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Kevin Thistle Departs Angus Glen for Coppinwood

Kevin Thistle -- From Angus Glen to Coppinwood

Kevin Thistle -- From Angus Glen to Coppinwood

What is so significant about a club pro leaving for another club that it warrants its own blog post?  If you have to ask that question you’ve don’t know Kevin Thistle.

Almost on his own, Thistle, who joined Angus Glen Golf Club in Markham, Ont. in 1994, has created a new perception of the course manager/head professional. With remarkable business connections, a personality that always was running at full speed, and a strong sense of customer service and employee loyalty, Thistle created Angus Glen’s corporate golf approach. Hell, he was Angus Glen to many people for many years, through two Canadian Opens, a Skins game and an Canadian Women’s Open. He is personable and outgoing, has strong ties with the media (especially television and made regular appearances on TSN), and generally brought more of a business-minded approach to the golf business than had been the case previous. Along the way he made Angus Glen, for a time, the best of the high-end public golf course business. It may have been outdone  in recent years by the likes of Copper Creek and Eagles Nest in some people’s minds, but the truth is to many Angus Glen is still the top golf facility in the country. Given the facility’s success — both as a course and financially —  that’s hard to argue with.

The twist in this is that Thistle, who had run Angus Glen so deftly for owner Gordon Stollery, is leaving a public facility that is still a money factory for a private golf course that has been a financial nightmare since opening three seasons ago. Coppinwood, designed by Tom Fazio, opened with tons of hype in 2006. Speculation was that the owners, a group of partners led by Maxium Financial masterminds Paul McLean and Syd Menashy, as well as the likes of Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, would create the best golf course in the country.

It became apparent as soon as it opened that Coppinwood was good, but far from great. The front nine had a mix of forgettable  holes and while the back nine had more character and used better land, one couldn’t help but get the feeling that the course was a couple steps short of being among the best in Canada. Add to that a badly considered clubhouse location, the fact one needed to take a cart to the range and the first tee, and the fact the course was barely walkable and its location well to the east of Toronto and you had the right mix for disappointment. Members were expected to beat down the doors. Instead they stayed away. Maybe that’s too strong — at least there weren’t 350 of them. Maybe a third of that. And that isn’t a big enough number to fund the initial outlay (estimated to be about $27 million) or a maintenance budget that was once pegged at the highest in the country (upwards of $1.6 million).

So let’s add this up — good, but far from great course. Check. Difficult location. Check. Great conditioning. Check. Big budget. Check. Few members. Check.

Suddenly over the fall and into the early part of this year there were concerns about whether Coppinwood could survive. ClubLink kicked the tires and offers a low-ball offer, as they typically do. Then a group of members gathered some cash and tried to refinance the course, bringing its value down by almost half. Lifeson puts up some additional cash and the club has a fire sale — 100 memberships at $19,000 a piece, designed to raise $600,000 in additional annual revenue. There’s one contingency — Lifeson has to get paid for an additional loan to the club, pegged at $2 million — and a group of the new partners want one man, Kevin Thistle, to run Coppinwood They make him an offer that one source tells me is “stupid.”  Oh, and the partners have pledged to get out of the way and let him run the club with a new overall budget of about $1.6 million in total.

Why would Thistle want to leave Angus Glen, a place where he made millions in earnings over the course of 14 years? Perhaps because it isn’t as much of a challenge any longer. Certainly Thistle has one of the most outgoing personalities in golf — and his connections to the business community run deep. But even then there is plenty of competition for Angus Glen these days. Since it opened, Copper Creek, Eagles Nest and Bond Head have come on line. Tournament revenue is now divided among numerous clubs, including private clubs that have recently started taking outside corporate play. The game at Angus Glen has to be getting more and more challenging — tougher to keep growing.

Top it off with the fact that Stollery’s proposed Goodwood course near Uxbridge has never opened (it sits like a giant white elephant, roasting in the summer sun. That’s a shame, since the course looks terrific), and the owner’s other project in Montrea, Terrebonne, has never been completed, despite years of discussion. For Thistle there was likely little upside to Angus Glen any longer, and plenty of challenge in making the struggling Coppinwood work.

I spoke with Thistle last week. At that point there were plenty of rumours, but the Coppinwood deal with the new partners had not closed. It closed just recently and Thistle spent today telling staff and Stollery about his departure. Angus Glen is still in capable hands — veteran pro Wil Koopmans is still involved as is Dennis Firth, another outstanding pro who has developed his career under Thistle.

