Back in the 1980s, when there were equipment company startups galore, Ken Morton Sr. took a meeting with a salesman pushing “new” hickory stick wedges and putters. Not confident he’d sell many, but feeling kind of sorry for the man, whom he liked, Morton bought a few.
A few years later at the PGA Show, as the Morton team assembled one afternoon to report what they’d seen, Morton announced to the group that he had just bought a hundred drivers from the guy. A hundred.
“I said, ‘What?’” said his son, Ken Morton Jr., who by then was doing much of the equipment buying for his father. “I thought my father was crazy.”
The salesman, of course, was Ely Callaway. The drivers were the first generation of Big Berthas. And the story is Ken Morton Sr. to a tee.
“Oh, I think it was probably more than 100,” said Greg Brown of Callaway, who back then was an independent rep, now vice president of U.S. sales. “Most people tried a couple. But Ken Sr. had a vision of what the game needed to help people have more fun. Morton Golf is still all about that. That’s why they are so good.”
Morton’s prescience also meant that when almost every account in America in those Bertha-crazed years had to manage with tiny quotas, Morton and his Sacramento shop could get as many of the clubs as he needed. Loyalty was repaid again and again. It’s one of a thousand stories that help explain how a Northern California municipal golf operation such as Morton Golf endures as the most successful on-course retailer in the game, doing upwards of $10 million in sales a year.
Besides equipment purchases stoked by a gigantic annual tent sale, Morton Golf also manages almost 350,000 rounds across 90 Sacramento holes. Its more than 20 golf professionals give 15,000 lessons a year, and its foundation contributes upwards of $150,000 a year to the community. One can only guess, given the number of introductory programs Ken Sr. and his team have launched over the years – for kids, women, the underprivileged, the physically challenged – the number of golfers they’ve brought into the game. They’ve been “growing the game” before anyone thought of calling it that. They are a rarity: a family business, tied to a municipality, going like gangbusters.
“Ken Sr. is creative, entrepreneurial, always taking the long view,” said David Maher, president and CEO of Acushnet, who for eight years early in his career called on the Mortons as a salesman. “That’s easy to reflect on in business, but much harder to do in the moment.”
“(Ken Morton Sr.) has passed his knowledge and expertise along to a strong team. They always seem to have a hand on the pulse of the consumer.” – David Maher
As Ken Sr. begins to step down, Maher sees that same intelligence in the team that’s taken over.
“He has passed his knowledge and expertise along to a strong team,” Maher said. “They always seem to have a hand on the pulse of the consumer.”
It’s no wonder then that Acushnet and Callaway, as well as most other manufacturers now, use the Morton Golf operation and its popular driving range as a testing ground for new products. Or that the PGA of America has called on Ken Sr. again and again to teach its professionals.
It’s been 60 years since Ken Sr., a phenomenal California amateur, turned pro and went into business with PGA professional Tom LoPresti at Haggin Oaks Golf Course, an Alister MacKenzie gem in Sacramento with a tiny pro shop. It’s been 30 years since Ken Sr. officially took control of the operation, though his unofficial tenure predates that. Despite the emergence, over the years, of off-course stores, discount chains, big box behemoths and, more recently, online sales – all of which have done their best to eviscerate green grass operations – Morton and his company thrive.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of an important turning point in that history. In 2002, a message from the City of Sacramento threatened to upset things.
“At the end of our current contract, in 2001, the city was going to bid all of the city’s four golf courses together,” Ken Sr. said. The winning bidder would operate all 90 holes of Sacramento golf, not just Haggin Oaks, for the next 25 years. It was a remarkable opportunity, but a stretch for Ken Sr. and his wife, Kathleen, involving both investment and risk.
“At the time I was looking at possibly retiring in five and at the most 10 years,” Ken Sr. said. “This struck me at first as traumatic, upsetting and even overwhelming.”
Ken Sr.’s sons, Ken Jr. and Tom, suggested that they bid with their parents, staking their own money to the enterprise. That led to the creation of a partnership that included the Mortons, their sons, president Terry Daubert and vice president Mike Woods.
“I had never had plans to leave the company to others outside the family,” Ken Sr. said. “It was as though someone was looking out for me and our two sons at just the right time, providing us with new teammates.”
It was that decision to take Morton Golf beyond a family business that propelled it to its present success.
“My father’s strength is his curiosity, his desire to learn, his sense of never being satisfied completely,” Ken Jr. said. “I think it comes from his years as a kid with his sisters when their father was blind and really nothing at that point came easy to them. They had to work hard for it all, and that has stayed with him.”
At the PGA Show every year – Ken Sr. has attended close to 50, missing only the last two as he steps back – Ken Jr. saw the way his father interacted with industry leaders.
“When I was 12 or 13, I remember sitting at the back of seminars and listening to my father, who could hold his own, but also seeing how he was picking up ideas from other speakers, and on the way home he’d tell me about the things he’d want to do,” Ken Jr. said. “And it might be two or four or six things a year, but when you look at that over the course of our relationship with the city, that might be 40 or 60 or 80 good ideas that get implemented.”
