Big changes are taking place at South African golf courses following the Covid lockdown and none more so than at Pearl Valley in the Cape Winelands, one of our leading resorts/golf estates.
Pearl Valley, a high-end estate with a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course ranked No 5 among SA’s Top 100 Courses, have turned their business model upside down in recent months to reflect the new demands of the pandemic situation.
Golf clubs, estates and resorts are looking to improvise under the new straitened financial circumstances facing the golf industry. They have been buoyed by the surprisingly huge increase in rounds throughout the country in July, up substantially on the same period last year, yet no one can be sure how long this demand will be sustained. The golf course industry is making tough and radical decisions on its future path, and Pearl Valley has already done just that in slashing costs across the spectrum.
“Covid has been a wake-up call for the golf course industry, and Pearl Valley has positively reacted to it,” says General Manager Damian Wrigley. “Our previous business model had become unsustainable, and the directors and myself had become aware last summer that it had to change. Our expenses at the estate were not aligned with our income and overly reliant on international visitors.”
Pearl Valley faces the uncertainty of a summer where due to Covid regulations they might see a vast reduction in the number of foreign tourists visiting the Winelands, and for a golf resort/estate where visitor rounds make up 68% of total green fee revenue, that is not something to be lightly dismissed.
“We’re hoping that more South Africans will make the most of a “tourist-free” Cape during the summer season, and support local tourism, particularly in nearby Franschhoek,” said Wrigley. “The changes we have made at Pearl Valley have allowed us to offer a more competitive peak season green fee for affiliated golfers of R895 (excluding a golf cart), which is R400 less than the price we were asking at the beginning of this year,” said Wrigley. The new top rate for non-affiliated visitors will come down to R1495 (including a cart).
“Prior to lockdown we employed a large complement of staff on the golf course and in the clubhouse. We made the painful decision to retrench half our work force under the new business model. This sadly impacted many lives, yet Pearl Valley could not have survived otherwise. Those affected were mostly low-skilled workers, and it was difficult having to resize the golf operations team, course maintenance staff, and those in food & beverage. We are running a lean operation in winter and will add seasonal staff as necessary in the summer months.”
Substantial costs in diesel, fertilisers and pesticides have been saved on previous maintenance practices without compromising the conditioning standards. The greens are now being cut every second day – they are rolled on the alternate days to keep up the green speed – and fairways cut three times a week instead of five. The rough is cut once a week.
“The previous experience at Pearl Valley was very much about the value add for visitors, which meant having a big operations team,” said Wrigley. “Now it’s primarily about the golf course experience, rather than the staff meeting and greeting guests. The golf course is the main attraction, and profits from green fees will go into improving it. The halfway house has one person serving golfers – occasionally two when a barista is preparing coffee – and we’re happy with our Grab & Go system. There are five meal options. You can eat in the halfway house, but the emphasis is on keeping the field moving.”
When golf first resumed during lockdown, golf clubs were required to adhere to one-tee starts every day, to reduce the number of golfers gathering beforehand, and Pearl Valley are making that permanent. “Our first time is 8.30, and we believe golfers will prefer playing the course from the first tee, enjoying the holes in proper sequence. Our range adjoins the first hole, so that makes it more convenient for everyone. And the round builds to a climax through the closing holes. Most top courses around the world have golfers going off the first, to capture the atmosphere.”
Encouragingly, Pearl Valley is also promoting golfers walking the course by offering lower green fees for walkers, currently R495 for an affiliated golfer and a price which will be retained until at least the end of October. Golf carts had become ubiquitous at Pearl Valley – they are welcome during the hottest summer months – and walkers will embrace the new policy. Many walkers were among the record 2300 rounds played this July, up from 1600 in 2019 when there were several corporate days. Pearl Valley being flat is an easy walk, and there are short cuts which usually make it a quicker round compared to golfers sharing carts.
WILL BUNKER RAKES DISAPPEAR FOR GOOD?
Bunker rakes have been absent from all golf courses under Covid lockdown regulations, and we might see them disappear permanently at some courses in favour of golfers having their own mini-rakes in the bag.
It’s a costly expense to supply a rake for every bunker – Pearl Valley previously had 300 rakes on their course before they were removed – and they invariably are either damaged or go missing.
Bunkers are smoothed by staff before each day’s play, but without rakes they become so trampled by footprints during the day that a local rule has been introduced whereby golfers can improve their lie in a bunker by placing the ball.
However, unraked bunkers look untidy and can spoil a golfer’s experience. Several clubs are now asking members to buy mini-rakes which can attach on to a golf club for easy use. Pearl Valley are handing out these rakes to members and visitors which must be returned afterwards.
Could this be a trend for the future?