Playing golf isn’t relaxing for John Brown.
At least not on his own courses.
“It’s really no fun for me,” he said. “I’m on the phone with my superintendent saying we should fix this bunker, or this green.”
The man who’s changing the Bluffton golf industry can’t slow down.
As golf continues to decline nationally and greater Bluffton courses are struggling to figure out how to keep profits up, Brown has come up with a solution. And he’s using his model all over Bluffton and will soon be on Hilton Head Island.
In four years, his Bluffton-based company, Brown Golf Management, has bought or taken over operations at 23 golf clubs in seven states, including five Bluffton clubs: Crescent Pointe, Eagle’s Pointe, Island West, Pinecrest and Rose Hill.
His concept – one membership buys access to every course – has worked wonders in a market stocked with golf clubs still reeling from the economic downturn.
Brown aims for the cost-conscious golfer: The club member who wants variety and fewer fees, or the tourist looking for a cheaper round.
“The ‘value-oriented’ approach,” he says. “That’s our operational philosophy.”
His detractors say that approach means fewer dollars spent on maintaining the courses.
But Brown makes no apologies.
The former executive at a high-end golf-management company has turned around golf courses for more than 35 years. He says his model is the wave of the future.
“People think I’m some overnight success,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since 1978. And we’re not stopping any time soon.”
A lifelong golfer, Brown turned pro the day he graduated college.
He found a job at a country club in Hopewell Valley, N.J., near his alma mater, The College of New Jersey.
Brown taught lessons and practiced in the winter. He worked as a club pro in New England and Pennsylvania, but realized he wasn’t good enough to play on tour.
“I learned pretty quickly I had better understand the business side of things,” the 59-year-old said.
He joined Troon Golf, a leading luxury golf management and development company based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
He earned a reputation as a “turnaround specialist” who fixed struggling golf clubs, he said.
Part of his talents were with the balance sheet, helping board members cut wasteful spending.
But much of his success stemmed from his “feel.”
“I think I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what a golfer in a particular market wants,” Brown said.
He also got a sense of what golf clubs were worth.
As the economic downturn decimated golf, clubs across the country went bankrupt.
While investors fled from the industry, Brown and his sons, who worked in the golf industry, saw a chance to buy and manage their own courses.
Brown waited a few years, then pounced.
“We held off until the marketplace hit rock bottom,” he said. “We bought courses for pennies on the dollar.”
For his first course, Brown turned his eyes to Bluffton.
He lived at Pinecrest Golf Club in the early 2000s, when Troon sent him to Beaufort County to help Haig Point Golf Club on Daufuskie Island.
He knew there was a concentration of courses in the area, and many were hurting from the downturn.
“We were looking for our first purchase, and this seemed like a place to try our concept,” he said.
In 2011, Brown bought two courses that were in bankruptcy – Pinecrest and Island West golf clubs – and secured Eagle’s Pointe and Crescent Pointe golf clubs in 2013.
The company offered golfers the unique package: One membership gives access to all courses. Brown calls it “a sales tool like no other.”
In addition, Brown Golf gave members free lessons, lowered public fees and offered resort rates for tourists.
The concept works because the courses are close together, Brown says. Such proximity allows the courses to share staff and equipment, which saves money. He’s done the same with clubs in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.
“It gives us a competitive advantage,” he said. “I have five golf courses in Bluffton, but I don’t need five superintendents.”
His methods seem to work.
His son, executive vice president Todd Brown, said the Bluffton courses inherited about 300 members when the company took over. Now, there are more than 1,000.
Business was good enough to attract a fifth Bluffton course.
In December, Rose Hill Plantation’s board of directors agreed to let Brown Golf lease and manage the club.
Board president Dan Duryea said rather than compete with Brown Golf, Rose Hill members decided to join him.
“Clearly he understands what’s going on in the Lowcountry,” Duryea said. “We thought we could add variety for him and add a diversity of courses for our members.”
Duryea said the course wasn’t in great shape when Brown took over.
Since then, rounds are up and conditions have improved but “we’re still a ways away from a full resurrection.”
Still, others have criticized Brown for ignoring maintenance at some courses.
Charlene Bradeen, president of the Tuesday Ladies League at Crescent Pointe, said some golfers have complained about bumpy cart paths and overgrown brush near lagoons.
She said the company does a good job maintaining tee-to-green conditions.
“The rest kind of grows natural,” she said.
Even so, she’s pleased with Brown Golf and thinks the club is in better shape than it was before the company bought it. Membership in her league has grown from 16 women to more than 40.
“You get different viewpoints from different people,” she said. “But, in general, where we are compared to before, I think it’s been good for us.”
The economy is rebounding, and Brown admits the courses he targets might jump in price.
At auctions, where Brown and his sons were once the only ones in the room, there is now a crowd of bidders.
“We might have a little more competition,” he says.
That won’t stop him from buying courses. This spring in Jacksonville he bought two – which once sold together for $13 million – for $2.7 million.
In Beaufort County, Brown plans to add his first Hilton Head course in the coming months. He declined to say which one. He also has his eye on future courses in Bluffton.
When will he stop?
“I plan to go until I have 50,” he said. “Then I’ll let my son (chief operating officer John M. Brown) take it to 100.”
“I’m joking,” he added. “But we’re going to go for a while.”
In the meantime, John Brown might have finally found a way to relax.
He recently bought a golf membership at Berkeley Hall -- a club he doesn’t own.
“It’s easier for me there,” he said. “I’m not working. I can just golf.”