The announcements keep coming. This past Tuesday, the board at Eastpointe Country Club, a 36-hole Tom Fazio-designed club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, announced that it had retained a new management company to run the place, a company out of Atlanta founded by a 61-year-old former golf pro named Whitney Crouse. It’s the third such announcement in as many months. Crouse’s company keeps racking up wins in the esoteric field of golf course management.
Part of it is the man’s abilities. A former college player at Rice University who grew up outside Philadelphia and learned the game as a junior member at Merion Golf Club, Crouse started his career as an accountant back when Arthur Anderson was a thing. Then he got into golf as a PGA professional on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. This was in the heady days of Bobby Ginn and other gunslinging developers who collected debt like logoed golf balls. Before long, Ginn was out and all kinds of banks and financial institutions were picking up the pieces. Crouse and a group of partners formed a company called The Club Group to manage the distressed assets of Prudential-Bache Securities.
He moved to Atlanta in the early 1990s where he and some others built and bought a couple of courses. Partners came and went (some in more spectacular fashion than others) as did courses under management. Crouse changed the name of his company several times – Affiniti Golf Management, Mosaic Clubs and Resorts, among others. He always did a good job adding value and paying attention to the minutiae, bringing revenues and expenses in line in ways that most club owners, be they developers or member-enlisted boards, could not.
But that’s not what has gotten Crouse in the news. And it is certainly not what has led to the explosive growth in his company.
A couple of years ago, he, once again, went through a rebranding, ponying up to license a new name. The company is now called Bobby Jones Links. And that has made all the difference.
“It’s done a couple of things,” Crouse said of the new name. “It’s created more opportunities for us (with clubs) and enabled us to bring in more and better talent to the company.”
This might seem inside baseball, but as more clubs come under various corporate umbrellas, it’s interesting to see how important an iconic name can be in building a business. Golf management companies are a dime a dozen. Troon is the biggest, managing everything from Indian Wells in California to Dubsdread, a public course in Orlando with a mats-only driving range that shares a parking lot with a sports bar. ClubCorp is also one of the more prominent, founded in Dallas by the late Bob Dedman Sr. and growing to more than 200 courses and 20,000 employees. But there are countless others: Kemper, Jemsek, Escalante Golf, Hampton Golf, HMS Golf Partners, the list goes on. Crouse has separated himself by parlaying the name of a long-dead grand slam champion into a growth strategy.
“We’re a brand business,” he said. “To have one of the greatest names in golf has been remarkable. Aligning yourself with a person who was so incredible (as a player and a sports icon) and also such a good person helps a lot.
“As we approach 2030 and the Open Championship possibly going to St. Andrews and the U.S. Open going back to Merion, all the clubs where he won (the Grand Slam), it’s just going to be more positive for the brand of Bobby Jones, which helps us.
“We absolutely generated more interest (from clubs) because of the brand alignment.”
Since the change, Crouse has gone from 14 clubs under management to 30 in eight states east of the Mississippi River. He has also attracted some of the best talent in the business, bringing in a guy named Doug Helman, who was at Kemper Sports and ClubCorp, to head up new business development. He also hired a woman named Nicole Brook, who was at Textron Financial where she managed $6 billion in golf loans, to be his CFO.
Granted, the name isn’t everything. Crouse has spent decades creating systems and developing a culture that make him attractive to any board. But the name hasn’t hurt.
“We’re obviously very selective and careful about the quality of the people we work with when it comes to licensing my grandfather’s name,” Dr. Bob Jones IV said when Crouse first inked the deal to change the company name. “As a family and as the people responsible for (the Bobby Jones) legacy, we feel like (going with Crouse) was the right decision.”
The name has also kept Crouse in the news. Later this month, Bobby Jones Links is scheduled to take over management of the Links at Ferry Point, the $229 million facility in the Bronx, built on an old landfill and owned by the City of New York. The former manager, Trump Golf, is none too pleased and is threatening a lawsuit.
“After the City wasted hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money in its prior failed attempts to complete this project, we stepped in and, at the City’s request (much like Wollman Rink in the 1980s), invested over $30 million of our own money to deliver to the people of the City of New York what has been widely recognized as one of the most magnificent public golf experiences anywhere in the country,” the Trump Organization said in a statement.
Trump Organization attorney, Ken Caruso, said, “The city has no right to award the license to another operator. The Trump Organization’s long-term license for this property is legally binding, enforceable, and remains in full force and effect.”
It isn’t Crouse’s first run-in with a famous operator. In a former iteration of his company, Crouse was hired by Textron to take over Celebrity Golf Club International in Tucker, Georgia, after Julius “Dr. J” Erving defaulted on his loans. At one point, Crouse had to call the police to keep Erving’s wife from taking the furniture out of the clubhouse.
Now, he will be in the headlines again, battling a former U.S. president for control of one of the most stunning public courses in the Northeast.
Crouse knows that his company’s name carries a lot of weight and a lot of responsibility. He has also seen other famous names attached to management companies. And he knows the potential pitfalls that come with it.
“Arnold Palmer Golf (Management) did pretty well and then it became Century Golf,” Crouse said. “But if you think about it, Arnold Palmer branded everything. God bless them, they did a great job of that. But I think the branding got diluted. Then you had Billy Casper Golf Management, which was hugely successful. But the problem with Casper – and this was, in my view, why they changed the name (to Indigo Golf Partners, which has been purchased by Troon) – was when you walk into a boardroom now, you have a 40-year-old board member who says, ‘Who’s Billy Casper?’ The Bobby Jones name has been around and will be around for a while. It’s one of the most enduring names in golf.
“Couple that with a lot of hard work and a little luck, and here we are.”
Top: Bobby Jones Jr. in 1930 (Courtesy USGA Museum)
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