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April 2019

Membership Model Spans Country

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High-end operator develops exclusive network

By Steve Eubanks

He’s quiet, not just in tone and temperament, but in the way he’s building his business.

When you speak to 27-year-old Zach Peed, the CEO of the Dormie Network, you get the sense that you are talking to a much older man, or at least someone who crammed a lot of wisdom into a few years. There’s none of the verbal upticks that have become ubiquitous among millennials, no sentences ending in “right?” as if every utterance needs affirmation. Peed is a Midwesterner of another sort — a Nebraskan out of a Rockwell painting or a feedstore ad. Strapping, clean-cut and serious, he’s the kind of young man you listen to, not because of who he is, but because he only speaks when he has something thoughtful to say. 

“We are building our network on business and client entertainment,” Peed said when asked to describe what separates Dormie Network from other owners of multiple private clubs that offer reciprocity. “These are private clubs that make sense if you are taking clients out for a couple of days of golf. Our model is business trips. Take a look at what Big Cedar Lodge has done. They have some family trips but it’s mostly business entertainment. That’s our specialty. We’re training our staff in the nuances of client entertainment so that our members will look at us as the entertainment arm of their businesses.”
 
Peed’s model relies on several factors. Each facility has to have cottages. “If we can’t have lodging, the project is out the window,” he said.

He’s also steered clear of big cities. “The closest project we have to a city is San Antonio and we’re still 25 minutes west of the airport,” he said. 

There are no swimming pools or tennis courts at Dormie Network properties. Country Club is not what he’s selling. This is golf with high-end, but low-key, lodging and a clubhouse that can accommodate all the needs of an executive bringing his best clients in for a few days. 

But at the top of the list, the most important factor in the Dormie profile, is jaw-dropping golf. “We have to have quality architecture,” Peed said. “If the maintenance has slipped and the clubhouse needs renovating, we can do that — we are doing that — but we have clubs where the architecture is something special.” 

On that front, Peed couldn’t have done much better. He bought Ballyhack nestled in the mountains near Roanoke, Virginia, a Lester George design that has been ranked among the best courses in the Mid-Atlantic. Then there is Briggs Ranch outside San Antonio, a Tom Fazio design that is among the best in the region.
Peed owns two courses designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw: Hidden Creek in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey and Dormie Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina, the club that inspired the company’s name. 

“It’s impressive how under-the-radar Dormie Club is,” Peed said. “Getting off on the wrong foot in 2010, opening in the wrong time window, didn’t help. But we couldn’t be happier to have it.” 

He also has a club in Indiana called Victoria National, which has hosted a Web.com Tour event since 2012. “Dormie and Victoria National, side by side, are next-level tracks,” he said. “They are powerful golf courses but very intimate in a sense.”

Rounding out the portfolio, for now, Peed owns ArborLinks in his home state of Nebraska, a club he bought from Landscapes Unlimited.   

They are all impressive properties. But the far-flung geographic nature of the network defies all conventional wisdom for the golf business. Who, for example, will take a client to Newburgh, Indiana, on a golf trip one year, Pinehurst the next year, and Nebraska City the third? The USGA held its annual meeting in San Antonio this past February and the number-one question most people asked was, “Why here?” 

To understand Peed’s thinking, you need know his background. He learned the game at Firethorn Golf Club in Lincoln, Nebraska, which was created by Dick Youngscap. Youngscap would later create Sand Hills, the course many consider the first stay-and-play, pure golf experience hundreds of miles from anywhere.

Peed saw people flying in from all over the world to play Sand Hills, driving five hours from Denver and a solid four-and-a-half from Omaha. He also saw what Mike Keiser had done with Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Sand Valley in Wisconsin.

“What Mike Keiser has done is terrific but those are public facilities,” Peed said. “We’re taking the same stay-and-play mindset to the private market. It’s nothing new. Dick Youngscap started this idea with Sand Hills. We’re just doing it on a grander scale.”

Each club Peed purchased came with a group of local members — none in large numbers — and those members were rolled into the Dormie Network. The rest of the memberships he sells will be national with no individual club affiliation. 

How grand the scale of the network will become is yet to be determined. Peed is looking at other courses. But he is discriminating.

“There are 15,000 golf courses in America,” he said. “We’re only looking for about 10. But of those 15,000 there are about 400 that are really special. Those are the ones we have our eyes on.” 
 
Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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