From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
One of the best observations I’ve ever heard about public golf came years ago from Mark Claburn, the longtime certified golf course superintendent at the municipally owned Tierra Verde Golf Club in Arlington, Texas.
The problem with public golf, he told me, is that it’s become the pizza business.
“Nobody plays a course anymore because it’s a good design, or in great shape, or has friendly service,” he said. “They play wherever they can play the cheapest. They browse the internet, looking for the best deal, and that’s where they play.”
He’s right. Brand loyalty means nothing to most public course golfers. There are so many options, especially in major markets like Dallas-Fort Worth, that public players can afford to shop around and play where they feel they're getting a bargain.
I've seen price wars among daily-fee courses using the same sort of marketing techniques that pizza parlors use: Two-for-ones; large for the price of a medium (that is, 18 for the price of nine, disguised as a "twilight fee"); additional ingredients (i.e. cart) tossed in at no additional charge. Even Tierra Verde does it; I guess it's forced to.
The problem is that, unlike pizza, golf courses can’t easily make it up on volume. There’s no crust to stretch a little thinner, no sauce to spread with a brush instead of a ladle, no pepperoni to scatter 10 to a pie instead of 15.
Once you get more golfers to play your course, more maintenance is required, not less. If you try to cut the budget by mowing fairways just twice a week, or change cups every third day, the place will wear out within weeks.
This discount mentality is especially frustrating for Claburn because he manages a very fine public golf course, one of the best in the Metroplex. Designed back in 1998 by Gary Stephenson, when he was still an associate designer at the former firm of David Graham and Gary Panks, Tierra Verde is wonderfully isolated within 250 acres of rolling prairie on the south side of Arlington, just east of Fort Worth. There are no housing developments along these fairways. Instead, the generous corridors are framed by rather intimidating vegetation: big and little bluestem grasses, plum thickets, bramble bushes, live oaks and mesquite trees. From most fairways on the course, you don’t see another golf hole. Hit it too far offline, and you won’t see that golf ball ever again, either.
As if to compensate for the severity around the fringes, Stephenson and his bosses went easy on the bunkering at Tierra Verde. Five holes—the first, seventh, ninth, 14th and 15th—have none whatsoever, although the 14th green is a peninsula in a lake and the 15th green has another lake along its far right. Five others—the second, fourth, seventh, 12th and 16th—have no bunkers guarding the greens, but there are knobs, mounds, ditches, hollows and chipping areas protecting pin positions quite well.
The hybrid Bermuda fairways and TifEagle Bermuda greens are expertly maintained by Claburn and his staff. The course also gets great marks for being environmentally friendly. It was the national winner of the Golf Digest co-sponsored Environmental Leaders of Golf Award in 2004, and before that had been the first municipal course in the nation to be given Audubon Signature Status by Audubon International.
To those ends, Claburn practices a great deal of “organic” maintenance in his program, using alternatives to chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. But doing so requires more manpower and more expense. Which begs the question: How long can any course absorb those costs while discounting prices in a pizza parlor economy?
The market will have to change drastically before public golfers will be willing to pay higher green fees to cover the increased costs of sustainable maintenance practices. After all, discount pizza parlors don’t use organic tomatoes on their pizza pies, even though they’d probably taste a lot better.