Billy Casper Golf takes over Duluth's public courses in hopes of turning a profit
Gary Nelson had just arrived in Duluth in early March when he went to check out Enger Park Golf Course.
“That is one of my favorite places,” Nelson said. “The panoramic view overlooking the city of Duluth, with Lake Superior and the ships and everything else, was really a cool sight. We took a million pictures. We were so excited to be here.”
If Nelson got that excited, he is sure other golfers will get that excited, too, and want to come back. That’s the key.
Nelson is a general manager for Billy Casper Golf and will oversee operations at Enger and Lester Park golf courses, part of five-year agreement with the city. The company will invest $250,000 into capital improvements at the courses, which have struggled to turn a profit in recent years. Nelson hopes that money is spent in the first year, with the idea it will start paying immediate dividends, not that the courses need much help.
“We did our due diligence,” Nelson said. “Look at Enger. It’s a 27-hole facility, it has a driving range, it has a lot of history and tradition and the market around here isn’t very good for golf courses. These two are the only courses in the city of Duluth, a town of 86,000 and change. Historically, these golf courses have performed when everything has come together. We think it’s kind of an untapped market.”
People in Duluth can often be leery of outsiders, and Nelson understands the hesitation and concern created when the nation’s second-largest golf management company takes over the city’s beloved courses.
To help ease the transition, Nelson enlisted a pair of Duluth natives, Aaron Anderson and Craig Smith, as his assistant general managers at Enger and Lester Park, respectively. Jud Crist remains as senior superintendent.
“Naturally, any time there is change, you’ll get that resistance, but we’re not rocking the boat here at first,” Anderson said. “It’s all about creating more traffic.”
And that is what Billy Casper Golf does best.
Nobody can be an expert in everything, so BCG relies on specialization, with experts in course conditions, driving ranges, food and beverage, marketing and merchandizing. And with more than 160 courses, Billy Casper Golf has the financial backing to put their ideas into practice.
“Over time people realize the changes we’re doing are simply improvements to the facility they’ve wanted the entire time,” Nelson said. “Our company just has the resources to be able to get that stuff done.
“We’re going to hit it from every angle. We look at every component of the business and dissect it, and we have a support team that has been through it and can tell us the right direction to go.”
Nelson said the $250,000 will be spent on bunker renovations, irrigation deficiencies and clubhouse repairs.
Anderson was the assistant golf pro at Enger from 2005 to 2008 before moving west to work at a course in Palm Desert, Calif.
“The one negative about Enger has always been the bunkers,” Anderson said. “I’m not sure if it was done correctly, when the new nine was put in. Everyone knows it was a gravel pit originally, so the rocks just kept surfacing. I know Jud is pretty excited about the potential for redoing all of the bunkers.”
Nelson said Billy Casper will work with the city as to finding the best way to proceed with the bunker improvements and deciding how much of the work will be done in-house.
“The feedback from the golfers was that Enger would be a perfect golf course if there weren’t rocks in the bunkers, so if that is their only complaint, and we fix it, people should have a really great experience while they are here,” Nelson said. “It didn’t take a survey. When somebody comes in and places several rocks on the counter and says, ‘You owe me a new wedge,’ you have an issue.”
Meanwhile, at Lester Park, city officials are lobbying the Minnesota Legislature to allow alcohol to be served in the course clubhouse in an attempt to help the course out financially. The building is situated within the boundaries of Lester Park, one of two Duluth neighborhoods where sales of alcoholic beverages are now banned by state statute.
Smith, an avid golfer, served as Duluth Huskies general manager since the summer baseball team’s inception in 2003. He said the course is otherwise in great shape.
“I’ve changed from one ball sport to another, but really, it’s the same thing. It’s business,” Smith. “I think the reason for Enger’s success is its central location, and its ability to host events that offer all different kinds of food and beverage opportunities people are looking for to socialize, where Lester has been limited in that regard.”
And with outdoor sports, both Smith and Nelson realize the factor weather can play. Back-to-back rough winters and springs hurt Duluth’s city courses the past two years. This year’s early spring caught the new Billy Casper management team a bit off-guard but they caught up “on the fly,” as Smith said.
Enger’s driving range was open March 14 and the course opened the first week of April.
“Our computer systems’ installation date wasn’t until like April 9; so we knew we were going to miss that window regardless,” Nelson said. “But the staff that returned from last year was fantastic. They knew the systems that were in place, they knew the regular golfers, the diehards that were going to come out as soon as they were able to. I think that allowed the golfers to be a little more patient with us.”
Nelson, of West Plains, Mo., in the heart of the Ozarks, took a job at the West Plains Country Club just so he could golf for free. When he saw the head pro, and what he did for a living, he knew that was what he wanted to do for a career.
After graduating from high school, Nelson attended the San Diego Golf Academy’s 16-month program at their Phoenix campus. His first job out of that program was as assistant golf pro with Billy Casper Golf at Cypress Ridge Golf Course in Topeka, Kan. He has been with Billy Casper ever since, with stints in New Orleans and Chicago.
Nelson said the turnout at Enger’s driving range last month reminded him of his time in New Orleans.
“We had a double-decker driving range,” Nelson said. “It had lights, we had music going on and there were 96 stalls. It was a big driving range operation, and there was barely any overhead. It was just a cash cow. So when our driving range opened up, and people were flocking here, it reminded me of that. It got to the point where there wasn’t a spot left.”
Prices for season passes to Enger and Lester are the same as last year and actually went down for college students. The courses also offer the new Skyline Pass, which is $49 but includes a free round of golf and cart, which is normally $45 anyway. The pass includes discounts the more you use it (visit golfduluth.com for more information).
Also new this year will be driving range ball dispensers, with plans for artificial turf for the driving range at Enger. Music and lights could eventually be added as well.
“The plan is to turn Duluth into a golf destination,” Anderson said.
Added Nelson: “It’s all about the experience we create. Let’s make it fun, safe and enjoyable. That’s what we’re all about.”
With temperatures reaching the 70s as early as March, anyone from Duluth knew the law of averages eventually would come around.
Temperatures were in the 30s and blustery on Tuesday, and you could have heard the pin drop on the 18th green at Enger Park it was so quiet.
Nelson wasn’t hiding the fact he was cold, but from a business standpoint, he isn’t concerned with the things he can’t control, like the weather. He is more worried about the things he can.
“It is the same weather everyone else is dealing with,” Nelson said. “There are variables you can control, and variables you can’t control. We don’t want to give our golfers a reason not to play our golf courses. If it’s within our control, then we want to control it.”
And if that doesn’t work, Nelson has one foolproof method to keep them coming back.
“The golfers will hang around,” Nelson said. “My wife makes the best cookies.”