As for Thistle, he has his work cut out for him — but he knows that and it will be fascinating to see whether he can ressurect a struggling private club and create a financial model that works. Don’t expect he’ll be any less visible in the years ahead, especially if he makes Coppinwood work.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

39 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hey Robbie, not a bad article! Rating as follows:

    Accuracy – 80%
    Objectivity – 50%

    Now get out from behind your desk and go do a thorough and professional job. I think that, one of these days, you’re going to blossom into a decent writer…!

    For starters though, a word of advice, stay away from the discussion boards. You don’t do yourself any favours by continually getting sucked in!

  • Philip, Maybe you missed the words under Going for the Green at the top of every page: “Robert Thompson’s comments, criticism and opinion on the world of golf.” The criticism and opinion are what make this blog interesting. If I wanted boring news stories, I’d read the newspaper or go to one of the regular news sites. Keep up the great stuff RT, I may not agree with everything you say, but that is part of what makes it interesting.

    -SD

  • Given the M.O of Thistle and his past records, does that mean there will be a chance that Coppinwood might be open for some corporate tournaments? After all, why not? It will be a revenue stream for the club by hosting them.

    Through corporate/charity tournaments, perhaps the average Joes will get to play it as well.

    I’ll say it is a positive development for both the club and Joe Public (provided that my assumption on corporate tourneys is correct).

  • KC, apparently Coppinwood will be closed every Monday for an outside event. This appears to be open information and readily available to anyone doing their homework. Stay tuned, an interview has been arranged that will improve the accuracy!

  • RT,

    a. I worry very much about your fitness level if you don’t consider Coppinwood walkable. I have played it many times, and have walked it (enjoyably) every time. In fact, last time that I was there, I was playing behind 3 women that were walking, and in front of an older couple that were walking.

    b. Badly considered clubhouse location? It is a beautful clubhouse that overlooks the 18th green. Yes, you need to take a cart to the practice facilities, which have been repeatedly recognized as the best in the country. But, that’s like saying St. George’s is garbage because they have an old clubhouse, stuck on the road, and you have to go through a tunnel under the road to get to first tee. Or that, until last year, The National was a piece of junk because they had a smelly old clubhouse. Or that Rosedale isn’t worth the initiation because their clubhouse is a non-descript building from the early 1960’s. Come on, RT.

    c. Difficult location? For whom? If you live in Mississauga, I suppose. Kinda like saying Devil’s Paintbrush is a pain to get to if you live in Pickering. And forget about playing Hamilton if you live in Scarborough.

  • Good move for Kevin, good potential for Bill Koopmans, good for Coppinwood – looks like a win win. I would surmise a few golf outings will assist Coppinwood finances altho the golf day business might be a challenge for a year or two.
    Good story Robert, the kind of story that seldom is told. Can’t wait for part II and III.

  • For those that live in the core of Toronto, Coppinwood is a minimum 45 minute drive. Some view this as too long (it is the same for Devils Pulpit/Paintbrush).

    The practice facilities are outstanding but for the core of Toronto residents, it is hard to simply go to Coppinwood to practice only with an outstanding golf course waiting to be played…and if one practices and plays, then the time commitment is significant for anyone whose life is not solely focused around golf. Thus, most will bypass the excellent practice facilities….which is a shame.

    Have not walked Coppinwood but it would seem to be doable but not desirable. Too far to walk to the first tee, distances from green to next tee are geared for cart golf. Again, doable but not preferable.

    Coppinwood is a golfers course, geared for low handicappers who makes sacrifices in other parts of their life to golf. For those that seek balance between a healthy addiction (er I mean interest) in golf with other aspects of life, Coppinwood’s value proposition is less than other private courses in the GTA.

  • I walk and carry my own bag at Coppinwood every time I play and for all you spoiled young ‘go cart’ drivers, I’m 70 years old!

    And did I actually hear someone who calls himself the Weekend Enthusiast say that it is too far to walk to the 1st Tee. I can only assume that the distance from your couch to the fridge for your next beer is too much of a strain and you either have your wife fetch it or you keep a cooler by your feet! Let’s see, if I close my eyes I can conjure up a picture of what you look like physically. Hmmm, it ain’t pretty….!

  • Bill:

    1) a “golfers’ club” should have a clubhouse where one can easily access the tee and the range. Think Devil’s Paintbrush

    2) Coppinwood is easy for me, as I live in the east end. However, that’s not where most of the money in Toronto is, right?

