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January 2018

The ‘S’ Means Success

thesmeanssuccess.jpgThe entrepreneurial owner of The S at Rancho Mirage is looking to shake up Coachella Valley’s country club golf in a big way–and he’s carrying with him an audacious plan that blurs the line between private and public play

Tim Martin knows full well the state of golf in the Palm Springs area. Nearly everywhere he looks, the longtime resident and successful local businessman sees fairways left to fallow or grow into condos.

Even with those gloomy daily reminders, Martin remained bullish on the industry—a confidence buoyed by his vision for an all-new kind of private club. So when board members at Desert Island Golf and Country Club in Rancho Mirage approached him to gauge his interest in purchasing the troubled club, Martin jumped at the chance to bring his vision to life.

That vision has already begun to take shape, as Martin has rebranded the club as The S at Rancho Mirage (see page 28). But the entrepreneur has much bigger ideas up his sleeve than a simple name change.

“I’m always trying to do things that aren’t normal,” Martin admits. Coming from a man who made his fortune customizing and selling golf carts made to resemble everything from Ford Mustangs to F-150s, it’s a statement that rings true. So it’s no surprise his plan to save The S at Rancho Mirage is also outside the box. To wit, Martin plans on building a grand new hotel on property where guests will receive unrivaled, white glove service while enjoying full access to club facilities, including the 18-hole golf course. “We’re going to be the first hotel in the world that treats its guests like private club members. If I could say 10-star service, I would,” he jokes.

On paper, the plan looks solid. “There hasn’t been a new hotel built in this area for 20 years,” Martin points out. He adds that the existing inventory is also too big and impersonal. “You can literally get lost in some of these buildings. How can you expect to deliver service in a place like that?”

Martin plans for a smaller facility built in the footprint of the existing clubhouse. “Somewhere around 100 rooms,” he says. He hopes that number makes the operation particularly attractive to groups and conventions. “They can buy the hotel out and have the spa, restaurant, everything they need right on site.” Plans also allow for longer stay options to accommodate snowbirds escaping northern cold.

It’s obviously a significant change for the 30-year-old club. Like most in the area, Desert Island enjoyed its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. It found a niche as a mid-range value option for seasonal golfers, which allowed it to outlast many other clubs in the desert. Eventually, even it fell victim to the realities of modern private golf. “As a full-equity club, these guys just weren’t having fun anymore,” Martin says. “They were spending all their time worrying about the day-to-day demands of running a course.”

Martin appeared as a white knight, albeit one armed with a plan to turn their sleepy club on its head. The new owner says members will still be the top focus for all staff at the club. “They’ll always come first, no doubt about it. They’re the backbone of this place.” Currently, the club boasts just over 130 members. “We’d like to get that number up to around 160 or 170,” Martin says. At that level, there’ll be plenty of tee times to accommodate both members and guests at the hotel.

Usually, a new owner proposing the kind of radical change Martin is would be met with a lot of pushback, but he says members have been almost universally supportive. “I think a lot of people here are just happy they’ll still have a course to play on.”

Martin’s plan will also give them plenty more to be happy about. “We’ve already undertaken a pretty significant weed control program, we redid the bunkers [and] upgraded the balls at the driving range,” he adds.

Members will also gain access to brand new golf carts. “We’re going to completely replace the entire fleet every season, too.”

The club restaurant, previously shuttered to save costs, has been completely remodeled and reopened. Martin plucked the head chef from an area club he had visited and thoroughly enjoyed a meal at. “Ask my wife,” he jokes. “I’m a picky guy, so he was doing something right.”

That chef, Erick Hernandez, partnered with a friend in the wholesale high-end food service industry to create the entity which leased out the food-and-beverage facilities at the club. “We’re looking at a much more contemporary menu,” he says.
They might seem like small changes, but the optics of the investment go a long way in steadying the nerves of a membership rocked by financial uncertainty and rumors of a semi-private transition.

With majestic mountain views and a refreshing absence of real estate crowding the golf experience, Martin says The S at Rancho Mirage is a true trophy property. “You just can’t duplicate what we have here.” Instead, he plans to build on it, creating an all-new model that could revolutionize how private clubs in resort areas operate. But the humble owner doesn’t think in such grand terms, instead focusing solely on his task at hand. “We want to build something truly great.”

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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