ClubCorp CEO: Rejuvenated clubs have renewed optimism

The pandemic in 2020 sparked the rediscovery of private golf and country clubs across the nation. According to ClubCorp’s CEO, the lessons that those clubs learned during such tenuous times could fortify their long-term success

As calendar years go, 2020 was a never-ending roller-coaster ride. It toyed with people’s emotions and it bullied their psyches. Businesses were no less affected. While some industries were able to weather the storm without taking losses — and a rare few managed to prosper in unprecedented times — most took 2020’s best punch on the chin and struggled to stay on their feet.

When the global pandemic reached U.S. shores and much of the country initiated shutdowns and stay-at-home mandates, non-essential businesses like golf clubs were forced to keep their gates closed at precisely the time when many would typically be opening their doors and welcoming the start of a new golf season. As weeks rolled by and the fairways and greens of many of the country’s golf clubs stood barren, morale dipped precipitously.

“It was a very tenuous and scary time,” said David Pillsbury, the CEO of ClubCorp.

Firestone Country Club | South Course — Hole No. 18
Firestone Country Club, which has hosted three PGA Championships and was a longtime stop on the PGA Tour, was acquired by ClubCorp in 1981.

Based in Dallas, ClubCorp is the largest owner and operator of private golf and country clubs within the United States; and from his chief executive position, Pillsbury watched as more than 200 clubs anxiously pondered their fate. “For 45 to 60 days it was, ‘Are we going to survive?’ scary,” he said.

Once states deemed golf courses to be safe venues for socially distanced activity, golfers returned to their clubs with an eagerness and a fervor that those clubs hadn’t experienced in decades. A recent report by the National Golf Foundation substantiates that claim. In 2009, as the country was still struggling to bounce back from an economic recession, 327 private clubs were surveyed about their facility’s financial health. Only 39 percent reported that their condition was good to great — a score of at least eight on a sliding scale of 10. Fast forward 11 years, however, and 64 percent of the 337 private clubs surveyed in 2020 scored their financial health as at least an eight out of 10.

“People gravitate to what’s comfortable and familiar and what feels safe during periods of uncertainty,” Pillsbury said. “People have this inherent need to connect with other people, and clubs had been overlooked and somewhat forgotten as an amazing place to gather and connect.”

Last year, those clubs learned that if they were to find — and maintain — success in such a challenging market, they needed to ensure that their offerings were relevant to the demands and interest of their members. “When rediscovery and relevance meet,” Pillsbury said, “you end up with something sticky.”

The most successful clubs, according to Pillsbury, are the ones that can effectively engage their members with unique and diverse programming. In this way, the golf club holds relevance in almost every aspect of a member’s life. For much of 2020, however, golf clubs had to pivot — not only with regard to the programming they offered but also the ways in which they could make that programming accessible to their membership. Virtual cooking classes, wine tasting seminars, and fitness classes were offered through video sessions on social media sites, while take-out meals became a primary revenue driver for clubs’ food and beverage programs.

Those adaptations — virtual programs and robust take-out menus — are services that many clubs plan to offer throughout 2021, Pillsbury said, even after the pandemic and its restrictions are in the rear view.

While a significant portion of the business and activity that golf clubs enjoyed during 2020 can be attributed to returning club members, the renaissance of the private club lifestyle also attracted a slew of first-time members, including newcomers to the sport of golf in general. According to Pillsbury, the fastest growing segment of membership is golfers in their 30s and early 40s.

Prior to 2020, reports for years had suggested that golf’s popularity was on the decline. A Bleacher Report article in 2011 speculated that golf’s decline in the United States was linked to people spending more time working. Naturally, those people couldn’t devote the necessary time anymore to play regular rounds of golf. In 2014, Money.com published an article listing the reasons for golf’s dwindling popularity — lack of time to play once again led the argument, however the cost to play, the sport’s inherent difficulty, and the general perception that golf just isn’t cool also factored into the explanation. Four years later, a Bloomberg article reported that the number of regular golfers decreased by almost 10 million between 2002 and 2016.

According to Pillsbury, the reports on golf’s decreasing popularity were misleading. There’s always been a latent interest in the game, he said. In 2020, for the first time in a long time, that passive fascination in golf finally converted into trial.

“The biggest challenge that clubs are going to have is hanging onto this newfound demand,” Pillsbury said. “This surging interest in golf — people who have decided to join a private club — we have to hang onto to those people.”

To do that, Pillsbury believes clubs need to create programs that are structured around golf but are complemented by social opportunities. Yes, traditional avenues of golfer engagement — complementary skills assessments, coaching sessions, and rounds of golf played with the club’s head pro — have a role in a club’s member retention. But other programs like wine-and-nine (nine-hole golf outings followed by wine tastings) or short-game clinics followed by cocktails and appetizers are offerings that not only connect members to the game and the club’s facilities, they also connect members to other members. It’s also a way to make sure non-golfing spouses and kids feel welcome and a part of the club.

In fact, through a ClubCorp-created, proactive outreach system known as Active Customer Management (ACM), clubs have the ability to reach out and engage with new members, specifically millennials.

“It makes sure that we’re systematically programming engagement activities to ensure that new members get connected not only to the game but to other members at their club,” Pillsbury said of ACM. “When that happens they don’t leave.”

As a new calendar year begins and fresh golfing seasons loom on the horizon, the golf clubs that survived 2020 must leverage what they learned about their membership’s demands during those unprecedented times. If they do, those clubs can convert a potential flash-in-the-pan spike in interest into something far more sustainable and more profitable.

“The learning for everyone should be that we need to continue to amplify the importance of human connection,” Pillsbury said. “That’s what a private club should be all about. It’s deepening connections for the members with the game itself but also with each other.”