A Rice University graduate, Whitney Crouse is a PGA and CMAA member who is an entrepreneur at heart. Whitney Crouse is also a former member of Merion Golf Club where he joined as one of the youngest members of this historic club where Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam. Crouse began his golf career managing resort properties on Hilton Head Island.
For the past twenty years, he has been developing, building, and managing golf properties and is the co-founder of Bobby Jones Links. He has written for Golf Digest, published two golf books, and is a Past President of the Georgia Golf Course Owners Association. An avid traveler, reader, cyclist, and golfer and totally relates to the famous Bobby Jones quote that “no putt is too short to be despised.”
THE CROUSE STORY —
My career in golf started at that difficult time in your twenties when you are trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.
After graduating from Rice University I was working for Accenture, wearing a suit, and going to the 14th floor at an office building in Houston every day. It was misery for me. Once I realized I could do something with my life I enjoyed, the decision was simple. It was golf.
I left the corporate world and started as a cart attendant at a club on Hilton Head Island. And that decision made all the difference. What fun the last 35 years has been.
When you wake up in the morning, what’s your driving passion?
To be better than I was the day before and make a difference, both professionally and personally. Now that we are Bobby Jones Links, the opportunity to do this has never been greater.
The Great Recession was a major defining moment for all in the golf industry. What key lessons were learned and implemented in your daily operations?
The Great Recession had a dramatic impact on the club business. I am afraid ten years later and in a robust economy the lessons learned have been lost. That is, clubs need to be able to weather a loss of 10% to 20% of their rounds or membership without losing money and have the ability to continue to do capital repairs and improvements. Otherwise, we will see an additional round of clubs fall into the death spiral with the next mild or major recession.
Golf is not going away. There are still more golf courses than McDonalds! We just built too many courses and it is taking forever to get equilibrium back in the market. It’s both sad and good to see more golf course closures. Until this happens, green fees and dues will not see the growth we need as an industry.
Who is your customer today?
Bobby Jones Links customers are developers, club boards, private equity groups, municipalities, and wealthy families. The common element is they all seek to have their clubs professionally managed as well as benefit from having the Bobby Jones name associated with their club.
Are you following different marketing approaches in regards to Millennials versus Baby Boomers?
Our promotions are almost entirely digital today. We still do traditional media such as print, TV, and outdoor to reach the Boomers, but less and less each year. Robust social media and compelling websites are absolutely critical to reach the younger, mobile generation. The great news about this shift is our advertising budgets have decreased over time as digital promotion is less expensive than traditional marketing.
Customer service is routinely touted by those in the golf industry. What is the term and the approach you follow?
When we changed from Mosaic Clubs to Bobby Jones Links last year, we spent tens of thousands of dollars to develop a customer and member service culture that is the best in the industry. We engaged experts from the Ritz-Carlton and Chick-Fil-A, both the leaders in service. The latter has shown that hourly workers paid similar to those in the club business — and many of them teenagers — can offer remarkable service if an obsessive service culture is
We developed 17 service excellence standards that ever associate knows well. We hold huddles in each department of every club, every day, to discuss one of the standards. It’s is so exciting to see this elevated service come to life at our clubs.
The chief obstacle for many golfers — whether long time or those just coming into the game is the length of time to play the game. What practices have you engaged at your various properties with this in mind?
We have a well-documented system to address slow play. Our pro shop staff, starters, and rangers are all trained using a special manual we developed to combat this problem that plagues our industry. It is easier to address at a private club than a daily fee property as a member can be reprimanded or suspended, while it is hard to do the same for a daily fee customer. At Merion Golf Club where I was once a member, they have ingrained this in their culture and require their members to play in four hours or less, so it can be done.
It’s really a cultural issue in the U.S. We still tolerate slow play too much. Look at golf in Scotland, Ireland or England. Three to four hours per round. That’s how it should be done here.
Companies like Topgolf and Drive Shack have entered the golf scene with a new age driving range concept. Is that an innovative pipeline for new players or simply a fad meant to provide a 21st century equivalence to what bowling previously provided with an emphasis on selling beer and buffalo wings?
Topgolf was a brilliant innovation. It’s really entertainment with golf, not golf with entertainment. But, it showed the younger generations seek inclusiveness, not exclusivity, love technology, and can enjoy hitting a golf ball and competing whether you play the game or not, all the while partying and posting on social media. Fun!
I think the jury is still out if Topgolf, Flying Tee, or Drive Shack are creating more green grass golfers. Will these venues be going strong in 20 years? Or, will they suffer the fate of Dave and Busters type of entertainment. I have no idea, but it will be interesting to see.
In the meantime, any business that can generate $20 million in revenue, enjoy 30% margins, and have 400,000 visitors per year per store gets my vote!
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally, what would it be and why?
Shorten golf courses and make them easier. This nonsense of clubs promoting 7,200 yards and have slope ratings off the chart drives me crazy. The Boomers are aging and beginners need to be less intimidated. During the boom years of the 80s and 90s, the industry tried to one up each other while real estate developers wanted a U.S. Open type course. Now we have courses that are too hard to play.
The major golf organizations, USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA, are all seeking ways to attract Millennials, women and minorities to the sport. If you were counseling them what would you advise they be doing?
We have to promote diversity. Change the perception that it is an exclusive rich white person’s game. That’s our pedigree, but it can’t be our future or we’ll go from 30 million, to now 25 million, to maybe less than 20 million golfers.
Golf is a game of a lifetime and one that has more integrity than any other sport. It’s outside in a beautiful setting. It’s the antidote to all this ridiculous screen time: It’s green time. It’s family time together. It teaches values and etiquette like no other game. These are the messages we need to be promoting.
What was the best advice you ever received? What was it and who was it from?
The biggest risk is not taking one at all.
BOBBY JONES LINKS
Offers experience at more than 500 properties of all types in the U.S. and overseas, including clubs such as Kapalua, Turnberry, Sea Pines, and the historic Bobby Jones course in Atlanta.
Bobby Jones Links improves and manages a diverse portfolio of clubs on behalf of developers, private investors, municipal and government entities, associations, club boards, and lenders.
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