BY TERRY BRIDGE,
LISTOWEL BANNER SPORTS
LISTOWEL – Looking back, Brenden Parsons believes the Listowel Golf Club made a very smart decision five years ago.
Previously known as the Listowel Golf and Country Club, the member-run board of directors opted to sell the facility to Kitchener-based Gateman-Milloy Inc.
“We were very lucky to be purchased when we were by the company we were,” Parsons, director of operations at the Listowel Golf Club (LGC), said of the Nov. 2007 purchase. “There has to be a lot of credit given to the board of directors that was in charge of the golf club at the time. For the board that was here to have enough foresight to choose the best suitor, and do it on their own terms, is the reason why it’s so successful now.”
The golf world is still experiencing a bit of an economic lull, and the number of junior golfers across the country is dwindling, but overall the LGC is in a strong financial position because they are owned by a large company with expertise in land development, design build, construction, landscape design, grounds maintenance and property management.
“The nice thing now is we are in such a solid ownership situation that we’re positioned to get through this kind of downturn,” said Parsons, a 30-year-old who grew up near Gowanstown. “(We) enjoy the security of having solid ownership, solid membership, to get through this downturn and come out ahead.”
Michael Milloy, president of Gateman-Milloy, is Parsons’ boss. He stays involved but gives his team the freedom to do their jobs.
“They’re involved but they let us run with it. They’re involved enough to know what’s going on, but they let people who they’ve hired do their jobs,” Parsons explained.
“Brenden’s our general manager, we moved him up to that responsibility once we took over,” Milloy said. “He’s done a great job of thinking on the business side of golf instead of just the golf pro side.”
One thing Parsons, who studied music at the University of Western Ontario in London and has been a LGC employee since he was a high school student in ’99, points out is the quality condition the course is in.
“The golf course is in just phenomenal condition,” he said. “Equal mix of some good luck with the weather and favourable winters, and also the superintendent.”
Harold Keeso couldn’t agree more. Keeso, 87, was born and raised in Listowel and is a long-time member of the club.
“It’s fantastic. I couldn’t believe with having such a light winter and an early spring, the course was in mid-summer shape when it first opened to play,” said Keeso, who has played every year since 1936 and even managed to get a few rounds in while serving with the Air Force in ‘44 and the Army in ‘45.
A big reason for the healthy conditions is Chad Adamson, the course’s superintendent for over a decade. He has a staff of about 15 under his watch.
The challenge he has is to take care of 27 holes on a budget that is comparable to most 18-hole courses.
“Chad, who is our greens keeper, does a great job on a low budget. He’s a volunteer firefighter on the side, we’re pretty proud of his commitment to the community,” Milloy noted.
Overall the club employs, on average, between 60-75 people, with a large chunk being local students during the summer months.
“It’s one of the things that we’re known for,” Parsons said of his staff. “I was talking to a guy last week and he says he comes up because he loves the golf course, the course is great and the people treat him well. It’s kind of our bread and butter right now. It’s a good student job.”
Gateman-Milloy – the LGC is the only course they own outright, but they have a hand in Baden’s Rebel Creek – has steadily invested in the facility since taking over in ’07, including new flooring, expanding the banquet room, creating an outdoor wedding venue, paving the parking lot and working on a patio. Parsons, a member of the Canadian Professional Golfers’ Association, was helping unpack brand new patio chairs prior to last week’s interview.
New flooring in the clubhouse is the only notable upcoming item on the agenda.
“Now it’s just kind of keep it up,” Parsons noted.
The club hosts over a dozen charity golf tournaments each season, bringing in approximately $100,000 combined for charitable causes. The annual Listowel Charity Golf Classic is slated for July 12.
The club originally dates back to 1920 when it was just a nine-hole course with similarities to the current Vintage nine, but with some differences. There used to be two small clubhouses, one for men and another for women, around where the green for Vintage No. 7 is now located.
“I guess they didn’t get along too well,” laughed Keeso, who plays three times a week and carded scores of 82-88 in his most recent two rounds.
A second nine was added in the 1980s, taking almost the full decade to construct on a budget of $750,000.
