Overhauling a Reputation

By Steve Eubanks
Courtesy of Golf Business

Benjamin Franklin once said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation and only one bad one to lose it.”

The same holds true for inanimate objects like golf courses. At least that was the case for Poplar Creek Country Club, the public course within the Hoffman Estates Park District, a suburb of Chicago. Built in a flood plain, Poplar Creek Country Club had a reputation as a good layout that presented plenty of challenge and good conditioning, except when it rained. Because of its low-lying proximity to Poplar Creek, part of the Upper Fox River watershed, the golf course flooded more than most. A couple of inches of rain on a Friday night washed away Saturday morning tee times and all the revenue they represented.

But even worse, the floodwaters left a muddy stain on the course’s reputation. Businesses and group coordinators were hesitant to book golf outings at Poplar Creek for fear of being washed out. “Reputation is a very difficult thing to overcome, especially when you’re fighting the stigma that your course floods,” says Tony LaFrenere, general manager and director of operations for the course. “We were losing outing business because of a fear that the course might be closed if it rained. In a competitive market such as this, that was not a tenable position.”

With yields down everywhere in the business, the last thing most any golf operator would have considered was a $6.2 million renovation, one that rebuilt 15 holes and remodeled the clubhouse. But that's exactly what LaFrenere and Hoffman Estates chose to do.

"We had a couple of visionary board members who said that the economy and golf being down also brings construction prices down," LaFrenere explains. "That makes this the right time to do this because the benefits extend for the life of the golf course, more so even than a 20-year capital expenditure project."

After contracting with Lohmann Golf Course Design, LaFrenere embarked on a massive rebuilding project that included re-engineering the floodplain, mitigating certain areas with new retention and detention ponds, and raising the playing surfaces. "We raised five fairways as much as 5 feet," LaFrenere notes.

They also updated the layout to both lengthen and shorten the course, making it longer for the good player, but cutting down on the cross hazards and shortening the forced carries for everyone. Water still comes into play on 15 of 18 holes, but LaFrenere says it "does so in a way that doesn't slow down play or make it impossible for the average golfer to enjoy his or her round."

To eliminate the stigma and reboot the club's reputation, LaFrenere and his board renamed the golf course The Bridges of Poplar Creek, a shout-out to the many new bridges that wind through the floodplain. "We're looking at this as a differentiation point in a busy and competitive environment," he says. "Now, you can book your outing and be assured that you're going to play on that day."

A capital undertaking of this magnitude was a risk even in good times, but in today's uncertain economic environment it seemed counterintuitive. Yet LaFrenere contends that it was an easy call. "We'll be paying back the bonding on this project for a number of years, but we were losing outing rounds based on the stigma that we flooded," he says. "We knew we had to make some tough decisions, and the board decided that it was better to do this during a down time where you wouldn't lose as many rounds as you might once the economy bounced back."


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