The last few weeks have been a whirlwind, with visits to over 60 golf courses, including a 21-course odyssey between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
The Highway 61 itinerary included:
4 Private Clubs – Pathfinder Village, Cloquet, Northland and Ridgeview
10 Public 9-hole courses – Pine City, Pokegama Lake, Sandstone, Moose Lake, 29 Pines, Pine Hill, Big Lake, Grand View, Proctor and Far Par Golf (RIP – closed this year)
4 Public 18-hole courses – Spring Brook, Grand National, Black Bear
2 Public 27-hole courses – Enger Park and Lester Park
1 Public 36-hole course – Nemadji
No, I didn’t play them all, but the trip did include a rare treat… 18 holes at Northland Country Club in Duluth. This Donald Ross-designed beauty has been one of the top-rated courses in Minnesota since opening in 1927 and has been on my bucket list for years. If you ever receive an invitation to play Northland, do not pass it up. Mr. Ross has a lot of notches in his belt in Minnesota… including Interlachen, Minikahda, White Bear Yacht Club and Woodhill… and Northland can stand up to any of them. When you play a Donald Ross course, it’s important not to get overconfident after the first few holes… he lulls you to sleep with a few gentle holes, gradually tightens the screws as you work your way through the front nine and then you need to hang on for dear life as he throws everything but the kitchen sink at you on the back nine. Northland’s unique charms lie in the spectacular views over Lake Superior and the impossible to read greens… even if you can’t see the lake you need to always be aware of where it is because that’s the way the ball will break… no matter what your eyes tell you.
Another guilty pleasure during the trip was the discovery of a previously undetected course. With over 36,000 golf courses in the GroupLooper course directory, I thought we had found them all… particularly in the area so close to home. But as I was taking a detour off of Highway 61 to travel from the Pine City Country Club to Spring Brook Golf Course (Mora, MN), I noticed a sign on the side of the road promoting the Lake Pokegama RV and Golf Course. I did a double take, then negotiated a quick u-turn, eased onto Island Resort Road, and sure enough… there was a 9-hole par 3 course that had previously escaped detection. Apparently, this track has been hiding in plain sight for about 25 years. It’s primarily used for the enjoyment of the residents of the RV park but it is open to the public ($10 for 9 holes, $15 for all day) and the extremely pleasant golf shop attendant assured me that “people really have a good time out there”.
And there, once again, you have the yin and yang of golf… from the uber-exclusive private club carefully crafted on 100+ acres of prime real estate by a golf artist like Donald Ross to the casually thrown together track on the flatlands of rural Minnesota.
What do they have in common? Golfers can have a helluva good time in both places.
With plenty of windshield time on my drive back south, I had time for some deep thinking about my recent travels and the conversations I had with the proprietors and golf shop attendants at this wide array of courses. It’s a great time to be a golfer… there are so many options and many of them are available at surprisingly low prices. For golf course operators, with supply and demand still a bit out of whack these are challenging times. How can you make your course stand out in this crowded marketplace? How can you get golfers to play a few more rounds per year? How can you entice golfers who have discovered your course to come back again and/or to recommend it to others? What makes your facility memorable?
This is not an exact science, and my nomadic tastes don’t reflect the whims of every golfer… but perhaps these thoughts will get your creative juices flowing regarding ways to make your golf facility more memorable… with an emphasis on POSITIVE memories.
In broad terms, you’ve got three ways to make a golfer’s experience at your facility more memorable:
- Your SERVICE – Before anyone gets to the first tee, they interact with one or more of your team members at the bag drop, the golf shop, on the driving range or at the starter’s station. You only get one chance to make a first impression… does your team make the most of it?
- Your COURSE – Most course operators don’t have the unfair advantage of a Donald Ross-design masterpiece… but that doesn’t mean your course can’t be a draw. There are several relatively inexpensive things you can do to make your course unique and memorable… have you done it?
- Your AMENITIES – Golfers are showing up to play golf, but if we’re going to be there for 4+ hours we need to eat, drink and probably relax for a bit. Provide us with some little creature comforts and we’ll reward you with fonder memories and many happy returns.
I’ve compiled a list of the 18 most memorable experiences that I’ve had over the past few years as I’ve played 50+ courses per year, but I’m not going to share them just yet. Take some time between now and then thinking about how to make your course more memorable and I’ll share my list in a blog post a few weeks down the road.
If you’re looking for a little inspiration, you just might find it out on Highway 61… this sixth verse for Highway 61 Revisited was recently discovered in the Bob Dylan archives… somehow it was omitted from the recording session:
Well, the golf course owner, he had an empty tee sheet
He lamented, “Where are the players that used to come here to meet”
He asked his consultant “How do I get them to return”
The guru said “There’s one thing you must learn”
He went on, “it isn’t enough just to have a day filled with sun”
“You’ve got to make sure that you offer some memorable fun”
To get them racing back to your course out on Highway 61”