GolfNorth CEO: "It will be hard to compete with us as the years go by. There are new golfers, and we want them coming to us."

Yesterday saw a press release from GolfNorth, the owner of numerous mid-tier courses in Southern Ontario, turn up in my in-box. The company is owned by RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie, but is now run by new CEO Shawn Evans, who replaced former top dog and company co-founder Al Kavanagh. Evans, a lawyer, is a hockey buddy of Balsillie. The release made some bold remarks, though I’m not sure if there was a news hook in the timing.


“We are in a position where we can invest in our properties and it gives us a big competitive advantage,” says Evans, who was appointed President and CEO by GolfNorth owner Jim Balsillie in November 2010.

Looks like Evans was trying to capture some attention — after all GolfNorth has basically run under the radar. Beyond that, the courses always had a reputation as being low-end, with questionable conditions. Certainly this wasn’t the mini-ClubLink some had expected (though CL was an early investor).

The release says Evans is “buoyant” about the business and is overseeing an “aggressive” campaign to improve conditioning at the organization’s courses, adding:

Evans’s appointment signified a fresh infusion of new ideas, a younger and more energetic management team, as well as a renewed commitment to keep improving the golf experience at GolfNorth.

He added GolfNorth intends to spend “some money to make a little bit of money.”

“But we are spending significantly more over prior years to enhance our golf experience and improve our facilities. We have dedicated ourselves to improving the golf experience at our courses by purchasing new turf equipment, and improving tee decks, irrigation and drainage. We delivered new golf cart fleets this season to our Foxwood, Conestoga and Dundee courses.

“We are also managing our tee sheets better to provide a better customer experience by adjusting tee time intervals so that our customers enjoy brisk rounds. We have invested in our clubhouses with a range of upgrades such as new flooring and washrooms, new bars and banquet rooms in some of our facilities, and sometimes just a fresh coat of paint.”

As for the state of the business, Evans says it is a “sad reality” that a “number of courses in Ontario are going under,” though admittedly I haven’t heard of many actually failing, despite the high-profile mess that is Owen Sound G&CC.

He said GolfNorth’s stable financial position helps the company in tough times, even though Balsillie’s net worth has tumbled in recent months. Still, he’s a billionaire, so I guess the financial situation is solid.

“We want to make sure that people who are playing golf come to our courses,” Evans says. “We have solid financial backing and we will continue to grow. It will be hard to compete with us as the years go by. There are new golfers, and we want them coming to us. If we can pick up some new courses for prices that are favourable to us, we’ll use those finds to grow our business.”

Evans says GolfNorth provides “the best value for your golf dollar in Ontario. I’d be happy to debate that point with anyone. We sell an experience.”

I wonder what that experience is. In recent years GN has sought out numerous mid-tier clubs that were faltering and taken them over, and splurged on one course — Mystic near Hamilton. The problem is Mystic is still without a clubhouse or alterations that would dramatically improve its design, and hasn’t quite become the flagship some imagined. Will that change? Will GolfNorth acquire more properties? I’m intrigued at how the company evolves.

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Jeff Lancaster

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  • I played at Conestoga in a tournament this week and all I can say is they have a long way to go if they want to sell the concept of a great golf experience. Sub par conditioning, dirty old clubhouse and poor service. If Mr Evans reads this perhaps he needs to take a look right under his nose as I think this is their head office as well.

    I too am interested in their future.

  • Mr. Balsillie should spend his time in the office figuring out how he can maintain RIM’s independence and figuring out how to fend off potential bids from Microsoft et al, not running two-bit golf courses.

  • I just checked out your GolfNorth article. All in all, it sounds like GN is trying to become a mid-market version of Club Link – the Gap to their Banana Republic. I’m not surprised they would continue with that model, but I am disappointed that few other companies/clubs aren’t using the economic downturn to try something bold and new.

    With the success of Bandon Dunes and the all the hype about Cabot Links I would have thought that an enterprising club may try to recapture the interest of the casual golfer by offering a ‘different’ golf experience compared to the Club Link experience. Something along the lines of “golf as it was meant to be played” or “pure golf”.

