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December 2012

Standing the Test of Time

By Steven Tingle

The industry and market have changed, but Stono Ferry continues to thrive

standingthetestoftimeTo visit the Links at Stono Ferry is to step back in time. Not as far as the 1700s, although the property was the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle. Or even the 1860s, when a Confederate battery was built close to what is now the No. 14 tee. It’s more like revisiting the mid-1990s, a period when the parking lots of public courses were full and players of all ages, abilities and incomes were taking the time and spending the money to enjoy the game of golf.

Suffice it to say the times have changed, yet they haven’t left The Links at Stono Ferry behind. That’s no small feat considering this semi-private course is located 15 miles west of Charleston, South Carolina, a crowded and competitive market that boasts such nationally acclaimed destinations as Kiawah Island Golf Resort and Wild Dunes. What’s more, the golf meccas of Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head bookend the course to the north and south, respectively.

“We have a unique product,” explains the soft-spoken general manager Greg Wood, referring to Stono Ferry’s ability to thrive in a tough environment. “The golf course is a quality course, and we’ve created a culture with our service that mimics what I associate with the Lowcountry. We’re relaxed, but we respect the traditions of the game and we’re here to serve [customers] and help [them] have a great time.”

Wood understands that golf—much like dining, travel and cars—is an emotional purchase and that the aesthetics and service of a facility are just as important as the layout and price. “You don’t have to play golf,” says Wood, who also serves as president of the Charleston Golf Course Owners Association. “You play golf because of how it makes you feel.”

At least part of the way that Wood and his staff make customers feel is a byproduct of his relationship with owner Pat Barber, who purchased the club in 2002. “Pat saw potential in the club—he said it had ‘good bones,” recounts Wood who, along with superintendent Michael Eargle, has been at Stono Ferry for 14 years.  “Pat has a very good eye of how things should look, and I think that translates into what people want.”

Barber also hasn’t shied from enduring some short-term pain for long-term gain. During a time when most operators are searching for additional places to cut costs and spending, Stono Ferry has shifted into spending mode.

“The recession was certainly a down time, but it was also a great opportunity to make improvements based on the quality received for the dollar,” Wood says. “It also helps that we have an owner that’s committed to quality and doing things right even in hard times.”

The improvements that Barber, Wood and Eargle have completed range from a remodeling of the 18th hole, taking it from a straightforward, somewhat boring hole to one of the best finishers in the area, to building a state-of-the-art practice facility for the College of Charleston’s golf team.

“The practice facility and learning center have certainly helped in a competitive market,” Wood says. “Being around great athletes and players helps create a buzz about the property. It’s just another layer we can add to Stono Ferry and the story we can tell.”

Built in 2007, the learning center features a double-ended range, two indoor hitting bays with a K-Vest motion capture biofeedback system, chipping/putting greens, and a workout facility featuring Titleist Performance Institute training and fitness. Although originally built for the golf team, Stono Ferry’s members are taking advantage of the facility’s offerings and improving their games.
“I feel we have a membership that’s very progressive,” Wood says. “We have five sets of tees here. We’ve embraced ‘Tee It Forward’ and people making the choice of the appropriate tee to play from. So we have members who are playing longer in their golfing life.”

But Wood admits facility improvements are only one piece in the golf operation puzzle. Cost control, marketing and staff training are equally necessary to create a clear picture of profitability. “We still go through all of our fixed costs and ask where can we find savings,” he says.

For example, the club recently changed to tankless water heaters in the clubhouse and reduced its power bill by 25 percent. Wood also introduced a “chaperone” program for new employees, which is designed to enhance customer service and raise the overall quality level of the staff. “It’s important to work with people who embrace the same ideas and concepts,” Wood notes.

The final component of Stono Ferry’s success is something often overlooked by public and semi-private courses: the importance of non-golfers. “We’re dedicated to our non-golf social events,” says Wood, who oversees “social member” theme parties such as wine dinners and oyster roasts. “We have about 10 events a year because we want to make sure that even if you don’t play golf, you can still interact in a non-golf social environment that will provide value.”

By all accounts, the value equation is resonating. Wood says the events foster a sense of community and create social networks that have drawn in new members, golfing and non-golfing alike. “We will have 125 people at our oyster roast and maybe only 60 of them play golf,” he notes. “But you have to be committed to those people, and you have dedicate resources to do it.”

No doubt, that’s a formula for success that can stand the test of time.

Steven Tingle is a Greenville, South Carolina-based freelance writer.

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