Arts & Entertainment and Sports Business

Golf courses drive partnership model

Thousand Oaks and Watermark see their alliance as the wave of the future.

August 28, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Thousand Oaks
Thousand Oaks Golf Club will become part of Watermark Properties on Oct. 1. Courtesy Thousand Oaks

The merger of Watermark Properties and Thousand Oaks Golf Club was made possible because each was coming from a position of strength, according to sources on both sides.

With a growing membership pushing to go fully private at Thousand Oaks, the golf club had been on Watermark Properties’ radar for some time, according to Watermark’s Club Manager Craig Smith.

Thousand Oaks recognized Watermark Properties as one of the nation’s leaders in private-public country club models and thought it made sense to come together, said Thousand Oaks Managing Director Patti Butcher.

“This partnership is based on two very successful organizations,” Smith said. “It’s not about there being any problems on either side. It just happened that the timing was right. We’re aligning with a strong partner from a strong place. It took Thousand Oaks growing into it and us growing and looking for another partner.”

The merger will see investment from both sides into Thousand Oaks’ golf facilities and its restaurant. The partnership will integrate Oct. 1, and Smith said renovations will be done during the winter to ensure a welcoming spring golf season.

The addition of Thousand Oaks gives Watermark four area golf courses, including Watermark Country Club, StoneWater Country Club and Sunnybrook Country Club. As members, golfers can play at any course.

The Acorn Grille and Event Center at Thousand Oaks gives RedWater Restaurant Group, which manages Watermark Properties’ restaurants, a seventh restaurant — all of which are open to the public. Other restaurants include: Cork Wine and Grille and Vintage Prime and Seafood — both at Watermark Country Club in Cascade Township; Rush Creek Bistro at Sunnybrook in Grandville; FireRock Grille at StoneWater in Caledonia; plus Reds on the River in Rockford and Gravity Taphouse Grille in Grand Rapids.

The private golf club/public restaurant model is the wave of the future, said Butcher, who was the 2010 LPGA Golf Professional of the Year. She also was the director of club and golf operations at the fully private Blythefield Country Club for seven years.

Butcher said she won’t be surprised when more models like Watermark’s begin popping up across the country, as many people see Grand Rapids as setting the example.

As younger generations become more mobile and interested in doing other things with their money, they prefer a membership that only includes golf, she said.

“My generation, they want fast golf, fast greens and fast friends,” Butcher said. “When you’re just paying for the golf, it’s a better value. You’re not a small number of people supporting an a la carte dining program.

“Golf clubs aren’t the only thing people do now.”

Under the Watermark Properties model, members pay for golf and receive discount offers from the restaurants, which are open to the public. Butcher said in standard private country club setups, members are required to spend a certain amount at the restaurants each year.

Opening the restaurants to the public helps offset the lost revenue that comes with lower golf prices. Smith said the restaurant patrons are about 20 percent members and 80 percent public.

Butcher said the membership cost is approximately half of similar country clubs in the area.

Smith said the cost for a family is $4,400; individual memberships are priced in age brackets for as low as $1,700.

“We want to keep golf affordable,” he said. “Play all the golf you want at four courses — you have a lot of variety and options. And you’re never blocked out of golf.”

Smith said the calendar is set up in a way that, when there’s an event at one course, members are easily able to play at others — something a private club usually cannot accommodate.

Watermark liked the course and facilities at Thousand Oaks, but another primary reason it sought the merger was because of the location, near Five Mile Road and Grand River Drive NE. The group of four country clubs is stretched across several suburban areas, but to head to the northeast side of town and target Rockford was a great opportunity, Smith said.

He said when Dave Mehney started Thousand Oaks 17 years ago, it was a precursor to Watermark Properties’ semi-private model.

“He was creating a golf club that would be superior to anything on the market, yet he wanted it to be member friendly and a public amenity,” Smith said. “He was ahead of his time.”

Butcher said she feels Thousand Oaks was always leaning in this direction, and both she and Smith agreed it would have been successful on its own, but the partnership will allow both entities to grow at a faster pace. She said members at Thousand Oaks played nearly 20,000 rounds of golf last year and are excited about the prospect of the additional opportunities at the other clubs.

“They understand the benefits to them will be great,” she said. “For us, this partnership is a ‘get to,’ not a ‘have to.’”

As Watermark Properties grows, Smith said other opportunities have presented themselves, but he said the organization has had the luxury of being selective. For now, Smith said, he doesn’t see the group expanding outside the West Michigan area.

Watermark Country Club actually began the private-public model 16 years ago, Smith said.

“I’d hate to say we might not ever (expand beyond West Michigan), but we’re focused on this community,” he said. “We know a lot of people here that we can continue to bring value to with new ideas.”

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