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October 2019

Short, but Sweet


Par 3s, 9-hole Courses have Significant Impact, Despite A Smaller Footprint

By David Gould

Someone says “golf” and you’ll picture 7,000 yards, par-72, on 125 or so acres. Courses half those sizes – same scale, just nine holes – tend to disappoint. An 18-holer that’s all par-3s might likewise draw shrugs.

But the golf market is shifting. Alternatives to “championship” length have grown in value. That doesn’t mean today’s par 3s and 9 holers have an easy time of it, merely that they’ve got a more relevant niche. They offer the briefer, more affordable golf experience that’s increasingly in demand.

And if you check rates for quality par 3s, you’ll find they’ve got some pricing power, compared to neighboring courses of regulation length. And so, if operators can charge a healthy green fee while having to maintain only one-third the acreage of a regulation course, have they beaten the system with a powerful 1-2 profit punch?

Not exactly.

“Our 18-hole course plays to 2,621 yards at par 54 and it covers 42 acres,” says Fred LaSelva, who manages a classy par 3 called Twin Brooks Golf Course in the Cape Cod town of Hyannis, Massachusetts. “That sounds like a small area to maintain, but the difference is all fairway yardage – greens and tees really aren’t any different a maintenance challenge for us than for a full-length course.”

Operators of non-regulation courses tend to have a well-developed understanding of their local market, and LaSelva is no exception – he knows his customer segments and what they come looking for.

“Being lenient about dress code fits our role, but so does teaching people to fix ball marks, rake bunkers and not hold up play,” says LaSelva. “If you play golf here, we’ll get to know you, you’ll become a knowledgeable player and you’ll develop a lot of important skills.”

Twin Brooks gets nice exposure via the radio show LaSelva has co-hosted for years with famed New England teaching professional Jane Frost. Out of that collaboration has come an interesting instruction strategy. New players who get their feet wet at Twin Brooks and want to improve will be sent to Frost’s golf academy 10 minutes away. It’s connected to an 18-hole course, Sandwich Hollows, but LaSelva doesn’t mind if some of the green-fee business from his newbies ends up there.

“We’re part of a community here on the Cape,” says LaSelva. “Our course makes a profit and we’re able to do our capital improvements, but our success doesn’t come from thinking about money first, it comes from fulfilling our role and putting the golfers first.”

You’ll hear a similar mindset from Davis Sezna, a worldly entrepreneur who owns the Crosswinds Par 3 in Greenville, South Carolina, which is currently undergoing a dramatic renovation and expansion.

“Golf courses of every kind should be well-fitted into their surrounding community,” says Sezna. “Golf always followed that mindset, until the boom in real-estate courses, which threw everything out of whack.”

Having built and managed two championship layouts, Sezna enjoys running a facility that attracts everyone from low-handicappers honing their scoring shots to grade-school kids taking their first swings.

“A course like this puts more smiles on a greater variety of faces,” Sezna says.

He makes the related point that a regulation golf course could choose to set up a player-development program if it wished to, but par 3s and most 9 holers are automatically in that business, providing a portal for new golfers. You can’t run a short-yardage course if you aren’t focused on creating new golfers, “and a major part of that portal effect is a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere,” contends Sezna.

Is it possible to maintain that casual warmth even as you redevelop the property to include a stone-and-glass, 4,500-square-foot facility with a 100-seat restaurant and bar, plus a rooftop bar and seating area, all overseen by a celebrity chef? Sezna, a purist golfer who competed in the U.S. Amateur and belongs to the R&A, is certain you can. “Golf teaches the value of generosity and social interaction,” he says. “Anyone who really loves this game wants to share it.”

Along highway 275 in Norfolk, Nebraska, Kelly’s Country Club is a classic rural 9 holer that continues to unfurl golf’s welcome mat, an icon of family ownership and small-town unpretentiousness. Local attorney Vince Kirby built the 2,800-yard par-36 on land he received as payment in lieu of cash from a client. A father of 12, Kirby died two years ago at age 89 while working on the course. Several of his children work for the facility, three of them full-time, including Kelly Kirby Benson, alongside her husband, Reggie Benson.

“Our weekend fee for nine is $15 plus $10 for half the cart,” says Kelly Benson. “On a nice Saturday or Sunday we’re pretty much packed. We do 125 league golfers a week, and probably 20 walkups a day along with that. We can always use more golfers, but it’s a pretty steady business.” Since 1990, when the course was built, Norfolk’s growth pattern has come in the course’s direction – helping build ancillary revenue.

“We’re starting to do a lot of holiday parties in the winter, and since we built a pergola last year we’re in the wedding business, too,” says Benson.

The establishment has a full liquor license and lately its bar orders include “a lot of those new funky drinks with interesting names,” she adds.

Her father’s famous “Poor Man’s Prime Rib” still slow-roasts in the cook-and-hold oven, only now son-in-law Reggie serves as meat-master. The place gets taken over by 70-player tournaments two weekends a year – free-spending golfers from the Omaha network of Vince, Jr., who grew up from baby of the family to become a highly successful contractor.

When you tell her all these factors comprise a solid “brand positioning” for her business, Kelly Benson simplifies matters, saying: “What works for us is that our golf course is an easy one for beginners and everyone here is friendly.”

Along with a serving of Reggie’s slow-cooked beef, you’d take that recipe for success anytime.  

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.


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