Feature Interview with Roger Hansen & Ian Dalzell
Questions 1 through 9 are answered by the owner of Hidden Creek, Roger Hansen
1. What did you learn from Blue Heron that helped in the formation of Hidden Creek?
I learned that the better the land is the better you can make a great course. I also learned that the daily fee business is very much different than the private club business.
2. Since Hidden Creek opened in 2002, what has gone better than you hoped?
The staff that we have attracted has been fantastic. I think that the cost of maintenance is better than what I expected also. What has gone worse?The pace of membership sales has not been great. We have taken a long time get to 245 members. I think now we are over the hump but it has been difficult.
3. How does Coore & Crenshaw’s design help you sell memberships?
They attract a very serious golfer and I think that helps. I think that we have many members who are members because of Bill and Ben.
4. What are the crucial elements for members to associate value in belonging?
Service, quality of the design, condition of the course, friendly staff, ability of getting a game. It can not be so exclusive that there is no one to play with.
5. Is it harder to create a really good golf course or a really good golf club?
It is a lot harder creating a really good club than a really good golf course.
6. Where do other private club perhaps get off track?
I think that a lot of clubs do not pay enough attention to great service. They forget a club that the members are customers and have to be treated with respect and in a friendly manner.
7. How do you see Hidden Creek versus the rest of the private golf marketplace?
I think that Hidden Creek is in the top tier of the private clubs in America. I hope that I am not sounding like I am bragging but we have a great golf course, great members, and a fantastic staff that give great service.
8. Where do you see the private golf going over the next ten years and has it changed forever because of the economic environment?
I think that the business has changed and will never be the same. We have to attract younger members to the club life. I donâ€™t think the younger generation appreciates what it means to belong to a private club. Maybe with the financial picture changing more people will stay near home and enjoy their vacations at a club like Hidden Creek. I think that it is important having a lodge that has good overnight accommodations. This attracts members form outside of the local area.
9. Is there anything you would do differently?
I would not have built this in the economy that we are experiencing, but that is hindsight. I would not have done much different. I really think that we created something special. I would not change anything with the course. I think that it plays just right for our members.
There is no doubt about it – the golf business in the US is a SERVICE business, whereas in Northern Ireland and other parts of Britain it is all about the business of GOLF. The best way to describe it is to give an example of the average day of a golfer in each country and I hope you will understand my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I try to enhance this example to get my point across. The Ireland golfer arrives at the club, parks his own car, goes to the locker room and gets his own bag out of the locker, puts on his shoes that maybe havenâ€™t seen polish for a while (no locker room attendants in Ireland), slings his bag on his shoulder, pops his head in the shop to say hello to the pro and let him know he is going out to play and off he goes. When he finishes his round he cleans his own clubs and shoes, puts them back in the locker and heads upstairs for a cold pint with his foursome. All in all he only came into contact with the Golf Pro and a bartender . . . seems pretty simple really. American golfer, once successfully navigating his way through the gate with guard house, pulls up at the bag drop, where he is greeted by an Outside Services Associate with an earpiece who has already been informed of his arrival by the Guardhouse employee. He steps out of his car, which is then promptly parked by the Outside Services Associate and his clubs are placed on a cart, which may or may not have his name on it. He heads to the locker room where the attendant greets him and tends to his needs for the day. From there the American golfer heads to the Grille to get a cold Gatorade and maybe half a sandwich from the waitress. Next up is the range where balls have been set up for his convenience, and after a 30-minute warm up he heads to the tee with his trusted caddie. After 4-holes a beverage carts appears to quench the thirst of the golfer, greeted and tended to by the Beverage Cart attendant. She will visit on up to 4 occasions during the round, so a cold drink is never too far away. After the round, the American golfer has his clubs cleaned by the caddie and placed in the car by the bag drop staff. He heads to the locker room where he meets the afternoon shift locker room attendant who promptly cleans off his shoes and invites him to take a hot shower or steam. After that the visit to the Grille for a cold drink is a must, and as he leaves the staff will bring his car to the front door and wave him off. All in all the American golfer may have come into contact with service personnel at least (12) times during his day, which is why SERVICE is what drives American golf. In Europe the focus is squarely on the golf. A huge difference in cultures.
