Southern Beaufort County golf courses embrace 'value-oriented' mentality

dburley@islandpacket.comDecember 14, 2013 

The Great Recession redefined the typical golfer.

He became cash-conscious, busier with work and more likely to spend weekends with family, not on the green.

"The recession certainly changed the paradigm," said Cary Corbitt, president of the Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association and director of sports and operations at Sea Pines. "The time people have to spend is much different."

Southern Beaufort County's golf industry suffered as a result. From 2006 to 2011, the number of rounds played at Hilton Head area courses sank nearly 20 percent, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

Now, the area is crawling back from the economy's battering. And course owners say the new golfer provides new opportunities in a rebuilding market.

Courses in Bluffton are offering "value-oriented" golf to capitalize on an increasingly frugal customer.

At the same time, high-end Hilton Head Island courses are selling discounted golf-and-travel packages to attract the winter golfer eager for a round at famed places such as Harbour Town Golf Links.

"You're looking at different categories of golfers -- the local golfer and the tourist," said Barry Fleming, executive director of the S.C. Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association. "I think the area works in a cohesive way so all courses are now getting their share."

'VALUE-ORIENTED' GOLF

For John Brown, owner of Brown Golf Management, the economic downturn proved fruitful.

He recognized most people could no longer afford $100 to $400 for a round of golf. Nor did they have the time -- about 4 hours -- to complete a round of 18 holes, he said.

As a result, golf courses were hurting.

In 2011, Brown bought two courses that were in bankruptcy -- Pinecrest and Island West golf clubs -- and secured Eagle's Pointe and Crescent Pointe golf clubs in August. He's expanded to other states and owns 14 courses in all.

His method: "Value-oriented golf," he said. "That's our operational philosophy."

That philosophy means cutting membership prices and lowering public fees to attract local golfers, he said.

In Bluffton, his courses have grown from around 75 members to nearly 600, and profits have jumped 20 percent, he said.

A membership at one course gives access to all, while proximity allows the courses to share staff and equipment, which saves money. The courses also offer resort rates and daily rates for locals who are not members.

Other courses are taking notice, he said.

"When we entered the market here a couple years ago, greens fees were all over the board," Brown said. "Maybe because of us and some others in this market, it's become much more competitive."

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

Corbitt, the Sea Pines director, said rather than slash rates, his company has extended more package deals for travelers to enjoy picturesque courses such as Heron Point, the Ocean Course and Harbour Town.

"We certainly feel our golf courses are fair-priced," he said. "But we do have value-based programs. We look at ourselves as a destination property."

One current weekend package on Sea Pines' website offers travelers' three rounds of golf, lodging and restaurant discounts for $296 a night.

Similar packages are available for Palmetto Dunes Golf Course and the Heritage Golf Group, which owns four island courses, including Port Royal and Shipyard golf clubs.

"The amount of customers has certainly dropped," said Corbitt, who estimated about 15,000 fewer rounds are played on the island per year compared to before the recession. "But the demand is still there. And we still get weekend groups of eight, 16, 24 guys coming in."

Either way, most course owners acknowledge that the face of golf, and the average golfer, has changed.

"Golf is different than it used to be," Brown said. "Prior to 2008, you could charge whatever you wanted, and people would pay it. Now people are much more focused on disposable income."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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