    3) Walking Coppinwood isn’t a real issue, though the back nine is quite hilly. But no one ever seems to walk it in the seven or eight times I’ve played it. And your former pro says that was typically the case in the past as well. Perhaps you have a better sense of it — that was my observation.

    4) I’m thrilled you and Phillip love your club. As you should. But if the place was such a resounding success, and if everything worked as well as you both suggest, then why did they have trouble attracting members and why did they need to refinance? Thoughts?

  • RT, you have assumed that I am a member.

    Why has Coppinwood not been a resounding financial success?

    How about adding:

    a. Timing? (from Vuitton, Cartier and Prada to Abercrombie to GM and Chrysler, this has been a very, very challenging time even for established businesses, in all sectors, never mind those just starting up. And don’t you remember during the last recession when courses such as St. George’s were advertising in The Globe for new members? And I expect that you are well aware of the deeply reduced initiations currently available at several of the GTA’s finest clubs.

    b. Demographics? (you know the stats better than me about decreased growth in the golf industry).

    I therefore expect that all of this applies to many other very fine courses that have been hit by the current economic situation. Think Goodwood (ok, perhaps that’s different). Or, how about Tobiano? While I am truly hopeful that everything is going very well for Tobiano as it is a wonderful course, it is also part of a very grand real estate plan, so I wonder how it is holding up, especially in view of their website bolding offering deals. And don’t forget your own favourite, Humber Valley.

    Bill

  • But Bill — Coppinwood didn’t open in the recession. It has been around for a couple of the best financial years in this country’s history — and it couldn’t find members then. I’m not surprised it is having trouble now, but 2005, 2006, 2007 and even last summer? Things weren’t so bad then…

    And if the demographics were lousy, why launch a new club at all?

  • RT,

    Maybe it was just for the love of the game?

    I understand that it draws in a lot of people, whether as an obsessive game that they play all of their lives, spend lots of money on, take lessons, buy equipment, and don’t improve.

    Heck, I have ever heard of a few guys trying to make a career about writing about the game.

    Pretty good writers, too, I understand.

  • Philip Bowllen:

    I did not say it was too far to walk to the first tee…I said it was doable but not preferable. Too far to walk to the first tee, distances from green to next tee are geared for cart golf.

    Any course can be walked but not every course is geared to be walked. Coppinwood is not geared to be walked, IMHO. As an example, Devils Paintbrush is a walkers course.

    Keep to the facts and avoid the personal insults.

  • This is a great discussion,

    First, Bill and Philip, you guys are making some great points, but if you think Rob will ever admit he may have mis-spoken or give you credit for knowing something – forget it. You may as well bash your head against the wall.

    Anyway – Bill and Philip, I hope you guys continue to post here about other topics as well, you’re a welcome spice to the lameness that usually posts comments here.

  • Thanks Old Tom. I truely think that Robbie could be a good golf writer but he is ‘objectively impaired’ when it comes to Coppinwood. Someone said it was because they offered Rubenstein a complimentary membership and not him. I can understand how that would upset him but you never see Lorne mucking about on sites like Toronto Golf Nuts. No legitimate writer who valued his reputation would stoop to that sort of venue!

    I always think of Lorne Rubenstein as the ultimate in classy and knowledgeable golf writers. He is held in the highest esteem throughout North America and beyond. If you remember the TV series years ago called Kung Fu starring David Caradine – I tend to think of Lorne as Kung Fu and Robbie as Grasshopper, if you catch my drift….!

  • Bill: I get your point but there’s a difference between spending $500 on a driver and $27 million on a golf club.

  • Philip,

    dont feel bad that you spent a small fortune (80 grand+++) to join a OK golf club…..that is still a couple months from going belly up….and you are that close to being a CL member…its OK….you will enjoy playing King Valley on non recip days…LOL….and you will love Cherry Downs greens (no recip)

    I am not a fan of RT,,,,but he hit the mark with this one.

  • Boy, you Coppinwood guys are touchy. Before you accuse someone of not being objective you should consider whether or not you can be objective about your own club.

    Sounds like perhaps RT did, in fact, hit the mark.

  • Oh, and Phil, I was never concerned about being given anything from the club. The first pro was a friend and we played there several times. I have several associates who are members now, and have played it a fair bit. My take on the club has nothing to do with anything other than my honest perspective on what has gone on. I love it when someone gets their shorts in a knot when a debate doesn’t quite go their way and suddenly my perspective is all because I didn’t get something for free. You miss the point.
    That said, I’ve known Kevin Thistle for many years — he is a smart, clever operator. He thinks he can fix the mess, and I think he’s probably right.
    I spoke with Kevin tonight — tournaments will be Mondays with other opportunities as well. Staff will stay in place — at least for the time being. He had nice things to say about current staff. He’s trying to get the lay of the land and surely there will be some changes. “It is all about EBITDA,” he said.

  • RT – Thanks for the interesting and insightful article. Angus Glen and it’s customers will surely miss the Kevin Thistle. As a public player, all I knew of Coppinwood was that it was designed by Fazio and cost big bucks to join, therefore just assumed it was a superior course. Surprising to hear of their financial troubles. In your opinion why do you think the course design is perceived as good, but not great – was Fazio just off his game, or were their other factors at play?

  • Good to move out from behind. Remember Grasshopper – “seek not to know all the answers, but to understand the questions”, Caine. You are on your way!

  • Old Phil. Please stop quoting mid-70s television programs on my blog. Next thing I know you’ll be going on about those tight jeans looked great on David Cassidy and how Archie Bunker was right about all those minorities. The Kung Fu crap is wearing thin.

  • Just a bit of perspective. Is there really anyone else in the Toronto golf community who could attract new members to a high end club in the far northeast end of the GTA. Kevin Thistle is the only person who has enough visibility to even have a chance to drive the other 100 new members who can make Coppinwood remotely financially feasible.

    His deal is terrific (he’s a friend) and he gets what he couldn’t get from Stollery…control of the whole operation. Will Coppinwood end up hosting the Cdn Open as per the many old rumours…who knows but don’t bet against Kevin. I think it’s a great move.

  • Coppinwood is in DEEP trouble with the bank and they will come calling again.

    So, when you put together a business plan for them, you need to have something that will convince them the plan has merit…thus a Thistle.

    The positioning will be:

    Tournaments will attract high end potential members.

    Therefore, Mr. Banker, give us an extension. Thistle is a visible positive they dangle in front of the bankers.

    A long shot at best.

  • I love a good ‘donnybrook’….

    Phil and Latta are classic…..now if we can only get Ken Lawson to start ranting here….

  • It’s amazing how many “experts” come out of the woodwork with half-truths and opinions that are stated as facts. I’ll remind you people that Augusta had very serious financial troubles in the early days and came very close to closing it’s doors for ever. NO I’m not saying Coppinwood is like Augusta, but I AM saying that the idea of Clubs facing financial dificulties before getting it all in-line is as old as the game of golf itself. Coppinwood is an enjoyable track – this idea about it being good not great or not as good as…. is all subjective and frankly completely irrelevant. There are many private clubs in Canada that have courses that would not be considered great and they do very well.

    I don’t think there is anyone who would accuse RT of not getting things for free, perhaps Coppinwood didn’t offer him anything, but he pulls down more than his fair share. Just ask any pro in the GTA – they’ll tell you one thing RT is good at is getting stuff for free. Last time he pulled out his wallet, it had cobwebs sealing it shut.

  • Boy, there sure are a lot of RT bashers here. RT, that’s a good thing in that you are able to attract a sizeable following, both supporters & critics. However, I don’t think one should be anonymously posting personal slights.

    As to Coppinwood, they are trying something different out of financial necessity, and I would agree with RT, that it wasn’t simply the recession that caused their issues. I think it was a failed strategy to attract a primarily male, wealthy, strong golfer type member (similar to National) too far outside the city. The category was simply too narrow and it was comparatively expensive (both initiation & annuals). You’ve got both Granite (family friendly) & Wyndance (Clublink strategy) within a stone’s throw and both have been a commercial success.

    Lastly, with Coppinwood now in the mix, I’m wondering with all the competition for tournaments, are we going to see some major group discounts? Top tournament facilities now include, Glen Abbey (& Clublink in general), Lionhead, Angus Glen, Coppinwood, Wooden Sticks, Eagles Nest, Copper Creek, etc.

  • I appreciate this story, it is truly rare to find golf business stories such as this one, which is very well done.

    Henry,
    Well writtten.

