Nobody could beat Bryce Molder in college. At least it seemed that way.
The Arkansas native authored a decorated career at Georgia Tech, complete with four All-America selections and winning the Haskins Award as the best player in the country. He made two Walker Cup teams, three Palmer Cup squads and finished low amateur in the 2001 U.S. Open. No fool would have bet against him becoming an elite player on the PGA Tour.
If you would have asked a 22-year-old Molder what he envisioned for his future, he would have predicted continued success inside the ropes. He also wanted to fulfill another childhood dream.
“I would have told you that I’m going to win 20 or 30 times with a handful of majors and then go off to design golf courses,” Molder says with a laugh.
The first part didn’t come to fruition. Molder had to make 124 starts on what is now called the Korn Ferry Tour, toiling for five full seasons before he finally stuck for good on the PGA Tour. He’s modest about the ensuing nine-year run that he went on from 2009-2017 where he never lost status and earned north of $11 million, but one victory and never cracking the top 50 of the world rankings didn’t put him among the game’s elite. At 38 years old, he was content to walk away.
“I stayed on tour for long enough to get a feel for what that felt like,” Molder said. “I could tell my career had peaked and was headed the other direction. It didn’t feel like the next 10 years were going to be fulfilling.”
As for the second part, designing golf courses had plenty of hope 18 years ago when new projects were commonplace, but the market now calls for just the opposite. And between the likes of designers Tom Doak, Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore, Gil Hanse and others, the opportunities to break into the business are severely limited.
That being the case, Molder decided to go with the grain rather than against it.
Following his last season on tour, the former management major started to learn about real estate and then got involved in private lending. He always had enjoyed working with the tangible nature of an asset, one with a clear value. The numbers side of business intrigued him. And then there was his interest in finding the best use of a property, the jigsaw puzzle any designer or planner has to put together.
This goes back to when he was 8 years old drawing golf courses on poster boards. He loved it so much that he hoped to be a civil engineering major in college.
In the theory of creative destruction, a new business or idea rises from within the one it is killing. What if short golf courses and TopGolf-like experiences rise out of the death of struggling courses?
“I signed up for it, but I was very wisely talked out of doing that,” Molder remembers. “I think I would still be there if I made that decision.
“I had to work hard to get good grades there and part of me was saying ‘Why am I doing this? I’m going to turn pro, anyway.’ But I realized that I was going to do something else someday. Now when I meet people, they see I went to Georgia Tech and just assume I am smart.”
If he’s not, he can fake it with the best of them. These interests drew him to Millennium Companies, an organization that offers innovative approaches to repurpose golf courses. Sometimes that will mean building a short course alongside a housing development or offering a different type of golf experience that can fit in a small space. The whole point is to hopefully keep golf involved on struggling properties.
Molder recently began his new position as director of capital markets and PGA Tour ambassador, a role in which he will create relationships within communities with repurposed courses.
“It was really a learning process, because I didn’t understand the depth of the problem golf is facing right now,” Molder said. “You would think that’s not the case because I’ve been in golf for 20 years. … Well, no, I just played golf. I never knew much about the equipment side and I knew just enough about the swing side to get me in trouble, but really I was a golf course nerd.
“Right now, struggling golf courses seem to have two options. If an operator is struggling to make ends meet, they can sell it to another operator at a discount, but over time they are going to still struggle on that same site. It’s a supply-and-demand problem, not an operational problem. And the other option is to redevelop commercial or residential on the entire property, which then creates a product the surrounding community doesn’t get behind.
“So our job is to leave golf in. It may just be a different form of golf. And then we can combine golf with a little bit of development, which is our expertise.”
The golf nerd part of Molder finds this particularly fascinating. In the theory of creative destruction, a new business or idea rises from within the one it is killing. What if short golf courses and TopGolf-like experiences rise out of the death of struggling courses? That means some 18-hole courses will cease to exist, but at least another golf experience – in some cases, maybe a far better one – could take their place.
Molder’s theory on the lack of demand for golf is that the most significant barrier to entry is the time it takes to get around 18 holes. He remembers playing pro-am rounds where 12 holes took about three and a half hours and everyone started to get tired. There’s still a place for 18-hole rounds, but there’s also a place for a pay-as-you-go, nine-hole track with multiple three-hole loops.
“It’s not like there aren’t any par-3 courses or nine-hole courses or executive courses, but there’s not many and they’re often not well taken care of,” Molder said. “I think there’s a way to do it really well by creating a new form of golf.”
When asked about the happiest times in his playing career, Molder has no hesitation. He adored amateur and college competition, cherishing some of the only times in golf where you are on a team. Now he’s talking with Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler about helping out with the team in some capacity.
Professional golf didn’t provide that group atmosphere he enjoyed in college, but his next stage may. That would be more than enough.
“I don’t think highly enough about myself to think that I need a legacy,” he said. “but it would be great to be part of a movement.”
Bryce Molder during sectional qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Open at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Fred Vuich, Copyright USGA
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