The Formula: 23 – 15 – 7 – 6 – 4 – 1 Conclusion

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During May/June, we traveled 23 days, playing/visiting 15 golf courses, staying in 7 hotels, and losing six golf Titleist ProV1 golf balls in 4 countries:  Spain, France, England, and Wales (referred to as Europe herein).

While the game of golf and the “business of golf” share many things in common, they are different in many ways.

The apparent difference is that golf in Europe is ground-based vs. aerial.  The wind, bunkers, and firm turf serve as the defense to scoring.  In the US, water, trees, and bunkers requiring forced carries to the green present the challenge.

In Europe, bunkers are placed 20 to 50 years before the greens, often on the sides and back.  The challenge is to land the ball short of the green and bounce it on.  Tee shots are like playing pinball.  A well-struck ball down the middle of the fairway, particularly at Pennard, may end up anywhere.   I hit it in the center of the fairway on the 1st hole at Pyle and Kenfig to end up against a blind sod fenced bunker wall on the far left side rough.  Oh well!  The bounces seem to even out.

I teased the General Manager at Pennard that the Club should receive a stipend from Tom Doak for every course he builds.  The similarities between Pennard and Doak’s courses are easy to recognize – quirky and challenging.

What is interesting is that many of the golf courses, particularly in Wales, are also used as active farms.  Here is a link to a herd of cattle at Pennard while awaiting my third shot or as I entered the putting green at Southerndowns:

Pennard Cow Herd Crossing 10th Fairway

Southerndown Golf Club Sheep

I have a strong preference for the links-style of golf.   I especially like that you can play many golf courses with one ball.  While I play locally, I find an average of 30 per round walking a course that emphasizes tournaments.   However, my fascination is always with the business model.

Memberships in Europe are season passes.  Memberships at the best clubs cost only 840 pounds at Tenby Golf Club, 880 pounds at Ashburnham to 980 pounds at Southerndown Golf Club.  Interestingly, I paid 65 to 100 pounds per round as a visitor.  If one was visiting a town for more than a day, becoming a member might be cost advantageous.  Currently 1 pound = $1.25.  Few charge initiation fees.

Membership rolls at these clubs near 800.  In contrast, perhaps up to 100 season passes are sold in the US.

At many of the courses visited, the tee sheets are blocked exclusively for members on the weekends.  During the weekday, early morning and mid-day are also reserved for them.  Visitors are likely to be offered tee times after 2 p.m.   Only two responded in the letters I wrote to Secretaries for tee times.

Today, a visitor’s primary method to reserve a tee time is online.  BRS, a Golf Channel company, now provides online reservations for the golf courses we played.  With the advent of online booking, I wonder what the impact will be on travel companies, i.e., Carr Golf, Perry Golf, that handle a majority of trips for the US traveler.

Pictured below is the tee sheet for Ashburnham Golf Club, the 6th ranked course in Wales.  The grey represents where Internet bookings are unavailable and reserved for members, the red areas are tee times already booked by members, and only the white areas are open for online booking.

What I find notable is that, in my opinion, the European golf courses vastly understate their revenue potential by providing such a high priority on reserving tee times for members.

For Wednesday, June 20, 2022, shown below is the tee sheet for Pennard Golf Club, the third-ranked Club in Wales.  Note that though the sun rises at 5:21 a.m. that day, the first tee time is not until 7:00 a.m.   The last tee is at 6 p.m. though the sun doesn’t set until 9:21 p.m.

Two members have booked the 11:00 and 11:10 tee times, but the rest of the morning is entirely open.  Visitors can book starting at 11:20.

Eight thousand one hundred sixty pounds of tee times are reserved for members that have yet to be booked five days before the day of play, while the traveling visitor struggles to find tee times that would allow them to play 36 holes on neighboring courses in a single day.   From Ashburnham, Celtic Manor, Machynys, Pyle and Kenfig, Royal Porthcawl, and Southerndown are rated in the Top 12 of Wales golf courses, and all are less than a 1-hour drive away.

Another quirk in Europe golf operations is that there is no effort to pair singles, twosomes, or threesomes.  I played every golf course as a single immersed between twosome, threesome, and a few foursomes.  The good news is that we played in about 3 hours, 30 minutes on each course.  Pace of play was not an issue.

Even more unusual is the price charged for the varying booking size.

Tenby Golf Club provides a great example.  A single, twosome, and threesome are charged 65 pounds per player.  But if you are foursome, as shown below, the rate is $56.25 per player as shown below

In May, on a weekday, I recall the price varied per player from $60 for a single, $55 for a twosome, $50 for a three, and $45 for a foursome.  Go figure.

The differences don’t end there.  The PGA Pro owns the shop, frequently works the counter with perhaps only one staff person, and collects the green fees on behalf of the Club.   Inventory is very limited.  The shop is closed when the last booked tee time starts their round.    Members can walk up and play.  Visitors are precluded.

Maintenance costs are about 1/3 in Europe vs. the US.  On the vast majority of courses, they only water the greens, and on a few courses also  tees.   The bunker sand is pure.  Fairways and rough can vary dramatically based on the rain they get.  Pennard was essentially dead grass and cracked earth, as you will note if your view the video link above.  They have had an arid spring, and the course could use a good soaking.

The question becomes, what is the best business model? Europe’s courses we observed greatly underachieve their revenue potential, minimize expenses, and provide spartan and dated clubhouses.  The emphasis is on golf.  In contrast, the revenue realized by US courses is far greater, offset by higher operational expenses from staffing to maintenance.

My guess is that the earnings before interest, taxes, interest, and amortization are the same in both countries for most courses.

What’s your guess?  Which is the preferred model?

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  1.    Reply

    JJ – we cross both worlds. Our tee sheet is equal booking for “members” as it is for greens fees.
    We fill tee times with singles and other pairs – no empty spots is a good day.
    Maintenance -our fairways look like the Olde course today – brown and fast. only rain will change that. we get mixed reviews. there are those that love the over-watering most NA courses do. But we will reach a point where we can walk on it or drink it. that day will come.
    Our tees and greens remain watered (by hand mostly) so they are softer as well.
    Our revenue has increased for the last 2 years and is up again this year. with no significant rate increase.
    I think golf has to maximize use of the tee sheet, and back down on the watering and maintenance – leaving more areas as natural. Golf is meant to be played on a natural canvas – not a man made garden.

  2.    Reply

    Enjoyed this immensely. Also note in my Irish experience (limited) that the use of “buggies” is limited, no matter the hills. Wonder if that revenue stream is positive or negative. Hope you are well. Come play The Woodlands some time!