Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Casper to run Philly city courses

For anybody who missed it in the paper a few weeks ago, here's the story I wrote about the Billy Casper Co. getting the contract to run Philadelphia's city courses...
By Joe Logan
Inquirer Staff Writer

If you're among the thousands of golfers who consider one of Philadelphia's six city-owned courses your home course, get ready for more changes.

After 2 1/2 years, the era of Liberty Golf, a local company that has managed the courses, is coming to an end. The city is in the final stages of negotiating a new contract with Billy Casper Golf, based in Vienna, Va., which manages 80 facilities in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Costa Rica.

The new management contract, however, will include only four of the city facilities: F.D.R. in South Philadelphia, John F. Byrne in the Northeast, and the crown jewel, Cobbs Creek and Karakung in West Philadelphia.

At the same time the new contract goes into effect - the target date is Jan. 1, 2008 - two of the city courses, Juniata in North Philadelphia and Walnut Lane in Roxborough, will begin being operated by two nonprofit groups.

News that the city had picked Billy Casper Golf, a proven company with a national reputation, came as an obvious blow to Liberty Golf, a smaller, younger, homegrown company that had hoped to maintain the contract.

Liberty, in fact, had been created almost overnight by Bud Connors, who had run the courses for years, first for Club Corp. of Dallas and later for Meadowbrook Golf of Florida after Meadowbrook begged out of its long-term contract in mid-2005.

"We are big fans of Liberty Golf because of the way they stepped up and helped the Fairmount Park Commission and literally made it possible for the city of Philadelphia to have golf the past two years," said Barry Bessler, chief of staff for the park commission and the city's point man on many golf-course matters. "But it was a stopgap measure. Billy Casper is a national firm and one of the leaders in municipal golf-course management. "

Although he was disappointed, Connors, president of Liberty, said that his company had gotten a fair shake from the city. But up against Billy Casper Golf, he was David against Goliath.
"We're a small mom-and-pop operation," said Connors. "I'm the president of the company, but I'm in the field every day. I wish Billy Casper good luck. "

Terms of the deal with Billy Casper - length of the contract, rent to be paid the city - are still being worked out. Neither side expects negotiations to hit a major sticking point.
Fact is, when the city put the contract out for bid, only three companies showed interest: Billy Casper, Liberty, and Kemper Sports Management, another national company whose portfolio includes Makefield Highlands in Bucks County and Heron Glen in Ringoes, N.J.

What tipped the scale in Billy Casper's favor was not grandiose promises, said Bessler, but rather straight talk and an established track record.

"They have in mind capital improvements for all the facilities," said Bessler. "Does that mean there will be enough money to turn these into Bethpage Black? No. But we believe the management company is on the same page as us in terms of what the courses need and what can benefit them most. "

Billy Casper manages a mix of private, daily-fee, resort and municipal courses across the country, including Lederach Golf Club in Harleysville, Reading Country Club in Reading and McCullough's Emerald Golf Links in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

The company's biggest municipal contracts are in Westchester County, N.Y. (three courses); Cincinnati (seven courses); and Cook County, surrounding Chicago (12 courses).
"Check with Cook County. We're like a before-and-after informercial," said Rich Katz, senior vice president at Casper's public relations and marketing company, Buffalo Communications.

In the Chicago Tribune's seasonal golf guide this past April, writer David Murray, a self-described "hard-core urban golfer," raved about the improvements at the Cook County courses since Casper took over in 2002, especially when compared to the Chicago city courses, which are managed by Kemper.

"I went to the Billy Caldwell course for a quick nine to keep the game sharp - you don't go to a Chicago public course for a serious round - and I noticed the first tee was made of grass," wrote Murray. "Where was the charming asphalt patch with the Astroturf welcome mat? And what was that in the middle of the fairway? Was it a bright, new 150-yard marker? "

Murray went on to praise Billy Casper Golf for not only improving course conditions but also for weeding out employees who had ranged from "indifferent to surly. " On the marketing side, wrote Murray, the Casper-run courses use computers to track the golf habits of their regulars, then send out special-offer e-mails that are so targeted, it's "almost creepy. "

If Billy Casper can deliver the same kind of performance in Philadelphia, Bessler and the city will breathe a sigh of relief. Initially, at least, any new management company will likely be greeted by city-course regulars with cautious optimism if not outright skepticism. Who could blame them?

Most recently, Liberty Golf did its best in a difficult situation, but before it there were years of pie-in-the-sky promises followed by neglect, first from Club Corp., then Meadowbrook Golf. In both cases, after the honeymoon, the relationship soured. It was golfers, and the golf courses, that felt the pain of the broken relationships.

This time around, to make the contract more attractive, the city has removed the two least attractive courses from the deal - Juniata and Walnut Lane. Both courses have their loyal regulars but neither tends to draw from beyond its neighborhood. The result is they have fewer rounds and produce less revenue.

In the case of Juniata, Bob Wheeler, a retired cop who has managed the course in recent years, pulled together the 12-member Juniata Golf Foundation, which he will head as executive director.

Walnut Lane will be operated by Impact Services, headed by John McDonald, the former Temple golf coach who is also executive director of the First Tee of Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Scholastic Golf Association. Both facilities will continue to be owned by the city, merely leased out for $1 a year.

While Juniata and Walnut Lane both will continue to operate as daily fee courses, Wheeler and McDonald hope to grow programs - golf and educational - for youngsters.
"We will be open just as we were before," said Wheeler. "The difference will be our hands won't be tied by the management companies or the city. "

Wheeler, who has stocked the foundation board with a cross-section of civic-minded folks involved in business, law and politics, is most excited by the promise from several trade unions to donate their services in building a much-needed clubhouse.

At Walnut Lane, McDonald is still studying the possibilities for some kind of First Tee facility, apart from the one he already runs at FDR.
"I've already had the First Tee folks from the national office in Florida up to look at it, and the USGA people, too," said McDonald.

Meanwhile, Bessler is left to keep his fingers crossed that the city has finally come up with a viable solution and a reliable management company for the future. If not, he knows he'll hear about it.

Philadelphia Public Courses
Here are the six Philadelphia public golf courses:
Cobbs Creek Olde Course and Karakung Course (West Philadelphia), 7400 Lansdowne Ave., 215-877-8707.
Juniata Golf Club (North Philadelphia), 1363 E. Cayuga St., 215-743-4060.
Walnut Lane Golf Club (Roxborough-East Falls), 700A Walnut Lane, 215-482-3370.
FDR Golf Club (South Philadelphia), 1954 Pattison Ave., 215-462-8997.
John F. Byrne Golf Club (Northeast Philadelphia), 9550 Leon St., 215-632-8666.