11. Given the state of private golf in America, are there some ‘less is more’ principles from the United Kingdom that we should adopt on this side of the Atlantic?
Well, thatâ€™s kind of a loaded question, but yes, I would think many private clubs in the US could learn from the British model. As you look at the structure of clubs in the US, there are so many â€œtrimmingsâ€ included in an effort to keep up with the Jonesâ€™s. Valet parking, elaborate refreshment stations, Pro V1 balls on the driving range, custom bag tags and custom-labeled bottle water â€“ you get the idea. Several of these â€œextrasâ€ are not really necessary and could be trimmed without sacrificing the â€œgolf experienceâ€. Now onto the maintenance – call it the Augusta syndrome or whatever you want, but fast greens cost money, and we are all guilty I think if wanting faster, firmer greens. I recently played 6 Open Championship courses in Scotland and Iâ€™m not sure that any of the greens were more than about 9 on the stimpmeter. It did not deter from my enjoyment of the round at all, but the problem is that golfers today with play the â€œcomparison cardâ€ and frequently compare the speed of â€œourâ€ greens to the speed of â€œtheir greensâ€. It makes it very difficult for course owners and operators to slow things down and reduce the frequency of double cutting, rolling or use of growth regulators when the next door neighbor is doing all of those things. I just donâ€™t see it changing any time soon, because now more than ever clubs need to separate themselves from the competition. The other area of maintenance that to me has gotten out of hand is the roughs or perimeters of the course. Clubs have wall to wall cut roughs, and that is labor intensive and is costs valuable dollars to keep it alive, spray it, and groom it. The comparable courses in Britain do not spend this money on their roughs â€“ the name gives it away and should dictate how it plays. Lastly, the bunkering â€“ smoothing, daily raking, checking depth of sand etc etc. Bunkers should probably be raked out once to twice a week and the rest of the time the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the player to treat the golf course with respect. The PGA Tour players have spoiled it for everyone as they yell â€œget in the bunkerâ€ because they know they will have a perfect lie. Now thatâ€™s not what I call a hazard!
12. What is a typical green keeping staff at an inland course like Belvoir Park? Is there any way to maintain Hidden Creek with that few people AND keep the members happy?
I have a good friend who is actually a member of Belvoir Park, and he tells me there are currently 8 full time staff greenskeepers. Attached are the financial statements of both Belvoir Park and Portrush, where I am a member, which will let you see some of the significant differences in maintenance practices. Hidden Creek employs approximately 18 staff members for the course during the season, with only 5 on a year-round basis.
Belvoir Parkâ€™s total maintenance budget looks like 119,494 pounds for supplies and 188,856 for labor which totals 308,350 pounds which equates to about $462,525 in US dollars. When you consider that the average private facility in the US spends $1 million plus, it is easy to see why golf is still a working manâ€™s game in Ireland and for the privileged few in the US. Royal Portrush, #12 in the world is spending approximately $975,000 but that is for 36-holes, so approximately $487,500 per 18-holes. The heat and incessant sun in America causes a whole new dynamic in tending to the grass. Mother Nature does her job well at home, and as a result the use of pesticides, fertilizers and growth regulators is insignificant.
13. We read all the time that the # of rounds of golf is flat in the United States. Does that synch up with your experience at Hidden Creek (i.e. compare the # of rounds in 2006 with those in 2009)?
Our rounds this year are up by about 13% from last year, which is not such a big surprise given the very poor weather and economic conditions we all experienced in 2009. Here are our total rounds at Hidden Creek since 2003, which was our first full year of play (we opened for a partial season in 2002):
2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
9,268 10,906 11,891 13,227 14,102 13,611 12,640
14. As you know coming from the United Kingdom, golf is a walking sport and Hidden Creek is a great walking course. What are the good and bad points of golf carts at Hidden Creek? Do they drive revenue? Surely, carts are tougher on the grass than walking?
