Unlike in many industries, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be one of the best things to happen in the world of golf in 2020, and Durango’s Hillcrest Golf Club was no exception.
With unprecedented hours of free time and health guidelines pushing people toward outdoor recreation, Hillcrest achieved a 59% increase in the number of golf rounds played in 2020 than in recent pre-pandemic years.
The pandemic made golf cool again, said Michael McCloskey, general manager at Hillcrest. Since 2008-09, golf had entered a steady decline after a previous plateau. People had lost interest and weren’t participating, particularly younger generations.
Then all of a sudden, the only activities people could do involved going outside while keeping a safe distance from one another. People with no interest or experience with golf promptly picked it up to stave off stir-craziness, he said.
“That’s what we thought was so neat for the sport in general,” McCloskey said. “But here at Hillcrest, particularly, we were providing mental health, really, benefits for everybody during some of the hardest times we’ve ever been through.”
In 2020, Hillcrest hosted 54,000 rounds of golf, a substantial increase from about 34,000 in past years. In 2021, Hillcrest retained about 90% of those golfers with a total of around 48,000 rounds played, he said. Hillcrest is on track to reach a similar number this year.
“We’re typically opened mid-March through the first week of December. So 52,000 rounds in nine months is quite substantial,” he said.
McCloskey said course rules have lightened up in recent years as well. Traditionally, golf is a “stuffy” sport with dress codes sometimes requiring polo shirts and cargo pants. But Hillcrest welcomes people to wear their preferred wardrobes (as long as they include shirts, shorts or pants and shoes).
Course rules have also grown more lax in allowing players to bring their own portable music speakers onto the course, as long as they’re respectful of other guests, McCloskey said.
He said Hillcrest is meant to be a steward of the Durango community. One disadvantage the nonprofit has is that people hear “Hillcrest Golf Club” and assume that only private members are welcome to use its facilities.
“Anybody is welcome to come here regardless of if you want to play golf, you want to eat food, you want to participate in some of our programming like live music,” he said.
The pandemic helped Hillcrest break through that misconception, getting younger people interested in the sport. But he suspects many people are still unaware that Hillcrest is a public course leasing land from the city of Durango.
Still, attracting young people is good for Hillcrest and the sport in general, he said. Without getting the younger generations involved, the sport will become less relevant.
“One of the things I’m really prideful of is junior golf because we have to focus on the future of our sport, right?” McCloskey said.
This year, Hillcrest graduated more than 280 junior golfers across its various programs, he said. The club hosts camps and junior leagues and joined First Tee, a global golf organization, in 2020.
He said golf teaches more life skills than other sports because it teaches honesty and integrity and requires kids to work with a diverse set of people as they navigate a course.
“You have to be comfortable interacting with adults, men and women, staff,” he said. “Because you’re kind of on your own.”
Brian Dommer, president of the board of directors, said a new management model adopted in 2019 helped the club handle the influx of new golfers.
In the past, most golf clubs split management responsibilities between PGA golf professionals, typically contracted, and boards of directors. The boards would traditionally handle club and course maintenance while the pros took ownership of restaurant operations, golf carts and other aspects of a club, Dommer said. In recent years, club boards have been transitioning to a consolidated model where they have more oversight over complementary services.
“In this model, we’ve basically taken on a ton more to review and (more) responsibility,” he said. “We used to be revenues, maintenance and capital expenditures. That was the whole gambit. (Now) it’s green fees, merchandise sales, cart rentals. The F&B (food and beverage), is it making money? Is it bringing in what we think it should?”
Hillcrest’s new model necessitated a general manager role, filled by McCloskey, who is also a PGA golf pro. He oversees the daily operations of food and beverage, merchandise, cart rentals and other services, but unlike an independent golf pro in past business models, the club owns those services and he takes direction from the board of directors.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, it was more common that the golf professional at the course had more skin in the game,” McCloskey said. “That golf professional was usually a contracted professional. And then they were a bigger piece of the business because they owned more of the business.”
Hillcrest, Durango’s only municipal course, was one of the last golf clubs in the area to transition to the newer business model, he said. The board of directors decided to re-evaluate how other clubs were organizing management when former Hillcrest PGA golf pro John Vickers resigned from the club in 2018.
Consolidation of club services under club ownership has elongated the length of board meetings considerably, Dommer said.
“We spend probably the first hour going through key performance indicators that tell us how these various parts of the operation are (going),” he said. “We have this really wide look at things now.”
While the new business model has created more work for the board, it also improved communication with staff members and set Hillcrest up for success when COVID-19 hit in 2020. He said club staff members would have been overwhelmed with the previous business model.
“We were ready to handle it,” Dommer said. “It wasn’t easy. But these guys, they really had to work. But they handled it well and it was an enthusiastic staff.”
He said the reorganization allowed the club to upgrade its customer service, hiring more staff members, and formalize business hours for the Deli & Grille restaurant service.
“The nice thing about it is you know when the grill’s going to be open. Before, it was just a random thing. You never knew,” he said.