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August 2021

Tips From The V.P. Of The National Course Of The Year, Stoatin Brae

By Doug McPherson

Looking back, it didn’t seem likely that a new course in Augusta, Michigan called Stoatin Brae would end up being crowned national course of the year.

Back in 2017 when the course was set to open, hurdles popped up.

“A hot, dry season made the course too hard and too fast; it was difficult for our guests,” says Bill Johnson, vice president of Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort, which includes Stoatin Brae (it means Grand Hill in Gaelic). “We had to rethink our strategies moving towards 2018.”

The main problem was the wildflower and fescue areas. “We watched the traffic areas and pushed back the native areas where golfers were losing balls,” Johnson says. “The second cut of rough was not quite thick enough to keep the balls from running into the native areas.”

So they overseeded, fertilized and enlarged the second cut of roughs. “As we went into 2019, our baby was growing up and getting in great shape. We added twilight fees, we lowered our pricing a few bucks to entice golfers to show them the course was one they’d enjoy,” he says.

And just as things were improving, the pandemic hit, postponing the opening to mid-May.
“But by then, word had spread about the course and how different and fun it was,” Johnson says. “The course was in great shape and the changes we made worked. Our dream all along was to make a destination course that was affordable for everyone. It’s playable, challenging and the views are spectacular.”

Today, things are looking up for Stoatin Brae – way up. Earlier this year, it won the 2021 Jemsek national course of year award given annually to a course that demonstrates excellence in course quality, ownership and management, community support and contributions to the game.

Golf Business decided to hit up Johnson for some tips on course management.

Tap technology 
Stoatin Brae has its own app that sends specials for the course for slower times along with information on other specials, events, and food and beverage deals.
And the course continually offers ecommerce on its website and sales are up 50% since the pandemic hit. “We knew everyone was shopping online so we took advantage of many promotions,” Johnson says.

It also bought a new human resources system that handles payroll, hiring, onboarding, payroll taxes, workman’s comp, retirement planning, health insurance and time keeping.
And a new data collecting software gathers data automatically as guests contact the course. “This, along with our own data input, has given us a huge database we use to reach out to all of our customers for all the products we offer,” he says.

Be creative with memberships
Stoatin Brae offers a variety of memberships (weekly, monthly, whatever suits members’ needs). “At the end of the 2020 season, we remarketed full memberships for 2021 to those members and more than 25% bought in,” he says. “We also added a monthly payment membership for those who preferred it, which added nearly 50 new members for 2021.”

Be open to attorneys
Johnson says hiring a property tax attorney can help with taxes. “Many attorneys do this for a percentage of what they can save you. If they don’t save you money, there’s no cost to you,” he says. “They know the ins and outs of the areas where they work and they can generally save you quite a bit of money. We’re saving thousands annually for the next five years.”

The bottom line?
Johnson says he believes Stoatin Brae won the course of the year because it “provides an unbelievable course at an affordable price. In a year of a pandemic and where social injustice reared its ugly head, we saw how golf took off and won new players.”

He adds, “Golf courses should be rated fairly by their layout, conditions and playability, not by how much of a marketing budget they have or by how much they can charge for green fees. Stoatin Brae was built for all to enjoy.”




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