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January 2014

Big on Growing the Game

Leveraging lessons learned at Golf 20/20, Cathy Harbin is bringing the game to the masses at ClubCorp

Big on Growing the GameClubCorp is one of the most powerful forces in the golf industry, a sprawling international juggernaut with more than 150 clubs in its portfolio and a half-billion dollars in revenue. The company has the kind of clout to essentially reshape the ownership landscape as it sees fit and the equity to acquire nearly anyone that gets in its way.

Given ClubCorp’s size and resources, it’s somewhat surprising the Dallas-based business has chosen a decidedly low-key, grassroots approach to growth. Cathy Harbin, vice president of golf revenue, is spearheading that effort by focusing on a core belief that’s been a hallmark of her career: making golf fun and removing other barriers that keep people from taking up the game.

The former mini-tour player came to ClubCorp from the World Golf Village, where she was both general manager and director of leadership development at the resort’s two courses. Harbin’s success there prompted stakeholders at Golf 20/20, an influential industry think tank, to tap her as the lead on Get Golf Ready. This progressive player development initiative seeks to lure adults to golf through a series of five affordable, informal lessons. Beyond teaching technique, the Get Golf Ready program addresses many of the preconceived notions newcomers commonly harbor.

“There’s no doubt golf can be intimidating to new players,” Harbin says. “To succeed, we had to show this isn’t a stuffy game.”

Succeed she did. Harbin convinced more than 1,100 facility operators to host Get Golf Ready programs (well above her target of 700) and in the process introduced thousands of new people to the game. She put the lessons learned at Golf 20/20 to good use when she moved to ClubCorp in 2012, developing programs designed to engage people on the outside of the game looking in.

“There will always be those core golfers who become members purely for the love of the game.” Harbin says.

Targeting people interested in the country club lifestyle who hold back because of their golf inexperience, Harbin rolled out programs that mirror the Get Golf Ready model across ClubCorp’s network. One plan she’s particularly excited about is the “It’s Okay to Play” program, which strips away all the pretensions of the game by focusing on a foundation of 18 simple rules that range from “It’s okay not to keep score” to “It’s okay to throw the ball out of a bunker after one try.” Management at ClubCorp member facilities have also tweaked the industry-wide Tee It Forward initiative with a program dubbed “Right Tees” that encourages golfers to play from the tees most suited to their skill level.

Harbin knows the path to success for ClubCorp (and the golf industry, for that matter) isn’t just through aggressively acquiring new members. Keeping current ones happy is equally, if not more, important. “So often people join and think they’re going to love golf, but soon realize it takes longer than they realized or it’s more difficult than they thought and then they leave,” she notes.

To keep those members in the fold, Harbin works to ensure the programs, promotions and policies at the clubs are fresh and relevant. That means tailoring programs to today’s lifestyles. “People just don’t have the time to play golf like they used to,” she says. [See “Getting Their Kicks On Route 66.”]

With this reality in mind, Harbin and her staff create an annual plan of brand standards. It’s a set of guiding principles for individual clubs that covers everything from staff dress code to rules on running ClubCorp’s popular Family Fun Days. The plans are flexible enough to allow managers at the local level room to customize their operation. “As the year progresses, we can see what’s working at one club and roll that out across the country,” Harbin notes.

Of course, no amount of programming or planning can supersede the value of service. That’s why Harbin points to staff members as the cornerstones of the company’s success.

“We have multiple golf professionals who are engaged and love sharing their love for the game,” she says. In fact, each new member sits down for a one-on-one interview with the club’s manager to assess what they hope to gain out of their membership experience. “Everyone is different, but knowing what is expected really helps us ensure a positive experience.”

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.


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