By Trent Bouts
The economic challenges of recent years forced the owners of Verdict Ridge to adjust their master plan, just in the nick of time
Sometimes, it requires a U-turn to survive a downturn. At least that’s the conclusion the Knox family reached three years ago, after nearly a decade of operating Verdict Ridge Golf and Country Club near Charlotte, North Carolina.
The club, a semi-private facility that opened in fall 1998, was a lifelong dream come true. But like many of its time, Verdict Ridge became a source of sleepless nights as the economy soured and demand withered. Equity memberships that sold for $18,000 once the clubhouse opened in 2001 were discounted to as low as $6,000, yet the flood of golfers forecast by various industry observers still didn’t come. Scott Knox, Verdict Ridge’s general manager and son of the club developer, attorney and former Charlotte mayor Eddie Knox, still has a clipping that predicts that influx of customers hanging in his office. “They said there would be something like 40 million golfers by 2000,” he says.
Given such positive projections, it seemed like a sound expectation that the Knox family would be able to hand over ownership of Verdict Ridge, as planned, to the members at the end of 2010. But in 2008, the Knoxes began formulating an alternative path because the one the club was headed down led to a financial cliff face. In concert with the members over three months of discussions, the family scrapped the original handover plans and decided to stay on as owners.
Part of the plan for staying the course required that existing equity members—virtually all of whom were homeowners on the property—be reclassified as founding members with some reimbursement rights once existing club loans were satisfied. New full-family memberships would cost $700 with monthly dues of $280.
Dissolving the equity plan was tough medicine, but it kept the club alive. Without it, Knox says, members faced a choice of buying the club or potentially giving up all membership privileges. The new plan at least put hope between the rock and the hard place, so the membership, then at 225, voted in its favor by a ratio of better than 16:1.
Nearly two years later, that hope lives on. The club sold 90 new memberships in 2010, comfortably outpacing attrition, which remains significant because of the economy. But to bolster short-term cash flow and supplement membership efforts with word-of-mouth marketing, Verdict Ridge has also devoted considerable energy to attracting public play.
Differentiation is critical in the market, which has so much golf that another former mayor once urged the city of Charlotte to market itself as a golf/business destination. At the sharp end of Verdict Ridge’s immediate recruitment effort is a “Guilty Golfer Card” that extends the legal theme the club milks to good effect (see sidebar). For example, the club’s Web site bills Verdict Ridge as “Golf’s Guilty Pleasure,” and a “Confessions” feed at the bottom of the home page features golfer and guest testimonials. Illustrated with judge’s gavels, the punch card is presented to visiting golfers who have paid a regular green fee and features four separate incentives to return and bring friends: “Work Release” ($10 off for up to four players on any day); “Partners in Crime” (four players play for the price of three any day except Saturdays); “The Great Escape” ($15 off for up to four players on Sundays); and “Most Wanted List” ($500 full golf membership credit). The card and the offers expire in June, when the club will close for two months to convert its bentgrass greens to an ultradwarf bermudagrass. With the fourth discount, golfers can use the credit against the membership fee immediately or wait and apply it against monthly dues once the course reopens.
Knox says the upcoming greens conversion is critical for Verdict Ridge to maintain its standing as what Forbes magazine once dubbed “a great pay-to-play deal.” The course has always had superb putting surfaces, but keeping bentgrass playable during the hot and humid Carolina summers began costing inordinate amounts of time, energy and money. The club installed fans, spent more on fungicides, and stepped up hand-watering, but the writing was on the wall. “It was getting to where the heat was costing us playable days,” Knox says.
The club will be one of the first in the area to make the switch to bermudagrass, a trend that’s sweeping across the Southeast. For the Knox family, the rationale behind spending $350,000 converting the course’s greens and making some other tweaks is to remove the risk of catastrophic turf loss and “get more playable days and a more consistent product.”
Ultimately, the Knox family hopes the project will help in achieving another long-term goal: becoming a fully private club. “We’re one of the few single-family owned clubs in the Charlotte area, so while we’re in business here, we also have a little bit of an emotional investment,” Knox says. “We know we have members who have built houses here to make a life for their families, and we want it to work out for everybody. So we’re investing personally. We’ve got a pretty cool place out here.”
Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer.