By David Gould
Bob Griffieon has used a perceived shortcoming to generate business for the long term
When Island Hills Golf Club in Centreville, Michigan, was sold in 2010, new owner Bob Griffioen received only 17 of the course’s original 18 holes. Residential deeds and frontage rights granted to a group of homeowners had tied up a perimeter par-3, cleaving it off from the rest of the property. But in hindsight, this perceived challenge has been a blessing—and it all makes perfect sense.
How so? Well, a significant element in Griffioen’s marketing of Island Hills is to offer odd-length loops that let a golfer play (and pay for) a five-hole, seven-hole or 12-hole experience along with the customary nine or 18. In fact, Island Hills can offer a player his or her choice of two distinct, seven-hole mini-routings, an East and a West version. This reflects a trend of sorts in public-access golf, all geared toward creating new products, entry points, price points and essentially the per-hour version of paying to play.
Like many recent course purchases, the acquisition by Griffioen (pronounced grif-YOON) was from a lender forced to foreclose and then list the property at a distress-level price in the mid-six-figure range. Having accumulated substantial wealth as a manufacturer of furnace components, Griffioen was coming fresh into the golf operations business. The course he bought had opened just a decade earlier, so it was structurally sound but ragged in appearance from lapsed maintenance.
Upon completion of the deal, original architect Raymond Hearn was summoned back to repair bunkers, re-establish grass lines, and otherwise spruce up the layout. As architect and owner walked the fairways and discussed the course’s potential, it became clear that Griffioen’s interest in profitability was mixed with—or perhaps fueled by—a strong wish to make golf much more accessible to local players, especially families with younger children and juniors in general. The two came to see that Island Hills had a layout conducive to condensed golf experiences.
Hearn studied these possibilities and assured his client that the odd-length loops they designated would provide a satisfying sampling of the shot values and scenic attractions of the course, which borders 54-mile-long Lake Templene and winds through inspiring woodland and marsh. To do so, he needed to cut some new walkways between certain greens and tees as he and Griffioen selected the various configurations.
Targeting of various customer segments was naturally part of the decision-making. Island Hills offers options for serious players short on time but eager for challenge, as well as for newcomers (who will move way up to newly built tees) and the “twos and fives” types who can play a legitimate nassau on what’s called the 12-hole “Premier” course. To make it all work as planned, the golf staff and superintendent Joe Jehnsen spend some extra time discussing placement of tee markers and pins, in the name of shot variety and pace of play for the players following the various routes. Management has also created special scorecards for each layout that includes carefully designed mapping, measured yardages and colorful photos.
“The golfer will not have to take one of our 18-hole scorecards and try to figure his way around one of the alternate loops,” Griffioen says. “That would defeat the purpose.”
The Island Hills plan for selling golf in smaller packages is a noteworthy statement with echoes elsewhere across the golf landscape. Now in its second season, a similar concept has been succeeding at Makefield Highlands, outside Philadelphia. Noting that the layout showed three separate points on the front nine where the routing returned to the clubhouse—at Nos. 3 and 6, as well as at the turn—Makefield Highlands’ management instituted an $18 green fee covering the six-hole loop and a tidy $10 fee to play holes 1 through 3.
At both facilities, the need to filter short-version players onto the tees is kept firmly in mind. One ideal use of these alternate doses comes any evening that a nine-hole league takes over one half of the property—that opens up lots of space for the five- and seven-hole customers. And if golfers do want to play 18, as most weekend customers still do, there’s a brand-new par-3 hole crafted into the Island Hills property to make up for the one that got away.
“We’re addressing the problem of limited leisure time,” Griffioen says. “You play for the amount of time you have by picking the course you want to play, and you can feel sure it will be a very orderly round that will feel complete in the end.”
David Gould is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.