This is a great debate, as it is normally a great and reliable source of revenue for clubs when they look at that year-end revenue. There is absolutely no doubt about it that golf is a walking game, but it is such an easier sell in Ireland for example because that is how you grow up and what you are used to. Iâ€™m not sure, if we turned the clock back, if we could ever have opened up Hidden Creek (in 2002) and made it walking only. Society is into speed, instant gratification and comfort and convenience and all of that doesnâ€™t gel well with walking the course. In the age of over-supply and insufficient demand, it is very much a buyers market and if golfers want to join a club that allows carts, then private clubs have little choice but to satisfy their customer base. Those clubs who do enforce walking at all times are generally old and established. It would be very hard for a new facility to open today and not have some form of carts. Not impossible, but very difficult. Carts most definitely cause wear and tear on the course, not to mention the unsightly paths around the tees and greens that can distract your eye from the architecture and playing corridors. Thankfully Bill and Ben considered all of that when designing the mounding and elevation around the tees and greens and for the most part they succeeded in hiding the natural trail paths we have here.
15. How important are magazine rankings?
Ian Dalzell: Hmmm. Another loaded question from Ran . . . . I hate to give rankings too much credit, as they are so subjective and architecture is truly in the eye of the beholder, but I guess they do have influence, like it or not. My issue would be that the trimmings (clubhouse, service, staffing etc) sometimes, or perhaps often, cloud the judgments of our magazineâ€™s raters. I know clubs can benefit from being included in a list of Best courses, including Hidden Creek which has been included on Golfweeks list of best modern courses since 2003. We obviously try to use that information in a positive manner to promote and sell our brand, on the basis of a 3rd party endorsement if you will. While it is true that for many it doesnâ€™t play a role in their decision making to join or not join a club, I think for some it certainly does. So to that end I guess they do influence behavior.
Roger Hansen: I think that magazine rankings are important because it verifies to the members that they made a good decision joining a club that is recognized by the â€œexpertsâ€. That is my two cents.
16. Has the completion of eight cottages helped 1) the overall experience and 2) the bottom line numbers?
Hidden Creek currently has an 8-Bedroom Lodge adjacent to the 1st fairway. It is certainly a strong amenity for us as we can attract avid golfers and Coore & Crenshaw fans from further afield to join the club, as they can stay over when visiting the area. I would always separate the â€œgolf experienceâ€ from the rest of the experiences found when you visit our property, but I guess I cannot deny that it augments oneâ€™s overall experience when visiting the club.
As far as revenue goes, I would certainly say it has been beneficial. When looking at the financial benefits of having lodging on property, you must look a little deeper at the other departments. The Golf Shop, Dining Room and Guest Fee line items all improve as a simple side-effect of having golfers on the property for a longer time span. Staying over generally doubles the amount of golf, as you play the following day which drives an additional guest fee, cart fee and of course the food and beverage. We have a somewhat remote location, so it works to our advantage as our guests stay on-property for most or all of their dining â€“ breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Lodge was part of Roger Hansenâ€™s vision for Hidden Creek to serve two very distinct golfing populations â€“ the local and surrounding area, but also those golfers who live in New York, Delaware, Maryland and even DC but are willing to travel for great golf. I think he has it right, and certainly with over 65 National members who could argue.
17. Good players continue to hit the ball farther and farther. What has been done to insure that the course remains engaging to play?
