COL Advice on how to run a course, and it's free

Marketing, customer service is now the name of the game

Maybe it used to be that operating a golf course was simple.

Take care of the grounds, hire people to collect the money and handle the details.

You had a golf course and golfers needed you.

Times are different now. As the popularity of golf boomed, more courses opened. Now the popularity has leveled off -- some statistics even say it has declined -- and all those courses are still there.


Supply and demand is kicking in.

And I'm here to say golf course owners and managers need to take action.

I play a lot of different courses and -- relax, I'm not going to name names -- I have seen that many of them are not run in a business-like manner.

A rising tide lifts all boats, so when golf is wildly popular, even the poorly operated course will succeed. But when times get tougher, the best will thrive, the fair will struggle and the bad will fail.

By "best" I don't mean the four- and five-star courses. I mean the ones that provide value and good customer service. And then let the world know they provide them (a.k.a., marketing).

So here is some unsolicited advice to anyone involved in the business side of a golf course:

Find a niche. If you have a scenic piece of ground or are located conveniently, you have this. Or you can make your course special in some way, such as a unique design, great 19th-hole food or terrific greens. If all else fails, you can compete on price. There will always be customers for a course that keeps its prices low, as long as you:

Offer value. Cheap golf isn't a bargain if it's bad. Good golf isn't a bargain if it's expensive. If players don't feel like they're getting their money's worth -- or better -- they can probably find someplace nearby where they do.


Treat the customer like gold. Again, in a climate of competition, the so-called "little things" become huge. Be friendly, helpful, flexible. Don't act like you're doing the golfer a favor by taking his/her money.

Market yourself. Once you are sure you've covered the basics (a quality course, affordable fees, good customer service), you have to let the world know. Advertise and/or get your course in the public eye in other ways. Offer special deals to nudge players to try your course in hopes they will return, with friends.

Southeastern Minnesota courses are all over the map regarding these criteria. I know, I have played about three dozen of them. If a course does two of the first three, you walk away with a good feeling. If it does only one, you might come back or you might not. If it does all three, you will come back, probably often.

I am frequently surprised at the ways courses come up short. Here's a few that come immediately to mind:

Lack of maintenance. When you can't tell where the fairways are because of all the white-headed dandelions, it doesn't even seem like golf.

Bad design. A course might have a lot of good qualities, but most golfers won't come back to find out about them if the course is too quirky, weird or tricked up. There's one course in the area I like to show to friends and family. I know the place well enough that I can guide them through blind shots and strangely designed holes and help them enjoy the nice variety and the excellent greens that keep me coming back. But golf isn't fishing; you shouldn't need a guide to enjoy it.

Cluelessness. Example: A short course is in a location where they'll get a lot of beginners and people who golf once a year while on vacation. Keeping the greens super-fast is only going to drive away the types of golfers who are most likely to find your course attractive.

Snappish help. Surly starters are the worst, and what can a golfer do about that? Call them on their attitude and they can hurt you.


Also, unfriendly workers at the counter can get a golfer off to an unpleasant start. Recently we encountered one at a course where they're fighting for the golfers' dollar in a competitive area. This place has a quality course, priced competitively (especially with their advertised special) and everyone else who worked there was friendly. But my partner and I talked on the drive home about the person who took our money, then crabbed that we were a couple of minutes late for our tee time. Hey, if you're trying to attract customers from more than a 10-mile radius, they might have traffic trouble or difficulty finding the course. If the next group is ready to go off early (as was the case here), who was harmed?

Rigidity. If the only three groups on the course are on the first three holes, why not let us pay the back nine, or even start on No. 5?

Allowing slow play. I admit that it's a ticklish subject to hassle the customers, even when they cluelessly or thoughtlessly play so slowly that it affects the enjoyment of others. But can you start by not allowing fivesomes, let alone sixsomes (and I've seen both), at least when the course isn't nearly empty.

Cheapness. Water coolers are cheap, water is cheaper. Give us lots of fresh, cold water. Give us ball washers on every hole. Don't give us a sign on the counter telling us not to look for golf balls (I still don't know if that meant only scrounging for extra balls or if I wasn't even supposed to look for my own errant shots).

So, course managers and owners, there are my suggestions. There are lots of golfers to serve, and I'd love to see every course find a niche and succeed.

Good luck.

Craig Swalboski is sports editor for the Post-Bulletin. He can be contacted at

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