By Steve Eubanks
Tim Gordon uses his northeastern roots to deliver a neighborhood feel at Niblick Golf
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.
Whether it’s the familiar accents, with r’s sliding effortlessly into ah’s, the common history, the dry humor or the inexplicable adoration for Matt Damon, folks in New England seem to stick together like tongues to a winter flagpole. Every neighborhood from Manchester and Maskasatch is just that: a small community of people with an almost familial bond. Residents of the region look upon outsiders, even those from other Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey, with a cordial sense of suspicion.
That’s why it’s so hard for large-scale golf course management companies to gain much of a foothold in the Massachusetts/New Hampshire/Rhode Island markets. Floridians, Texans, Californians and Arizonans think running a golf operation in New England is like operating clubs everywhere else—and in terms of the mechanics of the business, they’re correct. But the golfers themselves are quite different. Clannish, stubborn and fiercely loyal, a New Englander will drive past three or four courses in order to play a facility where he knows the operator and where he or she went to high school.
That’s one of the reasons Niblick Golf thrives. The company’s founder, Tim Gordon, could pass for a vendor at Fenway Park, and the clubs he owns and manages maintain a local, neighborhood feel in suburban Boston.
“To the public-facing side, all of our clubs are independents, which is important up here,” Gordon says. “But, internally, I’ve set up reporting and point-of-sale systems that are consistent throughout. It’s just that people in this part of the country want to identify with someone local. That’s a very strong, driving force.
“People up here don’t want to deal with big-time operators and very few [of those operators] have made inroads,” he adds. “But I’m a New England guy. I’ve had opportunities to work in other areas, but this is where I’m from. It’s great that we have what I consider to be a unique, little, niche market here.”
Gordon was, in his own words, “not a golf guy.” He began his career in hotels, working for Sheraton for a number of years, which turned out to be perfect preparation for his foray into golf. “I grew up on systems that were all linked,” he recalls. “That experience was invaluable once I got into [the golf business]. But even when I got into the business, I was simply an F&B guy who liked the outdoors.”
Eventually, Gordon got into golf when he took over management of a resort owned by Radisson in Lake Lure, North Carolina. Gordon fell in love in the country and the outdoorsy nature of the game, so when his hotel’s parent company tried to move him to an urban, in-town property, he quit and went to work for Arnold Palmer Golf Management.
“That was a long time ago during [the Palmer company’s] big spin-up when they were trying to get an IPO done,” Gordon explains. “I was a development officer for them on the East Coast looking to get deals. This was back in the days of all the golf trusts. What I realized then was that the guys from Florida and California had no idea how to relate to a New England golf market. It’s just a different animal.
“There really weren’t many systems orientations in [New England] golf at that time or in the years that followed,” he adds. “It’s all just one-off, mom-and-pop operations. So there seemed to be an opportunity to bring more order to those smaller organizations. I thought there was a niche there.”
Gordon capitalized on that niche by forming Niblick Golf in 2001 and buying what’s now Hopkinton Country Club, just west of Boston near I-495, in 2002. “We converted a daily-fee course,” he said. “We closed it in 2002 [for renovations and rebranding], reopened as a private club and pretty quickly sold 400 memberships.”
Niblick has two more courses in the region, now—Glen Ellen Country Club in Millis, Massachusetts, and Shining Rock Golf Club in Northbridge, Massachusetts—both of which had fallen on hard times. Gordon was able to step in through contacts he’d made in the financial community and turn them around. “Suddenly deals started showing up,” he says.
The company’s philosophy remains simple. “We stay very close to our market and put people in our clubs who are from the area,” Gordon divulges. “We have a staff that works hard, has fun, and who enjoy programming services for our members and guests.”
That quote could have come from any operator in the country. What really differentiated Niblick was Gordon’s prescience when it came to understanding family dynamics in country club life.
“As early as 2002, when many operators were going away from things like pools, dining rooms and other [non-golf] amenities, we were out there saying, ‘We’re going to be a family club and have a pool and amenities, and we’re going to program the heck out of those amenities,’” Gordon boasts. “I guess because of my hotel background, not being a traditional golf guy, I realized that everyone was going after the golfer and nobody was addressing the other people in the family. We turned that idea on its head. I said, ‘All we care about are those other people [in the family] because the golfer comes with them.’
“If I have amenities and programs for all the non-golfing members of a family, do you think the golfer cares that I haven’t marketed to him?” Gordon posits. “Of course not. All the golfer is looking for is permission to proceed. By bringing the entire family into the club, he was given that permission.”
Gordon hopes to expand that philosophy by bringing the multi-course, reciprocal model to a market that remains very neighborhood oriented. “I saw what Canongate did in Atlanta (where the company bought numerous mid-level clubs in a single market and sold memberships to the network rather than to the individual properties) and I think that will work up here if you know the market and do it the right way,” Gordon says. “My game plan, ultimately, is to leverage a small collection of clubs to create this reciprocal local model.
“I think that’s the future,” Gordon continues. “It’s a lot more useful to a guy to have reciprocal privileges at a club that’s 15 minutes away from his exciting club than to have reciprocation with a club that’s in Los Angeles when he lives in Boston. You can still have that individualized, neighborhood feel to the operations, but the benefits to your members are much greater and the economies of scale are very significant.
“That’s what I’m trying for on a small scale up here. I would love to have a collection of clubs around the Boston beltway and maybe a couple down south along the cape. Because of the weather on the cape you can play golf almost year-round.”
How large a network does Gordon think the New England market will support? “That’s hard to say,” he admits. “But for me, five clubs would be a nice sweet-spot. If I could accrue a couple of more clubs in a few years, that would be great.”
Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.