The Millenium nine was opened in 2002, along with a new clubhouse and practice facility. When Parsons became an employee three years earlier, the decision to add another nine holes was already well underway.
“At the time, when the third nine was built, it was a very, very busy 18-hole course. The thought was that with nine holes it would bring in even more golf and all three would be really busy. Didn’t happen that way,” Parsons explained. “We put through the amount of rounds for a busy 18-hole golf course, but we have the flexibility of using all the nines.”
With it not being as full as envisioned a decade ago, is there any thoughts of scaling it back to 18 in the future? Not a chance, says Parsons.
“There’s no thought to reducing it to 18 in any near future, which is one of the rumours that is always out there: well, they’re going to get rid of a nine. Well, no,” he said. “Twenty years down the road will the golf course be the same? Probably not. But will it be 27? Probably, just some other variation.”
All three nines are identical par 36. Millenium was formerly known as East. More than just the names have changed over the years.
The club used to operate on a radius rule, where local people within a certain area had to be a member to play, they couldn’t simply pay green fees.
“It was a way of keeping the club local, but members, without just having it as a public golf course. It actually worked really well, but if you’re not a member it can rub you the wrong way,” noted Parsons, who took over as director of golf in 2005 and was promoted to his current gig in 2007. “I understand why, but what we’re trying to get out there now is you’re welcome to come up and play, it’s not run the same as it was. It’s a semi-private golf club, but public play is welcome.”
No matter where a golfer comes from green fees are about $26-28 per nine, or $40-50 per 18.
The restaurant, driving range and course are all open to the public, a sentiment Parsons finds he has to stress repeatedly.
“A lot of people still think it’s member-only, and that’s definitely not the case. We are open to everyone,” he said.
A 2012 membership is around $1,100. Currently the club has 400-plus adult memberships, the average number over the last few seasons.
“It’s the best deal in golf with the quality compared to what’s available in the (Waterloo) Region,” Milloy pointed out.
The club runs several leagues that are gaining in popularity. Men’s day has just over 150 – one of the largest in the area according to Parsons – and ladies day features 60-65.
There’s just that issue of a lack of younger players.
“The only area that is concerning, it’s not just us, every golf course is seeing it, is juniors. Junior memberships everywhere is down significantly,” Parsons said. “It’s a country-wide problem trying to get juniors involved in golf.”
A junior membership is $250 with an adult member or $330 without, and they run a free educational program for juniors.
What about location? Having competitive rates on a quality facility is one thing, but it depends on how people view the 40-minute drive from Stratford or Kitchener-Waterloo.
“The same reason we’re unlucky from being so far from the city, we’re lucky that we’re so far away,” Parsons said. “We’re our own little microcosm, whereas we’d have a lot more competition if we were closer to Kitchener-Waterloo, but we’d also clean their clocks because we just have the facility.”
Parsons said they put through about 30,000 rounds per year, with about one-third of those golfers from K-W.
Several courses in the twin cities are owned by Golf North. Parsons couldn’t stress enough that there was never any serious interest from Golf North in ’07 to buy Listowel’s course and there’s zero chance they will be involved now.
“That’s the rumour that I get so frustrated with,” Parsons admitted. “Golf North tends to – everybody thinks they buy everybody – there’s always been a rumour that they’re buying us. Never in a million years.”
With the initial economic downturn late last decade, Parsons said the LGC didn’t take a hit until the year after most businesses felt the pinch.
“It hit us late because when it all fell apart most people had already paid. It was the year after that we started to feel it,” Parsons recalled. “We saw a lot of corporate tournaments cancelled. They just didn’t have it in the budget to do it that year, Christmas parties, that kind of thing.”
In the five years since the new owners stepped in, it’s been a big sigh of relief for the staff.
“In terms of, for me, for the staff, all of us that work here, the years we went through at the end that were pretty stressful were worth it to have nice, solid ownership,” Parsons concluded. “There was some hesitation by some of the older guys that have been here so long when it was bought by somebody else, because they had no idea whether they were going to come in and resell it or flip it or change it or whatever, chop it down. I think they’ve seen now it was probably the best thing that ever could have happened.”