By Steve Eubanks
Belief in the short course has positioned the Lisac family to reap the rewards of their par-3 facility
Some golf operators constantly reinvent themselves in an attempt to stay ahead of the latest trends. That strategy brings varying degrees of success. Remember the 18-inch holes from a few years ago?
Other operators refuse to consider reinvention. They remain confident in their business models, even as revenues tank and they enter the all-too-familiar death spiral. Those operators remain stuck in their ways until the clubhouse is boarded shut and the course returns to seed.
But there is a third way, a blend between the two: successful operators who remain confident in their products but who are also ready to adapt, adjust and survive until the market and game come back to them.
One of those third-way businessmen is Steve Lisac, who, along with the brother, Bud, and their wives, Tracy and Carrie, own the Sah-Hah-Lee Golf Course and Driving Range, a par-3 course and practice center in Clackamas, Oregon, just southeast of Portland. For a decade after the Great Recession hit golf in the head with a hammer, the Lisacs innovated, amended, marketed and did whatever it took to keep their 60-acre operation—18 par-3s and a covered and lighted range—afloat while larger operations around them bled red ink or closed altogether.
“Everybody in the family pitched in,” Steve says. “My brother’s son, Nick, is our PGA professional. He’s marketed the clinics and the lesson business, as well as a lot of the junior camps and other activities. My wife had retail experience [before working at the course] and prior to going into landscape construction, I had worked at a ski resort.
“Our kids are off and gone now, at college and about, but they grew up working on the maintenance crew, in the pro shop, at the deli, running the pop cart, really doing everything they could do in the golf business,” he continues. “It all fell together and here we are 25 years later.”
For most of that quarter-century, the Lisacs toiled to overcome the stigma of being a “short course,” the kind of place better players looked down upon as something other than real golf. “The struggle was always to get the ‘serious golfer’ to take us seriously,” Steve recalls.
They could have modified the layout, creating nine regulation holes, which would have cut down on maintenance costs. But the Lisacs believed in the concept of an 18-hole course where the longest shot was 187 yards. “We’ve been positioned in this space for a number of years and we’re comfortable in this niche,” Steve explains. “If you talk to any top instructor, the message is always the same: If you want to improve, work on your shorter shots; work around the green; hit nothing but approach shots, chips and putts. Your scores will come down. We all know it. We’ve known it for years. Sometimes it’s been like beating your head against the wall to get that message out.”
Belief didn’t always pay the bills. Bud Lisac bought a smoker and began marketing to groups for a quick round and a barbecue. They created a Sunday evening nine-hole junior program that engaged entire families, long before the PGA Junior League. Through creative tenacity, the Lisacs kept Sah-Hah-Lee as a steady presence through the biggest shakeup since the Great Depression.
Then, suddenly, miraculously, like flipping a switch, attitudes around the country, including Portland, changed.
“We all know that the biggest deterrent to golf is time,” Steve notes. “Well, we’ve had the answer to that problem for 25 years. You can play nine holes out here in an hour to an hour-and-a-half, max. And you can get in 18 in the time it would take you to play six or seven holes at a regulation course. Throw in the fact that it stays light in Portland in the summer until around 10 p.m., and we’re the perfect outlet for afternoons and evenings. You can come out here after dinner with the family and play 18 holes easily before dark.”
Topgolf went into operation in Hillsboro, a suburb on the opposite side of Portland from Sah-Hah-Lee, on August 5, 2016, which opened a lot of eyes to the fact that golf doesn’t have to be a stuffy, all-day affair.
“We’re now trying to capture some of that same Topgolf market down here (on the southeast side),” Steve says. “We’ve had live music out here, which I worried about in the beginning because you can hear it all over the course. I thought it might be distracting. But people love it. So, we’ll have more of that.”
“We’re also going to businesses in the area and saying, ‘Look, a golf outing as part of a sales meeting or other gathering doesn’t have to be an all-day affair and it doesn’t have to be intimidating to your employees who don’t play golf. You can have meetings up until 2:00 if you want, come out here and still get in 18 holes and have a barbecue dinner. And beginners will love it because there are enough really short holes that everybody can enjoy themselves.”
Admittedly, the food-and-beverage operation has been a challenge at Sah-Hah-Lee because when the average round takes less than three hours, very few people are hungry when they finish. The Lisacs are looking to tweak their food service operation by, once again, learning from the Topgolf model.
“Topgolf does a tremendous food and beverage business, but they are more stationary,” Steve notes. “Food is brought to you at your hitting bay. We’re looking at turning our pro shop into a brew pub. Portland is a big microbrew area. If we can create a place where people play a quick round and stay for dinner or maybe hang out and have nachos and a local beer, I think that’s got a lot of potential.
“It’s about accommodating people’s needs around the game, not the other way around,” Steve adds. Then he pauses for a second, as if in deep thought, and posits: “Golf’s not going away. It’s been here for 600 years, but it’s not the same as it was in the beginning, or 100 or even 50 years ago. People change. Attitudes change. We’re trying to change with them and also be true to what we are.”
Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.