This week’s List of Largest Public and Semiprivate Golf Courses is a mix of pristine fairway locations and out-of-the-way greens.
All are profitable courses, but with different approaches to the end result. Making money for courses like Torrey Pines Golf Course, No. 1 on The List this year, is almost as simple as just opening the gates each morning. Ocean views atop coastline fairways made it the most-visited public golf course in San Diego County last year with more than 186,000 rounds played.
“I think, obviously, the setting of the golf course is phenomenal,” said Jim Allen, golf operations manager for the course. “I don’t think it could be any better anywhere. This is a wonderful place. The golf course is very good. The maintenance on the golf course is good. The tradition with the Buick Invitational draws people nationwide.”
When public courses and private clubs are compared with each other, the operating schedules show vast differences in the way they do business. Private clubs can rely on membership dues to support the upkeep and employee wages. For public courses, it is the tournaments that keep the grass green. Some hold one or two a year, others have more than 70.
– Invitational Treated
Like An Ad Campaign
At Torrey Pines, the Buick Invitational is treated like an annual advertising campaign and the 186,000 rounds played last year prove its success.
“The exposure is phenomenal nationwide,” Allen said.
It’s not as easy for smaller public courses though. Few of the tournaments hosted at Carlton Oaks Country Club in Santee have national corporate sponsors. Rather, most are for charity organizations, but it accomplishes the same goal.
“Well, No. 1, when you do golf tournaments you’re also selling food and drinks,” said Rex Cole, Carlton Oaks golf pro. “They have dinner here or lunch. You’re combining all the different departments on a golf course. When you just book twosomes and foursomes and just have people pulling out to play golf, most of the time they don’t eat or drink.
“Plus, at tournaments, they buy merchandise out of the pro shops. So you have all the avenues of making some money.”
– Better Prices
Tournaments at Carlton Oaks get better prices. Cole might knock $10 off the greens fees for the opportunity to earn $10,000 to $15,000 a day in the middle of the week when most tournaments are held. Regular greens fees run $45 to $55 on a given weekday.
“We would love to just have a tournament every day,” he said. “One check; it’s so much easier. But when you have local players, if the weather’s too hot or too rainy or too cold, they won’t come out.
“I’ve been here 21 years and I can’t depend on walk-on business. Torrey Pines has a three-hour wait all the time; we don’t have that here. We might get six people a day who walk up. We have to pre-book everything. There is just no walk-on business.”
Most of the Carlton Oaks tournaments are held between April and September. During the summer, it can get rather hot in Santee.
It would seem to be a difficult time to expect people to walk in the sun all day, but that’s when Cole does most of his business. Carlton Hills averages 70 tournaments a year in the 24 weeks between April 1 and Sept. 30.
– Temperatures Rise
In The Busy Season
“To be very honest, the last five to six years we have hit 90 degrees in August and September, but I booked all these tournaments and fund-raisers. That gets them out here.”
For Cole, it’s a great way to do business.
“I get a lot of satisfaction because when I do a tournament it’s business for us, the people come out and have a great day and then the fund-raiser makes some nice money,” he said. “So everybody’s happy. It’s a three-way ticket.”
Phil Machamer, the head golf pro at Mt. Woodson Country Club in Ramona, No. 8 on The List this year, said his course books tournaments for groups numbering 12 to 144. The mix of weekend tournaments and walk-on players is simply a necessity for public golf courses.
“It’s a source of income,” he said. “It’s like if you were in a hotel and you were trying to get corporate groups to come in and have their business meetings there and then you’re also having people come for weekend stays and one night stays. A good business tries to capture all the marketplace.”