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.