Meet the golf club manager: Richard Woolley

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 18, 2019 05:42

The general manager of Pine Ridge Golf Club in Surrey talks about the challenges involved in running a golf club that also relies on alternative revenue streams and the importance of good customer service.

Richard Woolley

Can you tell us a bit about Pine Ridge Golf Club?

Pine Ridge opened in 1993, the course winds through gently undulating pine forest, on sandy soil that drains superbly, enabling us to keep the course in excellent playing condition all year round. At 6,458 yards from the championship tees, it’s long but still accessible to golfers of all abilities. For quality and value, it has been ranked as one of the country’s top 10 public courses and golfers who discover it for the first time keep coming back for more.

The club is also a hub for the local community due to its location and the diversity of services it offers. The social element is key to its success, these range from monthly tribute nights which regularly have over 200 people attending along with 50-plus weddings a year. The club also has a very busy brasserie along with 36-bay driving range which both contribute to the high footfall.

You’ve worked at a number of golf clubs with roles ranging from PGA professional to general manager over the years, can you take us through your career path to managing Pine Ridge?

I originally started my trade working for Lee Fickling at Enfield Golf Club, this really gave me the tools I needed to progress within the golf industry. I worked for Lee for four years and he taught me so much around work ethics as well as the skills required to progress my career as a PGA professional.

I then spent a period of time working at South Herts Golf Club, it was while I was working there that I applied for the assistant professional role at Sunningdale Golf Club. I managed to get to the last two for this role, unfortunately I was unsuccessful. It was a cloud that did have a silver lining as I found out after a follow-up call with Keith Maxwell (head professional at Sunningdale).

The call went as expected, Keith was as professional as ever and gave me the reasons why I was unsuccessful with my dream to become the assistant professional at Sunningdale. It was at the end of the conversation that something unexpected happened: Keith informed me that a position had just come up at Wentworth and if I wanted to apply for that role he was more than happy to be my reference. A week later I had an interview with David Rennie (head professional at Wentworth) and the rest is history.

It was the five years at Wentworth that opened up all the other doors.

However, it wasn’t until I started to work for Brad Chard that I got my first general manager role at Mytime Active. I have been very fortunate with the bosses I have reported to, they have all helped me develop into the manager I am today.

The Pine Ridge role is one I had wanted for years, purely down to its size and its diversity in income streams. It’s a dream job for me at this point in my career, every day is different and I look forward to the daily challenge. The team make it an easier job for me, they are so strong, talented and they all want to be successful, which is the perfect mix.

How has the golf industry changed in the last quarter of a century?

The golf industry has changed dramatically since I first started 26 years ago. The ratio of golfers to golf courses has become unbalanced, which in turn put pressure on most courses to lower the price of their green fees or membership subscriptions. The clubs then turn to third party companies to try and get more golfers through the door, unfortunately this come at a price, which lead to the boom of the 2-for-1.

This approach by many clubs led to a tsunami of venues following suit. In-turn, we unconsciously educated the customer to believe that they can play most courses at a discount. This led to them thinking ‘why would I want to be a member of a club when I can play most courses at a discounted rate with no long term commitment?’

This has resulted in mid-tier clubs closing as they find it difficult to retain their members nor can they get enough of the nomadic golfers through the door as the choice for the customer is too great.

Crown Golf members have the benefit of ‘Open Play’, this allows our members to play any of our sister or affiliated courses free of charge, a big USP in this new era where the customer wants cost-effective ways to play other courses.

What do you find are the biggest challenges managing Pine Ridge today? 

The challenge at Pine Ridge is not so much the membership element of the business but more managing the constant growth of green fee, golf days, weddings, functions the general increase in footfall. We have a clear strategy in place for long-term growth, ultimately this is based around the customer and their expectations of what they want and expect from Pine Ridge.

I have discovered over the years that if we can sell the ‘why’ to the customer rather than the ‘how’ or the ‘what’ then it makes attracting new customers to our door that much easier.

Does the club try to attract juniors and beginners to the facility? What is Junior100?

Pine Ridge, like many of the Crown Golf clubs, are always looking at different ways to get the younger generation into golf.

The Junior100 concept was to give away 100 junior membership across Crown Golf, again this is our way to try and kick start juniors to commit to playing golf. This event was underpinned with junior camps which were promoted on the day. The event was a great success as we saw hundreds of juniors visiting our venues – some for the first time.

You’ve worked with a number of golf groups over the years, including the two with the most amount of UK clubs in their portfolio: Crown Golf and Mytime Active. What are the advantages of being part of major groups like this?