    Head Pro,
    Aside from the insult, you are wrong on your main point. Whether Coppinwood is good or great is completely relevant. Of course it is subjective, and evidently potential members spoke with their decision not to join. If the course were truly great it could have overcome the variety of issues it faced from price to location. If you look at the truly great courses built in the last twenty-five years, they have done pretty well. In fact most of the top ranked courses on a global level have been a lot more remote that Uxbridge.

  • For what it’s worth, Coppinwood get the best man for the job to get them healthy again.

    Whether he succeeds or fails, the club is putting their best foot forward.

  • Head Pro: I repeat — the first pro at the club was, and is, a good friend. I played several times with him. I never had any urge for anything more than that. My perspective, if you go back through this site, has nothing to do with whether they let me on without a greens fee.

    These days I play most of my golf at a couple of places — namely Eagles Nest, and that’s largely because I’ve been commisioned to write a book for them.

    Free stuff? I get more offers to play through the Score panel than I actually have time to consider.

    Of course all of this has nothing to do with the point at hand and ad hominem attacks don’t push this discussion forward. I also love it when someone accuses me of something while under the guise of an alias. Get some balls if you are going to fling some mud.

  • Once again Rob takes flack from others for not changing his opinion based on pressure from those who don’t agree with him! Stick to your guns RT!

    This particular blog is on Coppinwood (easily one of the best courses in Canada) and the appointment of Kevin Thistle (undoubtedly one of the best operators in Canada) and not about whether or not RT likes all 18 holes out there on the 4th Concession in Uxbridge.

    Nice article Rob! You fired up a few bloggers!!

    By the way, I love Coppinwood! Awesome course (sorry RT) with a fantastic group of members. Walked it often and I’m not even 70 yet!

  • Kevin will be put to the test at Coppinwood. There is no argument that Kevin was the key player in making Angus Glen what it is. Some will say Angus is Kevin and vice versa. This is hard to dispute. But Angus Glen had what is called the 3 keys to success in any business: “location, location, location” Coppinwood does not have this. I have to wonder if even Kevin can overcome this. For his sake and those who have put their faith and money behind his expertise I hope so. I guess time will tell if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence for Kevin!

  • If in fact the cost to build this course was $27M, or anywhere close to this number, you have to wonder if the problems the course is facing didn’t start there. $27M for a golf course in a market that’s very well served with courses of all types? hummmm??

  • Guys, played Coppinwood last Saturday, was thinking about joining. Greens were in pretty rough shape, definite winter kill. Looks like they are doing a fair bit of work bringing out prospective members, never have seen as many cars in the parking lot. Living in the west end, the National seems like a much better choice.

  • I have known Kevin since his arrival at AG, he was that coach of a terrific team, they are all amazing, They, the staff treated eveyone not as a client but as a member of the family.
    If he does half as well at his new adventure and challenge, he will make the course equal to if not better then AG, but that will be hard to beat,if anyone can do it, Kev can. He will be sorely missed, just not by the staff but all his frequent family members whom came their just not for golf, but social gatherings, Mothers Day brunches, Fathers Day or just a beverage after work to wind down, that is the type of home that Kevin and his staff made AG.
    We will miss you, Heather his wife and children whom also where part of the experience, again all the best, wisihng you nothing but success.

  • I have known Kevin since day one at Angus Glen. What a remarkable job he has done over the year’s, great course, top rated event’s and a wonderful staff,,,,,,,all leading to a fantastic outing whenever spending a day there.

    Kevin, Heather and the kid’s will miss Angus and the course will surely miss him,,,,,,,,but life goes on.

    All the best to you,,,,,call if you need anything at all.

    Regard’s,,,,,,,,,

  • Walked Coppinwood yesterday and it was quite enjoyable and doable…once you get to the first tee. Distances are long and awkward between the clubhouse, the practice facility, and the 1st tee but one can take a cart for these trips.

    Course was in pretty good shape (some tee boxes were struggling but nothing major) with fast greens making it even more fun and challenging.

  • bottom line – it’s just too far away !!! and the roads getting there are terrible and dangerous ( alot of ups and downs) – you need a GPS and two calls just to feel safe …. The website makes it look easy – just like when they put a large Castle in the middle of Orlando Fla. – but this is no Disney experience…. plan at least 11/2 hours drive from Toronto ( and thats with regular traffic )

    1 hour from Angus Glen North / East …… the Coppinwood map is a joke ….. but if you drive there – you won’t be laughing.

    also no gas stations – so fill up before leaving town….. you are on the “road to nowhere”……

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