    I don’t care about club houses, marble floors, or pretty flowers. Here are some of my thoughts about what I’d do if I ran a course (feel free to pass them around):
    • Highlight the benefits of walking – “Give up the treadmill and join a club”. Golf is great fitness if you walk, and a whole lot of people would benefit from getting out of the power cart to start pushing a cart instead. This may decrease revenue in the short term, but I would think the long term health of your customer-base is more important than short-term revenue. As well, this may even increase the number of people willing to take-up golf – start poaching golfers from fitness clubs.
    • Courses should have the best push carts available vs. the rusted-out junk most offer.
    • Allow people to purchase a power cart for 9 holes.
    • Offer more fore-caddies – great way to get more youth involved and each foursome would only require one caddy. They would help with speed of play and improve the general enjoyment of the game. Not to mention a well informed fore caddy is very helpful when a ruling is required.
    • Increase the number of marshals on the course. They should be friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. They should encourage speedy play and help people to navigate the course. As well, they can inform novice golfers about appropriate golf etiquette.
    • Keep the rough down, the fairways wide and fast, and the greens at a 9.

    It seems to me that a lot of public courses have tried to model themselves on delivering a private club experience. The focus of these courses seems to be everything but golf. My only focus would be to continue to make the game fun and accessible for the largest audience possible.

    I think a lot of people have been turned off of golf due to the increased cost (money and time). It would be refreshing to see more interest on the part of golf courses in providing a better golfing experience.

    I watched an recent review of the Porsche Boxster Spyder and the reviewer revelled in the pure joy of the driving experience because Porsche had removed everything extraneous and left only the essential driving elements. The conclusion was by making it simple they made it simply brilliant.

  • If they want to make Mystic a better course to play, they’ll find a way to re-route and pinch off the one truly abominable hole (16), and perhaps find a way to ‘fix’ 10 so it’s not nearly as punitive. When initially developed, the land was prepped for an extra 3 ‘practice’ holes near the entrance of the property. I believe everything including drainage tiles and irrigation were laid at the time, and greens and tee boxes were completed but not seeded. I don’t know how much effort is required to reclaim from the overgrowth of weeds at this point – or if they’re salvageable at all – but I’d try if it were me. Find a way to incorporate one or two of those into the course routing, and you have a huge step in the right direction. 8 is a bit of a dog, too.
    I agree with the above comments – who cares about clubhouses and amenities? I’m there to enjoy the course. The trailer set-up they have now is more than accommodating enough, especially with the newly added bar area.
    But please – find a way to rid the course of the blight that is 16. Yeesh.

    • Rob,

      The tees and greens on the 3 practice holes were actually seeded. The first hole set of tees and fairway were perfect. A lack of funding by former owner Roland Berger and a terrible weather summer was the downfall of getting the rest of the practice holes up to being ready. Golf North has let the practice holes and short game area as well as the back tee on the range go. If you didnt know theses areas were there originally you would never know by looking today.

      As far as 316 being a bad hole I disagree. I have played the course more than anyone (I think) and found it challenging. From the back tee deck and the original fescue on the left it required an accurate drive in the fariway and then a well hit iron into a prevailing wind to hit the green. the green has some subtle rolls in it thet made two putts very rewarding.

      I also disagree with changing #10. It is very difficult and does require well hit shots to make par. But i see nothing wrong with this. Who says golf has to be fair all the time? A hole that will cause you a bogey or more if you get careless is okay in my books.

      Mystic in my mind could have been one of the best facilities in the country. It had the potential to be one of the best private clubs you could imagine. Too bad a terrible owner, extreme weather and a not so good location geographically was it’s downfall.

  • John,

    Fair comments. My major problem with 16 is how badly it feels shoehorned into the layout. Every time I play, I stand on the tee box and wonder if they’d laid out a very nicely routed 17 holes, and then realized they missed a hole, and tried desperately to squeeze it into a sliver of leftover land. In isolation, the hole itself is decent, if not below average and unspectacular. But in context, it’s just in a horrible position. Especially considering the space almost every other hold on the course is given to breathe.

