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January 2020

Going Green

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Claude Pardue Goes Old-School, Overseeding To Bring In Business

By Steve Eubanks

Sometimes going back to what worked in the past is the right formula for the present and the future.

When Claude Pardue, who began his professional career working in his grandfather’s financial services firm in North Carolina, decided to get into the golf business, he took a risk by making a big investment in winter conditioning.

“I was intrigued with the golf industry because I saw a business that had millions of customers, but wasn’t run very professionally,” Pardue said about the golf industry in the early 1980s. “So, a partner and I bought a golf course in Southern Pines, North Carolina, called Highland Hills, in 1984. It had a lot of foot traffic so I knew people liked it. You don’t want to buy a course that has no traffic because that means the market doesn’t like it, doesn’t want to play it. But (Highland Hills) only grossed about a half a million dollars a year. I knew we needed to separate ourselves in a crowded market, so the first thing I did was invest in (overseeding) with rye wall-to-wall (in the winter). Nobody in Pinehurst was doing that in the early ’80s. I thought it was the only thing that would take a course on the low end of the market and make customers say, ‘Wow, this is the nicest golf course here.’

“We covered the whole course, tees, fairways and roughs (in the winter), in rye. Within six years we were grossing $1.75 million. That’s how much the customer likes that look. That’s where I learned about the popularity of doing it.”

Pardue sold his Southern Pines property in 1999, but has become one of the most successful owners in the Myrtle Beach area with The Witch, Man O’ War and The Wizard. And just as he did 35 years ago, he has separated himself by promising his customers green grass year round.  
 
“We’re laying rye wall-to-wall,” Pardue said. “Our basic grass is Bermuda and it goes dormant in the winter. So in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and throughout most of the South, golf courses go brown in the winter.

“For years resort golf courses have not ryed at all or if they did, they put rye down on tees and fairways only and let he roughs go brown. We did that too, going to tees and fairways only after (the recession of) 2008 and the dramatic impact it had on the golf business. It seemed like an easy expense to cut.”

Pardue said, in hindsight, that was a mistake.

“I regret cutting back on the rye after 2008 and I’m glad we have it back,” he said. “When things get bad, you have to be better for your customer, not worse. Too many people in our industry, when the economy went south and they were looking for expenses to cut, they made cuts in maintenance. That was a huge mistake. It’s far more important to do what your customer wants.

“When you see the Masters, as most amateur golfers do, it’s unbelievably green not because the weather is different at Augusta National than it is in the rest of the South but because they put down tons and tons of rye. We have decided to make the investment so that when a customer comes down here in January, February or March, he will see total green just like he would if he went to Augusta National over the winter.”

It’s not a small investment. Not only is rye seed expensive, it is an annual plant. Once it dies in the summer, it’s gone forever. Plus, you have to fertilize, water and mow it. So labor, chemicals, water and equipment maintenance cost more in the winter. It’s easy for an owner to justify doing away with rye or, as an alternative, painting dormant Bermuda green in an attempt to keep costs down.

“We do not and have never believed in painting,” Pardue said. “It’s a quality issue. We believe in spending the money for that customer experience. Plus, we’re in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My busiest time is from the first of February until the middle of April. That’s when customers come here from all over the world and pay my highest rate. If I was at a public course around Atlanta that was going to be dead regardless, I’d probably save the money and not do it.”

In addition to cost, the arguments against overseeding include how wet and soft overseeding makes a golf course – winter players want the ball to roll on firm, dormant Bermuda – and there is a transition period when the rye dies and the Bermuda hasn’t filled in. Courses in June might look sparse because the Bermuda has been competing with the rye for sunshine and nutrients.

Pardue doesn’t say “poppycock” out loud, but he dismisses both of these arguments as complete nonsense.
“Pros might like the tight lies they get from dormant Bermuda but amateurs want a lush playing surface,” he said. “As for the transition argument, that’s a complete fallacy. If you remember two years ago when a lot of people were painting their greens, there was a tremendous amount of winterkill. But we had no problem because overseeding is like covering Bermuda with a blanket, only better. Frozen moisture is what kills Bermuda. The (overseed on our greens) was sucking up the water during the winter because it needed water to live just like any plant. So I would argue that you’re better off overseeding than not.

“When you get to the middle of June, you might have seven days when it’s a little thin, but the Bermuda is growing so fast that you shouldn’t have problems for more than a week. As for fairways and rough, I’ve never had a customer complain about the transition when the rye dies out in the summer.

“Those excuses are all made because owners don’t want to spend the money.”

It’s not as though Pardue spends over and above most operators. He is as frugal as anyone. He just has different priorities.

“A point of sale system isn’t going to get me more customers,” he said. “I have a customer database of 20,000 customers that we email. But I find that most of those (point-of-sale) systems slow down customer service. I can buy a computer register for $1,500 that does everything I need. People are selling point-of-sale systems for $15,000 a year.

“I don’t get it. Do something else. Fix your traps, repave your cart paths. Do something that your customers will see and enjoy.”     

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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