Morton in return left a lot of ideas with his PGA colleagues. The 1998 PGA Professional of the Year, he was instrumental in building the PGA education program. “He’s been a huge proponent and contributor to PGA of America education,” said Dawes Marlatt Jr., senior director of education and employment at the association.
Of those ideas, three stand out. The first began as a modest “tent sale.” The second is the remarkable amount of community service – through the Morton Golf Foundation – not only aimed at growing the customer base but also at giving back to Sacramento. And the last is a level of customer service that management gurus like Ken Blanchard could learn from.
“My only criticism would be that they are the least self-promoting company I know. They take humility to levels that people couldn’t understand in this day and age.” – Rob Fong
The Haggin Oaks Tent Show was born of a problem. In the 1970s, business was improving but Morton Sr. and LoPresti were limited to an 1,800-square-foot pro shop. Because Haggin Oaks was situated adjacent to Air Force property, permanent expansion was prohibited. Temporary sales events were not. Beginning with a few tables outside the shop, an annual tent sale grew over the years into a 20,000-square-foot affair that became the centerpiece of Morton retail sales. Then disaster struck. In 1995 a gigantic storm destroyed more than $1.2 million of temporary structure and inventory. The annual sale was scrapped. The insurance company covered the loss, but would not renew the contract. Through considerable negotiation and thanks to a Fort Knox of goodwill they’d built up, the Mortons were able to install today’s 15,000-square-foot Super Shop. “It’s the most non-portable portable shop in the world,” says Ken Jr. No surprise that Ken Sr. got his Master Professional degree in merchandising, and that he and his team have won every industry award in golf.
The Morton Golf Foundation is the centerpiece of decades-long “cause marketing” that dates back to an Easter Egg hunt the company inaugurated on the Haggin Oaks driving range in 1996. A decade later, Ken Jr., a guitarist, songwriter and music journalist, created Golf & Guitars. Originally an event to celebrate his dad’s 50 years in the business, it became the first of the new Morton Golf Foundation’s programs to give back to – and raise money for – the community. The fact that the Mortons created the foundation in 2008, when most golf businesses were shedding “extraneous” activities to survive, says a great deal.
Tom Morton, who heads up the foundation, said, “We do it for the right reasons. It starts there. But no doubt there is a benefit to the business. Someone on the range said hi to my father not long ago, and my dad turned to me and said, ‘I began helping that man with his game 50 years ago.’ Now think of that. As a consumer with us, that man may have spent $300,000 to $400,000.”
It is the company’s dedication to customer service that makes that possible. Morton Golf training materials cite 45 “moments of truth” that the average employee has with the public each day, estimating that there are 13,500,000 of those per year for all of the staff at all of the courses. “It only takes one mistake to upset someone enough to cause them to never want to return,” reads one slide. Rob Fong, a former Sacramento councilman turned consultant, calls the Morton customer service “amazing. My only criticism would be that they are the least self-promoting company I know. They take humility to levels that people couldn’t understand in this day and age.”
That humility came in handy in 2014 when the Mortons sought to solve a problem that had plagued the industry forever: a dearth of female players. Through surveys and focus groups, the company learned that present women players were not especially good at welcoming new ones, and that non-golfers remained intimidated by the game, even at customer-friendly Morton Golf properties. What followed was the creation of an “ambassador” and mentoring program, supported by company-wide sensitivity training. Hundreds of new women players signed up and soon accounted for thousands of rounds.
The Mortons continue to seek out new players, of late through a new inner-city golf park designed to bring the game to the neighborhood, not wait for the neighborhood to find the game. “Even for adults that have access, coming to the golf course and playing can be terrifying,” Tom Morton said.
The project uses school land, with local golfers mentoring young players. For a beginner to connect with golf, he said, “there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Even for adults that have access, coming to the golf course and playing can be terrifying. So we’re trying to bring golf to them. Keeping people connected to the game takes work.”
However, Tom Morton worries that the present surge in participation will cause the industry to lapse back to the indifference to promotion that caused it to lose ground in the 1990s. “The pandemic has introduced so many people to the game, you can see that (laxness) happening all over again: thinking that the people will just come,” he said.
To Acushnet’s Maher, it’s a sure thing the Mortons won’t and that Ken Sr.’s most impressive accomplishment may be in transitioning to his sons and the new team.
“The transition happened years ago, as it should have,” Maher said. “It’s been seamless.”
Which means the commitment to public golf in Sacramento will endure.
“The Mortons have always taken the long view, and they have taken risks, and they have succeeded by masterfully negotiating the (municipal) landscape,” Maher said. “That begins with embracing the responsibility to keep the public trust.”
Top: An aerial view of the annual Haggin Oaks Golf Expo. Photo: Courtesy Morton Golf
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