Bluffton's Brown taking advantage of buyer's market in golf world

July 28, 2011 

It may seem a peculiar thing, given the uneasy and challenging state of golf course ownership these days, to be out buying courses while so many are seeking to unload them. High debt, flat play and increased competition has made the golf industry a dicey proposition for most and a losing one for far too many.

Yet Bluffton entrepreneur John Brown doesn't see challenge in the current golf industry, he spies opportunity; and it's one he is acting upon in a big way. In March, Brown and his company Brown Golf Management became the owners of Pinecrest Golf Club, a popular semi-private club in Bluffton that is also home to the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy.

In two weeks, Brown will add longtime Bluffton course Island West to his portfolio, and that's just the beginning of an aggressive and impressive plan to add as many as 24 golf courses throughout the Southeast in the next four or five years. In fact, Brown, who lives in the Pinecrest community, has several purchase offers out in Florida and plans to add additional courses in the Bluffton area as soon as attractive opportunities materialize.

"We feel like it's a buyer's market out there and there are a lot of great opportunities to acquire quality golf courses that fit our profile," said Brown, who formed his company earlier this year. "We are entering the market for that specific reason."

Brown Golf Management assumed direction of Pinecrest on March 1 and Brown expects to close on the deal at Island West on or about Aug. 9. The purchase of the Fuzzy Zoeller-Clyde Johnston designed course fits within the company's philosophy of "clustering" similar courses within a region to provide more options for members and more exposure to public play.

"We were pleased with what we found over there and we think it will be a nice addition to what we are doing at Pinecrest," Brown said.

In fact, the acquisition of Island West to the Brown Golf Management family -- which, just like Pinecrest, is a cash buy without debt-building financing -- should prove to be a perfect addition for current members of both clubs. Island West and Pinecrest, which has the larger of the two membership bases, will be combined into one membership program, giving current members a second option for golf and yet-to-be members another reason to join.

In addition, Brown said he plans to institute the same "free lessons for members" program that has proven popular at Pinecrest since March. Further, Pinecrest head golf professional David Crosby will move over to Island West to ensure a smooth transition and Brown's wife Mimi, a former professional golfer, will oversee the instruction program at the club. Current Pinecrest director of instruction Patrick Politan will assume Crosby's duties while maintaining his teaching role at the club.

"Our golf memberships are going to travel," Brown said of his cluster philosophy. "We plan to operate our clubs as one business and to offer all the same programs and amenities at each club we own."

When Brown says "each club we own," it really means something, given the fact the company plans to own an extensive portfolio of golf courses by the time its growth slows four or five years down the line. Not only does he expect to add courses in the Bluffton area, he is looking at multiple other markets from the Carolinas down through Florida that includes areas such as Pinehurst, Myrtle Beach, Jacksonville, Orlando and St. Augustine, Fla.

Prior to starting his own business, Brown spent many years with Troon Golf, one of the nation's largest golf management and ownership companies, where he specialized in turning around struggling clubs for the nationwide outfit. In addition to his business acumen, Brown is also a Master PGA Professional, a significant distinction in the golf industry shared by fewer than 350 golf professionals.

"A lot of golf courses just waited too long to change their business model and their marketing programs," Brown said of the struggles of courses he is in the market to buy. "I believe we have found a niche with golf courses that have solid layouts, nice amenities and membership programs that are affordable."

It's that very business model that Brown Golf Management has brought to Pinecrest and will be introducing at Island West. It's the right move in this current golf climate and one that will provide new options for local golfers looking for a place -- or better yet places -- to call home.

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