I must be in motion to execute meaningful thought. Running, preferably at a steady pace. Hiking, preferably through hills or mountains. Walking, preferably on a golf course. Biking, preferably on a path. Paddling, preferably on flat water. Driving, preferably while listening to a podcast or country music.
Ideas for this magazine are often concocted while advancing toward or shifting away from sedentation. Movement inspires innovation and creativity, two pillars of successful operations.
On a dreary 460-mile return drive across Interstate 80, following a tremendous visit to Plainfield Country Club (pages 20-23), I received ample time to ponder why a club continues to endure and flourish. Easy answers are land and location. Plainfield’s clubhouse rests atop the highest point in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and a spectacular ridge carved by a 21,000-year-old glacial terminal moraine intersects the property. The club hired Donald Ross to design a course on the site. Think Babe Ruth seeing an abdomen-high 86 mph fastball.
Plainfield revealed its Ross-designed course in 1921, a year when the New York Giants toppled Ruth and the crosstown New York Yankees in the World Series. Being 30 miles from a city big enough to support multiple franchises in the same sport — along with Ruth’s gargantuan ego — certainly positioned Plainfield for prosperity. The course fits brilliantly into a densely populated region with enough individual and corporate wealth to support hundreds of private clubs.
American golf history, unfortunately, includes stories of failed or defunct clubs owning desirable land in prime locations. Even today, despite decades of research into what makes a successful golf facility, numerous clubs are teetering despite innate advantages.
The more I pondered Plainfield on the drive home, the less I thought about physical characteristics such as land and location. Land seemingly mattered less when I rolled into flat Ohio, the home state of Plainfield superintendent Travis Pauley. I remembered my insightful conversations with Pauley more than the severely sloped 11th green or a trio of holes added in the 1930s in a part of the course called “The Tunnel.”
Pauley is Plainfield’s third superintendent since 1951, having replaced Greg James in 2005. James had a 15-year run at Plainfield after replacing Red Wender, who had a nearly 40-year tenure as superintendent. We all know a few clubs that have burned through three superintendents in the last decade. CONTINUITY in critical positions, especially one responsible for protecting a club’s top asset, is common among successful clubs I visit. Does great land matter without consistent agronomic and course enhancement programs?
Continuity becomes more attainable when a club has a DEFINED IDENTITY. Plainfield provides an awesome golf experience conducted as close to parameters established by Ross and the club’s early leaders as modernly possible. The club has worked with architect Gil Hanse to implement a master plan established in 1999. Besides a few modifications to host PGA Tour playoff events in 2011 and 2015, showcasing what Ross crafted drives course-related decisions. Members know what they are receiving when they arrive. Employees know their mission when they join Pauley’s staff.
Staying the course, in many cases, makes for special golf courses. Special golf courses, in most cases, separate great clubs from pedestrian facilities. Continuity and defined identity are challenging to establish within instant gratification frameworks. Time and money, a club’s two most valuable resources, are required to retain members and key employees. But clubs that commit to both concepts usually prosper.
Bradley Klein has visited as many successful clubs as anybody in the industry. He reveals eight indicators of a well-run facility in this month’s column (page 12). What would you add to Klein’s list? Is relying on continuity and defined identity too simplistic of an approach?
Start moving and give it some thought.