    10 is fine for a single-handicapper. But I’ve played with lesser golfers, and it absolutely eats them alive. When a single hole takes well upwards of 20 minutes for a group to finish, it leaves not only a bottleneck behind them resulting in longer rounds for everyone, but a bad taste in the mouths of casual golfers and diminished repeat business. My easy fix for 10 would be to lose the long stuff in front of the green. The ravine in the fairway that affects the second shot can stay – I like how tactical it can be based on your length off the tee. But eliminating that second penalty area would allow a lot more flexibility and bailouts on approaches. I would never argue to shorten the hole or change it’s general layout or degree of difficulty. Just give the average Joe a slightly better fighting chance.


    • Rob,

      Obviously knowing the course designer (a Nicklaus man for many years) and those who actually constructed the course I can promise you that 17 holes were not designed and one just “shoehorned” in. I have always felt the course flowed nicely. That is just my humble opinion and recognize no ones opinion is right or wrong.

      I understand your comments about #10 for the average player. But still maintain the merits of the design. If a PGA Tour event was played there today most players would probably go at the green with a long iron or hybrid based on the distance of the hole and how far the driving distance is for the average PGA Tour Player. I just think the average player has to approach it is a very tough par 6 and go from there.

      As you can see I am a great fan of Mystic. I enjoyed being associated with the course and only wish things could have turned out differently in the beginning. I will always remember the times I played this tremendous golf course before it opened and being the only one on the golf course. Those were special times on a special course.

  • Hey,

    I’m (or was) a Diamond member at Golf North and last week I got a driving range ball thru my windshield while sitting in my car at Grey Silo. After a refusal to compensate me in any way I decided to put up a critique online talking about how my year as a Golf North member went, as I’ve had plenty of issues since I joined.

    After Golf North found out about the site, they immediately tried to shut it down and also revoked my membership without giving a reason. I thought we lived in Canada where free speech was one of our cardinal rights? Apparently Golf North thinks differently and tried to muzzle me.

    This just goes to show they type of service you can expect at Golf North. They would rather try and shut me down and kick me out of the course than deal with the many problems that are currently facing them. For anyone who is thinking of getting a membership there I would highly discourage it, based up the quality of courses and the character exhibited by management.

    Follow me @nogolfnorth on twitter.

  • I just played a round at Beaverdale, another GolfNorth property, because it seemed like a very good value. The other reason I chose this course was because it’s website boasted that it is “one of the best manicured courses in the area”. Well I must say that this is a gross exaggeration, if not false advertising. This greenskeeping crew does not know how to grow grass. If you can’t grow good lush green grass in Ontario in mid-june during the prime growing season, you are in the wrong business.

    I should also mention that there were a variety of very unpleasant golfers out on the course. I tried to stay upbeat and friendly for my part, but I think the cheapo green fees probably have a tendency to bring the no-etiquette duffers out of the woodwork. Over 5 hours to get around a track measuring less than 5000 yards from the tips! A closed in claustrophobic layout where duffers meet to spray shots at each other. It was like a cage fight out there.

    Just my $0.02 worth.

  • I grow up in the K-W area and grow playing most of the golf north properties however once GN took over they rise the green fees and do not put any money back into the course. GN is the most expensive courses in the area with sub par conditions. I refuse to golf with GN fo that reason. Either lower your green fees or hire grounds crews who know what there doing! I go to and can play preimer courses in the area (championship courses) for half the fees.

  • I have been a member of Golf North for four years now with Beaver dale as My home course. At the beginning I saw that the course was made much better an had improve greatly but not know all do the green are in good shape the rest of the course is in very poor condition with many spots with little or no grass what so ever on the fairways an it is loaded with weeds which makes playing on them very hard There are places were the watering of the greens have left conditions around the greens in large puddles an then have grounds keeper run heavy machines in them leaving large pot holes which makes hitting the green short an landing the the ball onto the green almost in possible I have also played Brook field next door an the over all conditions are like night an day compared to beaver dale it is time some one take charge an brings this course up the other courses in Golf North properties One last comment We need proper Marshals on the course not Walmart greeters so that every group keeps up with the group ahead of them an not have one or two even three holes open an they will not pick up the pace or let faster groups to go a head of them this is the very reason We have A Marshal system in the First place. Yours Truly Robert Hurlbut 519-824-3966

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