golf course at sunset

Beware of Becoming a Zombie Golf Course

Many zombies are profitable today, but if that profit is not large enough to fund reinvestment, they’re slowly exiting the business

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Look around — they’re out there. Zombie golf courses, doing their death march, eyes unfocused, path unwavering. Sure, they may look like they’re moving forward, and yes, they may have seemingly healthy tee sheets. But the truth is they’re on the path to toppling into the grave forevermore.

Does it frighten you? It should. Because in today’s golf environment, chances are high that zombies are in your market. They may even figure as part of your competition. But here’s the really scary thing — if you’re not careful, you, too, will become one of the walking dead.

How to Spot a Zombie

The first step to not becoming a zombie golf course is knowing what one looks like. A zombie golf course is any course or club whose financial performance doesn’t provide the resources for reinvestment in their course or infrastructure over time. You may think that zombie courses are “goat tracks” that have mounded tees, decaying bunkers, and failing greens. Some are.

But, there are many fine courses that were built during the bubble, failed, and were picked up by new owners at pennies on the dollar of the replacement cost. If they’re merely pricing to earn a return on their current low investment, they’re not only dragging down greens fees in the market, they’re also well on the way to zombie-hood.

Other zombies are long-historied clubs and courses who have hunkered down in a tough economy and golf environment. They may have cut costs to stay alive and profitable but, as a result, they haven’t made a meaningful investment in their course for years and don’t see how they can afford to do it in the future.

The hard truth is that all golf course features — greens, tees, fairways, bunkers, irrigation systems, drainage, and more — have a certain lifespan and will deteriorate to the point of failure over time.

Many zombies are profitable today, but if that profit is not large enough to fund reinvestment in the course and infrastructure, they’re slowly, but inexorably exiting the business. Their courses will deteriorate over time and they will need to lower fees to attract play. Then, they'll cut service and quality to stay profitable, all of which puts them on the downward spiral to oblivion.

Golf course with tree of golden leaves
Want a vibrant future? Don't follow the zombies by lowering greens fees. Focus on your long-term plan for strategic investment instead.

Smart Ways to Keep Your Course Out of the Zombie Zone

One of the best ways to avoid becoming a zombie course is to avoid mimicking their tactics. You don’t have to resort to low greens fees to bring in players, and you certainly don’t want to do that at the expense of your course’s future. Courses thriving today are doing so by reinvesting and providing conditions worth talking about and coming back to again and again.

It takes persistence, vision, and courage to stay in the land of the living. Develop a long-term plan for strategic investments in your course. Start with a clear-eyed assessment of your course and infrastructure today. Identify priorities and set a program for investment over time that will keep your course viable and attractive. Pay attention to items, such as leveling and resurfacing tees or rebuilding bunkers and drainage, that will impact playability and enjoyment in the near term. Create a program for regularly updating aging features. You also need to set a timetable for the bigger ticket items, such as irrigation systems, rebuilding greens, and regressing fairways. Finally, create a strategy for funding both the ongoing improvements and those larger needs when they are due.

While the zombie courses around you are dying a little bit every day, your club or course will increasingly distance itself from the zombies by offering greater appeal for members and play, which in turn, will allow for more price differentiation.

Find Hidden Savings, Build a Strong Future

It may seem like a daunting task to do all of the above, but there are hidden savings to tap into. We find that many courses are spending 5 to 10 percent more on their golf course maintenance annually than is really necessary to maintain high-quality, consistent conditions. The savings can add up. For some courses, the overspending can amount to more than $100,000 per year. Reinvesting those savings in your course can go a long way to staying out of the zombie zone.

To find more hidden savings, look for any rebate programs that your water district may be offering for turf reduction and see if your course qualifies. Again, that’s money you can use for future improvements.

Most important, take a good, hard look at your present course conditions and formulate a well-considered, long-term strategy that will either maintain those high standards or raise the bar.

Do this while the zombies continue their death march into oblivion and your course will be riding strong into a bright future.

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