For years, Damon Hoover has taken his business clients to the Old Ranch Golf Club, a comfortable Seal Beach country club where he is a member.
But recently, Hoover, a vice president at Martin Brothers/Marcowall Inc., a Gardena construction company, has changed course, taking them instead to Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes.
The links, which cost $260 million to complete, feature stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the mountainous Palos Verdes Peninsula, as well as pricey green fees that Hoover doesn't think twice about paying.
"Trump is definitely a place where I get a lot of requests to take clients. I can't think of anything that is missing there," Hoover said. "It's definitely a more challenging course with more prestige. The restaurant's great. They are developing a great wine list, and at every hole you have a spectacular view."
Throughout Southern California, privately-owned high-end daily fee courses open to the public, such as Trump National, Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Angeles National Golf Club in Sunland have spent millions of dollars within the last two years redesigning their fairways and greens, adding amenities and polishing up their services.
Moreover, municipalities around the country, including New York, Atlanta and Long Beach have followed suit, investing in gold-plated facilities in an effort to better serve golfers' rising expectations and expand both golf and non-golf event related business.
Golf saw a resurgence in the late 1990s when Tiger Woods first appeared and tore up greens on the PGA tour. Now though Woods may have slowed down a bit an uptick in the economy has boosted golf's target demographic of players with large disposable incomes. These players, however, are not necessarily searching for the exclusivity and ultra-high high cost associated with private clubs.
"The growth in the marketplace is for high-end daily fee courses where people can play a quality course for a good price point," said Jeff Marks, managing director of Sports Business Group, a sports marketing and consulting firm.
Pricey bean patch
The Trump National course has had a tortured history.
The 200-acre site, originally a garbanzo bean farm, was developed into a golf course by developers Ken and Robert Zuckerman, who spent $130 million. But before it opened in 1999 the 18th fairway slid into the Pacific Ocean, also creating dangerous conditions at other holes. That limited the course to 15 playable holes when it opened in 2000. Construction on the other greens finished two years later.
Trump purchased the course in 2002 for $27 million and spent $30 million renovating it bringing the property's total development cost to more than $260 million. The money spent on the course now means it charges $195 to $295 for a round of golf, making it the priciest public access course in Los Angeles County. But both duffers and low-handicappers alike are treated well in return.
The course features country club-type amenities such as a five- star restaurant, golf carts equipped with global positioning equipment, complimentary golf accessories and valet parking. It's also the first course designed by Trump, with a layout aimed at giving the links the broadest possible appeal, unlike many country clubs where the courses are aimed at golfers with lower handicaps.
The design features land connections between the fairway and green on every hole. That allows duffers to reach every flag while allowing skilled golfers to hit a green on the fly. (In addition, the course has five sets of tees creating a course length that ranges from just 4,700 yards to a championship distance of 7,300 yards.)
General Manager Mike van der Goes said the course is projected for 30,000-35,000 rounds per year, but is temporarily on pace for a higher number of rounds as golfers test it out. "People want to be pampered, especially if you are here to conduct business," he said. "People are willing to pay for value as long as the perception is met."
Still, Trump National, which comfortably accommodates up to 150 golfers per day, handles a fraction of the volume seen at traditional public courses. Municipal courses such as those run by the City of Los Angeles survive by offering inexpensive golf to as many people as possible, with many facilities hosting more than 100,000 rounds per year. "The aesthetics will suffer with more play. We do a good job of capping daily play levels," van der Goes said.
The facility opened in January and already more amenities have been added. "Donald Trump wanted us to expand the locker room for tournaments after watching how people used it," van der Goes said. Other additions include a barbecue and refrigerator cart added alongside the course because people did not want to spend time picking up food at the bar and lounge.
Already the course is drawing a host of tournaments and charity outings. And with its ocean views, the facility is also a coveted wedding and banquet location. High profile events use the course including the televised Michael Douglas and Friends charity golf tournament and an LPGA Championship tour event, although the women's tour canceled its local stop last year when title sponsor Home Depot Inc. moved funding to Nascar.
Privately held public-access courses are not the only ones spiffing up these days. Many cities across the country are upgrading municipal facilities with country club-type elements that make them more attractive and potentially more profitable.
"Increasing the functionality of the property drives event revenue," said Keith Brown, chief operations officer for Santa Monica-based American Golf Corp., a nationwide golf course operator.
An example of that trend is Skylinks Golf Course in Long Beach, which closed for renovations in 2003.
For years it operated like most traditional municipal courses. Tee times were spread six minutes apart, which allowed it to accommodate nearly 120,000 rounds per year. Its simple design had no water hazards and few bunkers. The sheer volume of foot traffic made the course overcrowded and difficult to maintain.
"Residents complained that they felt like cattle being herded through Skylinks," said Terry Lortz, director of golf for Long Beach, which invested $6 million to redesign and upgrade the course.
The result is a more sophisticated design that features five times as many bunkers and four lakes. The city also changed the greens fee structure of Skylinks and other courses it operates.
Starting in October 2004, the city implemented a tiered structure that allows golfers to choose from courses with staggered degrees of difficulty and corresponding green fees. That allowed a higher level of service while not pricing out the beginning golfer.
"We tried to come up with a course that isn't overly expensive," said Lortz.
Platinum-level Skylinks opened with $42-$51 green fees that run 50 percent higher than Recreation Park (silver) and 25 percent higher than El Dorado Park (gold). "Long Beach is unique and very forward-thinking because there are people that can't afford high-end daily fee courses but desire the experience," Brown said.
Also, to alleviate overcrowding, which slows down the pace of play and frustrates golfers, tee times were lengthened to every nine minutes. Skylinks is now budgeted for 75,000-80,000 rounds per year, and saw 76,230 rounds played in 2005. That's far less than some popular municipal courses.
Meanwhile, Hoover continues to golf at the Trump course and says that the experience is unmatched at anywhere else that he has played. Now, he's a weekly regular, despite his continued membership at his Seal Beach country club.
"They've gotten to know me on a first name basis," he said.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.