Mark Stillings

Director of Golf, GM

Kiva Dunes Golf and Beach Resort

My introduction to golf was through Jim Forsman, a neighbor to my parent’s in Shalimar, Florida. Jim was an accomplished home and boat builder, but most importantly for myself and my brother, he had a great passion for the game of golf. At a young age, he allowed us to caddy for him and several members of his regular foursome at Lake Lorraine Golf Club. After caddying for a few months, the “golf bug” hit us and Jim agreed to help us learn to play. He would loan us his golf clubs and shag bag, and take time out of his hectic schedule to give us some swing pointers. We both progressed pretty quickly, then began to play junior golf,  that eventually led to high school and college golf, then on to a career in the golf industry. After graduation from Florida State, I began my career at Sandestin in Destin, Florida. My next stop was an exclusive private club, NorthRiver Yacht Club in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After an 8 year stint there, I moved to Gulf Shores, AL to become the Director of Golf at Kiva Dunes Golf and Beach Resort, and have been here since the facility opened in 1995.


Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism

MW: What lessons have been learned in the golf industry since the great recession of ’08 happened ?

MS:: Since the great recession of ’08, I think we’ve been forced to become “smarter” in our approach to operating our facility.  We are always seeking faster, better, more efficient ways to run our  business. The golf industry has seen a lot of consolidation with many courses being acquired or eliminated. We pay close attention to revenues and expenses, but never lose sight of the customer and their needs. We strive to provide the highest levels of customer service and course conditioning and doing so in a fiscally responsible manner to our owners.

MW: Is there still too much supply of courses relative to the number of active players?

MS: Yes, I feel there are still too many courses relative to the active number of players. Looking back over the last decade, I think the NGF study that said the industry needed to add 1 course per day to keep pace with demand backfired and caused a unhealthy imbalance of what was actually needed. We have worked through some of these issues over the last 7-8 years, but still need to improve. Growth of the game is vital in solving this imbalance.

MW: What distinguishes the Gulf Shores immediate region as a travel destination to visit?

MS: The Gulf Shores area is unique in the sense that it offers a “blended” experience to our guests. We have tremendous variety in our area courses — as well as being able to offer sugar-white beaches, great fishing, dining, nightlife, shopping etc, Additionally, we feel like we offer great customer service and extend the real meaning of “ Southern hospitality.”

MW: Kiva Dunes just finished a major renovation to its golf course — what prompted that decision to make such an effort?

MS: Our course renovation was prompted in large part by listening to our customers for the past 20 years. In general, most everyone enjoyed playing here, but felt like many of the bunkers were too severe or simply “too hard” for their skill level. Our renovation was done to accomplish several objectives: Without compromising the design integrity, we wanted the course to play easier for the mid to high handicap player. We wanted to create more hole locations on the greens. We wanted to level all tee boxes. And, in keeping aligned with the answer to question number one, we wanted to be able to maintain the course in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.

MW: Getting a younger generation of players involved with the game has been a major rallying cry among the key golf organizations. Are such efforts working from your perspective?

MS: Getting younger players into the game is crucial for the long-term success of our industry. Through the Gulf Shores Golf Academy, we are trying to do our part in attracting more young players to the game. Our efforts include: SNAG golf for elementary students, Jr. Golf Leagues, Jr. Clinics, Family Golf days, After-school programs in the local area.

MW: If you could change one thing in the game of golf — what would it be?

MS: It would probably be in the area of the Rules of Golf. I think the Rules are way too complicated and misunderstood by most amateur players. Any efforts by the USGA and the R&A  to simplify the Rules would be a positive step.

MW: One of the more pressing concerns impacting golf — is the overall pace of play. What’s your approach at Kiva Dunes?

MS: Pace of play in golf is a huge concern to us as an operator and to many players as customers. We operate with the mentality that we value your time. We stress proper pace of play with cart signage, through our Starter’s presentation on the first tee, and through the use of effective marshalling during the round. Also, we feel like our course renovation will contribute to improved pace of play.

MW: How do you capture and measure customer feedback?

MS: We capture and measure customer feedback through personal interaction, customer surveys, social media reviews, website testimonials, etc…

MW: Has golf media neglected the Gulf Coast area and paid too much attention to other areas such as Florida or has it been a case of not telling your story adequately to get people to see what you provide?

MS: I am not sure it is neglect as much as not being aware of what our area has to offer. It has been our experience that once we get the golf media here for a visit, they fall in love with it and do not have any problem sharing their information to their readers or viewers. I think the challenge is more in getting  Golf media to understand that Gulf Shores does have great beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, along with great variety in our area courses, fishing options, shopping, dining, nightlife etc.. There is plenty to do here for everyone, and once you are here, we will treat you with true “ Southern hospitality”.

MW: You’ve got one round of golf left to play — where do you play and who would be the three other members of your foursome?

MS: If I get one more round of golf, it will be at Augusta National. The group will be myself, my brother Matt Stillings, my dad Rocky Stillings and the person who introduced me to this great game, Mr. Jim Forsman.

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