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March 2014

The Comfort Zone

Kinloch Golf Club remains true to its roots by bucking trends and remaining a core golf facility

/uploadedImages/Articles/2014/(03)_March/thecomfortzone.jpgKinloch Golf Club doesn’t have a swimming pool. There’s no gun range or tennis court. Even the fitness center is barely existent.

So given all the things Kinloch doesn’t have, how does this private course located near Richmond, Virginia, manage to earn a No. 51 ranking on Golf Digest’s prestigious Top 100 Courses list? According to director of operations Phil Owenby, the reason is simple: “We focus on the game of golf.”

Kinloch is the brainchild of Marvin M. “Vinny” Giles, III, Charlie Staples and C.B. Robertson, III, a trio that could be considered a course development dream team of sorts. Robertson owned the land Kinloch was built on, and Giles brought an extensive golfing pedigree, with a remarkable career that includes wins at the 1972 U.S. Amateur and 1975 British Amateur. Staples, meanwhile, was (and still is) revered as an operator, having worked in the industry for decades and authored the book “Buying or Leasing a Golf Course.”

Originally, Kinloch’s development group envisioned the facility as a high-end public course because, according to Owenby, “there was really nothing catering to this niche in Richmond at the time.” But when they all walked the property with architect Lester George during an early routing survey, they agreed the land called for something extraordinary.

“It’s all rolling terrain with natural creeks and wetlands,” Owenby says. “They felt like the golf course should be so much more than just a daily-fee course.”

As luck would have it, Staples was involved in planning a private course in Northern Virginia at the time. “It didn’t come to pass, but he had all the documentation and the business plan right there, so they decided to go forward with that,” Owenby notes.

Giles had a clear vision: He intended to build Kinloch “first and foremost as a first-class golf club.” The sports agent, who founded Pros, Inc., in 1973 and represented such golfers as Davis Love III, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Kite before selling his company to Octagon in 1999, wanted a simple clubhouse, small membership base and a premier practice facility. “He knew if we provided all that, and layered in truly world-class service with a bit of Southern charm, Kinloch would be a success,” Owenby says.

This dedication to a pure golf club is manifest in the close ties Kinloch shares with Scottish clubs. The name itself translates to “near a body of water,” and the founders even borrowed an old Scottish way of settling up bets on the course by adding a 19th hole. “Mr. Giles wanted to give every golfer something extra when they play here,” says Owenby, “and the 19th hole is just another way of doing that.”

Construction on the course began in 1999, and when the 7,112-yard layout opened in 2001, it garnered rave reviews, including the No. 1 New Private Course designation from Golf Digest. The club originally offered 110 memberships, and they quickly sold out.

Since then, Kinloch has added 365 memberships, but Owenby suggests the roster is essentially full, save for “a few more national memberships.” Those types of numbers will ensure the rounds played count doesn’t climb too far above 15,000 annually, a level that management and the membership both like.

In terms of demographics, Kinloch’s membership would make a lot of other operators happy, too. The club attracts a disproportionate number of young, successful golfing enthusiasts in their late 20s through early 40s. They have considerable expendable income and, more importantly, decades of play in their future.

Owenby attributes this success to the club’s focus on the game, but also says Kinloch’s business entertainment environment plays a key role in attracting this lucrative segment. “They know they can bring their guests, their clients and associates to the club and entertain them in an environment that’s commensurate with what they’re trying to do in their business,” he says. “They’re trying to be successful and be the best at what they do, and that’s our goal, too.”

Memberships to Kinloch are by invitation only, and the club has never spent a cent on marketing. “We’re lucky to have members that bring in a lot of people from across the country to play, and that gets the right kind of people thinking about us,” says Owenby, who also credits Kinloch’s high-profile magazine rankings as an effective tool in attracting potential members.

Because of its golf-first focus, there’s never been pressure to add amenities to compete with more traditional country clubs. In fact, the club really isn’t seeking that sort of member, content instead to push against the grain and remain true to its core golf roots.

“We’re very comfortable with who we are,” Owenby says. “We’ve created a truly unique culture that you just can’t find anywhere else.”

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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