Congressional boss Michael Leemhuis discusses what's going on in the US.
The world of the elite American private clubs is a rarified environment. Members of such clubs pay, by the standards of most of the world, enormous fees for the privilege of playing courses conditioned to exquisite standards and off-limits to virtually everyone but themselves and their guests.
But, according to Mike Leemhuis, chief operating officer of one of the most elite of those clubs, Congressional CC, just outside Washington, US club golfers are a more varied bunch than might appear the case.
Congressional, with a ten year waiting list, several Presidents among its former members, and a tournament history that includes four Majors and an annual PGA Tour event, is among America’s leading clubs. Rory McIlroy’s spectacular US Open victory there in 2011 is just the latest time the club has been in the spotlight. And the level of conditioning expected at such clubs, and for such events, has been highlighted by a number of commentators as being a key problem for golf courses with fewer resources.
Those in the industry who have been trying to get golf clubs to embrace a more traditional, sustainable model of greenkeeping often complain that the problem is golfers themselves, who demand uniformly green courses, and greens that are soft and yielding. But, says Leemhuis, the evidence from Congressional suggests otherwise. In fact, he says, once players have been exposed to fast and firm conditions, they don’t want to go back.
“We are constantly being pressed by our memberships to ensure the courses are fast and firm. Because we host tournaments regularly, the members have become used to firm and fast conditions, and they really like it,” he says. “Some of our older members particularly like the fact that their shots get more roll. And when the courses aren’t so firm, they complain. They might not necessarily believe that brown is the new green, but they don’t mind if there’s a little bit of brown out there.”
The irony is, of course, that McIlroy in particular made Congressional look pretty easy during that week in June 2011. In particular, the relatively soft condition of the golf course meant players could hit their approach shots at flags and stop them without difficulty. This is clearly a source of frustration to Leemhuis, who knows just how much effort his team put in to make the course play firm for the Open, and how close they were to achieving their goals. “Two weeks before the Open last year, I played the golf course, and the week before the tournament, I walked it with Mike Davis of the USGA,” he says. “We got to one green, and I said to Mike ‘I couldn’t stop a wedge on there!’, But the week of the tournament, it just rained every night, and so it became like throwing darts.”
If clubs at Congressional’s level are embracing the fast and firm mantra, and more importantly, if the golfers like it to the extent that they complain when the course isn’t firm enough, then the implication is obvious. If green and lush became popular because ordinary club golfers wanted their courses to look like the ones they saw on TV, then firm and fast can become popular in the same way. Leemhuis stresses he’s not talking about US-style parkland layouts looking like a browned-out links in a hot summer, but that his members want the courses as firm as they can sensibly be. “We have creeping bentgrass fairways and greens, so you can’t stress it to quite the same extent you can with fescues on a links, but it’s not true that a little bit of brown means the grass is dying,” he says. “The key is to show the improved playability, and to help the members understand that the grass is still fine.”
Other key trends that Leemhuis says he’s seeing include the generational divide. “Longer life spans mean that clubs are being challenged to serve the needs of multiple generations, which may not be the same, in a way that has not been the case in the past,” he explains. The ageing of golf club memberships is a well-known issue, but Leemhuis points out it isn’t that simple. Yes, average age is increasing, and yes, clubs need to focus on recruiting new members, but they can’t do that by changing their culture in a way that risks alienating the older members, who are likely to be active to a much greater age than has been the case in the past.
The vexed question of dress is a good example of this challenge. It’s clear that, to be more attractive to younger people, clubs need to consider changing, perhaps even relaxing, their dress codes, but at the same time, they need to think carefully about the expectations of their existing members. “Businesses have changed their dress policies dramatically in the last couple of decades, and the rise of casual dining means that the restaurant business has been through a similar change,” says Leemhuis. Similarly with technology - the rise of the smartphone has made club policies on mobile usage much more problematic. Is there really an issue with golfers pulling their phone out of their bag on the way round the course to check their emails?
Finally, Leemhuis notes, as do many other commentators, that a family-friendly approach is vital to attracting new members and getting more play out of existing ones. “We need to improve our service to all family types,” he says. “That could, for many clubs, include the provision of child care, and it certainly includes special programmes for children and for women, things like sports camps.”
This article first appeared in issue 31 of GCA, published January 2013.