The advantage is simple: shared knowledge. We have some very talented people working at Crown Golf, many with varied skill-sets; sharing best practice within the group enables us to replicate success much faster and easier. It can be a very lonely world when you are managing a stand-alone site like a private members’ club. The Golf Club Managers’ Association are doing a wonderful job in bringing general managers together so they can also share best practice, which, in time will help grow this wonderful game.

The club markets itself as a venue for Christmas parties. What does it offer and how popular is this? 

The club is very popular with Christmas parties, we do over 4,500 covers throughout December. This is the element of the business I really enjoy, both trying to exceed our targets along with the delivery. It’s a long month operationally but it’s great fun as all team members fully commit to delivering a perfect Christmas party experience for our guests.

How does Pine Ridge fit in with its local community?

This is the first club I have managed whereby the clubhouse is viewed as a hub for the local community. The opening hours are similar to a pub / restaurant as the local community prefer to use Pine Ridge as a venue whereby they can share time with their friends and family. We support the community with promoting their events as we host many of them throughout the year.

How popular is the wedding service the club offers and how important is this within the overall business of the club?

The weddings are very popular at Pine Ridge, the Baronial Hall is the big draw for most of our prospective couples. The wedding business varies from year to year however we will look at around 45 to 60 weddings per year. We have recently launched a ‘Wedding Showcase’ evening each month, this is very different to a wedding fair. This enables all of our enquiries to view the venue as it would be on their big day, this has made a significant difference to the conversion of our wedding enquiries into sales.

Last year the club launched a new menu – can you tell us a bit about this? 

The club tried a different approach to the food offering around 18 months ago, this led to bespoke menus and more emphasis was placed on presentation and delivery to the cuisine offered. The club also hired a Michelin star chef to help deliver on this new menu. I am a manager that is always looking to explore different avenues, while taking this approach to the menu wasn’t my concept, it was worth doing. It wasn’t successful in the end as many of our regular customers didn’t covert to the new offerings as they expected more hearty food.

The club has a floodlit, 36-bay driving range? How popular is this and what do you do to ensure maximum use of this facility?

It’s a busy driving range – currently we sell around 5.8 million golf balls per year. The key, like most driving ranges, is repeat business, we find that promoting range cards helps with the retention. As a product we are always looking to improve. We are always working on the outfield to ensure its visually inviting to use along with our continued investment into new golf balls.

A number of local ranges have invested in Toptracer or Total Range, as you would image this has given them a spike in income which is great for them. We haven’t seen a drop in footfall so is this new technology bringing new customers to the game of golf or is it a gimmick that has a short shelf life? I believe technology has become a large part of the game and I can only see technology playing more of a role moving forward, there is a consensus within the industry that a large percentage of the driving ranges will have some form of technology in them within the next five years.

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

This is something I’m very passionate about, I strongly believe that great customer service can be delivered by anyone. It all starts with the staff, we need to give them a working environment that they enjoy and feel a part of, along with the belief that their actions make a real difference to the business but more importantly people’s lives.

If you militarise your staff on what they can and can’t say, then their personalities become lost, the customer can sense this and the experience becomes fake. We have taken on Tom Lowery as our new food and beverage manager, he has done a wonderful job in enrolling many new front-of-house staff members along with empowering the original staff to find their special way to give amazing customer service. Customers return to Pine Ridge for many reasons, we want to make sure the main reason is down to the staff.

Surrey has a number of world famous golf clubs and is one of the top two or three counties in England for its number of leading venues. Do you ever find yourself in competition with fellow Surrey golf managers?

We are blessed with many great golf courses in Surrey; I had the pleasure to work as an assistant professional at The Wentworth Club for five years.

The clubs in Surrey vary so much that you find that your actual competitors are a very small portion of the clubs within the county.

I do not view Wentworth, Sunningdale or Walton Heath as a competitor however we do keep a close eye on high-end pay-and-play courses within the Surrey area. I’m fortunate to have some great friends who are managers at many of the Surrey clubs, we speak often, but more about the our personal lives or where we played last rather than who is doing the better job.

 

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 18, 2019 05:42
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4 Comments

  1. Davis December 19, 15:23

    Great article! Loved Richard’s quote talking about selling “the ‘why’ to the customer rather than the ‘how’ or the ‘what’ ” – this is so true and can only be done successfully when you have a deep understanding of your market.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Julian December 18, 12:18

    Lots of very smart advice and understanding on how Golf Club Management has evolved and must continue to listen to the consumer. Good luck Richard and I am sure you will be very successful.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Eleanor December 18, 12:07

    Great picture Richard.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Ben December 17, 12:19

    Top guy and a great GM! Great article.

    Reply to this comment
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