed Frost Creek to be more forgiving and affirming.
“It’s user friendly. People have the best round of their life. There’s nothing like that to make people want to come back,” Denton said.
Frost Creek, like Cordillera and so many other private clubs, is advocating a mountain lifestyle. Frost Creek is about 6,800 feet above sea level and can be covered with up to 4 feet of snow, so there’s snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The driving range becomes an incredible sledding hill, Denton said.
“The whole golf industry has had to rethink itself to attract a younger demographic,” Denton said. “Kids weren’t playing, and parents didn’t have the time or money to put their kids into junior golf.”
Frost Creek has 143 new members since May. Cordillera is back over 500 members after hitting the restart button two years ago, and Troon taking over management.
Bob Holman is in town for the Troon Cup and is a member of two Troon clubs in Arizona. He recalls one of them raised dues every year, and lacked what we’ll call management continuity. Troon took over and now it turns a profit every year.
“It needed something stable like Troon,” said Holman, a retired CFO for a large U.S. corporation.
Ed and Geri Scanlon are Troon members in from The Peninsula in Delaware. They drive from Delaware to Breckenridge to Arizona, and points between, playing golf at Troon clubs.
Private club members can be animated when it comes to running things.
“Troon takes the emotion out of it,” Ed said.
“We’re Facebook for real. This is where people have a real connection,” McLaughlin said.
Gone are the days when the man of the house played golf and everyone else waited either at home or at the club for him to finish, McLaughlin said.
Gone also are the days when the highest initiation fees meant you were joining the best club.
“It’s not about the price. It’s about getting the place exciting and busy. I’d rather take my family to a place like that. No one wants to go to a place that’s like a morgue,” McLaughlin said. “There may be fewer clubs, but the clubs that embrace this are the clubs that will be successful.”
McLaughlin said Troon Prive does research — lots and lots of research — and they’ve found that while golf is still important, club amenities like health and fitness are more important, especially in the younger demographic that private clubs must attract, or risk rusting away like a Packard.
“The expectation was that it would be their exclusive club, their father’s club. That model is going the way of the dinosaur,” McLaughlin said. “It’s now more about the social atmosphere.”
Troon Prive looked outside golf and spotted Soho House, a network of hotels, restaurants and members’ clubs. At its core, Soho House and clubs like Cordillera must be about attracting like-minded people, McLaughlin said.
“Cordillera is an example of moving in another direction. Younger people are taking a look at it. It’s a new, more inclusive type of club,” McLaughlin said. “If everything was the same, people would have left again.”
Getting the message
Not everyone gets that message. Some clubs have closed, some have gone public.
“Golf has dropped down in several markets,” McLaughlin said.
In the 1990s, golf industry leaders launched a campaign to add “one new golf course per day, an almost unbelievable concept,” said AGI Valuations, a San Francisco firm that appraises golf courses and other properties.
The recession hit, the housing bubble burst and the private golf industry crashed with it.
According to AGI, the number of golf courses has declined 11.2 percent since 2000. In 2011, 158 golf courses closed — 120 daily fee, 12 municipal, and 26 private courses. Between 2006 and 2012, 775 golf courses closed.
In 2001, 399 new golf facilities opened, but only 19 in 2011.
In 2003, the number of U.S. golfers reached peaked at 30.6 million. By 2011, that number plummeted to 25.7 million. The National Golf Federation says that number should stabilize at around 26 million golfers.
Trust and turnarounds
Economics have turned around, and the rebounding real estate market also helped, McLaughlin said.
As with any business, golf is more than data.
“Any business that’s built on trust and relationships can be successful. It’s possible to breathe and live again. Mike Henritze has done a tremendous job with the staff at Cordillera,” McLaughlin said.
Troon doesn’t own anything, but they manage everything.
Two years ago they managed 30 private clubs. Now it’s 70, almost all from referrals. Some of the problems are dysfunctional ownership. Others are much more serious.
“We don’t get clubs that say, ‘We’re perfect, come manage us!’” McLaughlin said.
Troon took over Cordillera two years ago, and other struggling clubs kept a watchful eye.
“When we do have some victories, it helps spread the world,” McLaughlin said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.