Our golf course opened in 2002 at approximately 6,500 yards from the members tee and 6,800 yards from the Championship tees. As we witnessed our first couple of years of play, we started to notice that at times, the golf course would play short if it was dry and firm. We began looking at selective holes that perhaps could use an additional teeing ground, to provide flexibility in course set-up and allow the course to play at different lengths for specific events or times of year. I also personally felt, that on many of the holes there was insufficient distance variance, meaning it really didnâ€™t matter what set of tees you played from, the challenge was very similar. On 7-8 holes both the Member and Championship tee markers shared the same teeing ground. As we watched our members enjoy the challenges of the 6,500 yard course, we also noticed that better players â€“ professionals and good local amateurs â€“ really didnâ€™t need to use their driver at times and were not challenged by the same hazards. A few years ago we added a new Championship tee on #18, which was an interesting experiment. Due to the hogs-back nature of that fairway the bigger hitter was able to use the down-slope to propel the ball further, often times leaving a flip wedge into that green. As we moved the tee back 35-yards it resulted in the 2nd shot being increased by 50-yards because now the ball was landing into an upslope or on the top of the hill and not getting the added kick from the down-slope. The better player who takes on the challenge of the Championship tees now finds himself back on the top of the hill with a 6-iron on more, which has a much better shot value for the courseâ€™s final hole. Recently we also added a new Championship tee on hole #2 which added 50-yards to the hole and puts the driver back in the hands of that better player. We also added a new Championship tee on the drivable short par-4 #8. This has now introduced the short 60-80 yard shot back to the better player, off an uneven, downhill lie to a green that has humps and bumps short of and on the putting surface. In the past a better player would normally have putter or chip shot from the fringe, so now it has put a high premium on a creative short game and the change has been very well received by the membership. The hole is now listed at 331 yards with a centerline bunker that requires a carry of some 260 yards. Lastly we added a new championship tee on hole #17 for strategic reasons, rather than simple lengthening of the hole. Before we added the new tee there were several bunkers dotting the landing area, but none of them came into play for the player who can hit it 250 â€“ 300 yards. It seemed a little unfair to have the 15-handicapper challenged by bunkering, but not the better or more accomplished player. Again this is learned over years of play and studying the challenges presented by the course to the various skill levels. With the addition of a new tee some 35-yards back, we have essentially brought some of our fairway bunkering squarely back into play and made the golfer â€œthinkâ€ a little more before pulling the trigger. Many of our changes over the years have been in an effort to make the golfer think more, to provide options that they must consider prior to playing the stroke. I donâ€™t think you necessarily want to confuse the golfer, but you do want it to be a mentally strategic game as opposed to â€œbrute force and ignoranceâ€ as they say at home. I think this is what Bill Coore and Ben do so well â€“ they generally allow the golfer alternate options and the ability to create their own way from A to B â€“ they donâ€™t force you down a tree lined tunnel and say â€œthis is the way to the green, whether you like it or notâ€. All of these results mean we have a Member tee challenge of 6,562 and a Championship challenge of 7,023 and many of the holes no longer share the same teeing ground. We also have greater flexibility to set the course up depending on the weather conditions, playing conditions (soft or firm) and the time of year.
18. What % of your members regularly drive the ball over 250 yards? Why then even worry about distance?
Honestly probably about 10% at the most. The reasoning for adding some of our tees was to preserve the â€œchallengeâ€ that each set of tees provides and make sure we have different length golf courses to suit different skills of golfers. Course length is also dependant on course conditions. If you have a very firm, dry and fast golf course a 400 yard hole would not be deemed as long, because you could gain 30-40 yards of roll on a 240 yard tee shot. That would only leave you 120 yards left. I donâ€™t know about you but Iâ€™m not looking for golf to become a Driver/Wedge type game. I love the short holes as much as anyone else, in fact all of my favorite holes at Pine Valley and Merion are holes which ask you to hit something other than driver off the tee, but the fact remains we are allowed 14-clubs in the bag and I would like to see courses serve up a challenge that allows you to use most of them. Why worry about distance . . . . well I think the equipment today is getting better with balls and clubs that propel the ball forever (without the nasty side spin too!) and courses have had to adapt to this to stay relevant. I am watching the PGA Championship as we speak and Dustin Johnston just hit a drive measuring 394 yards. If that doesnâ€™t tell you that the better players, who can use the center of the clubface, are hitting it longer then I canâ€™t convince you.