With all due respect to owners/brothers Fred and Peter Rzepka, the downfall of Hawthorne Valley Golf Club has been a self-inflicted wound.
The golf course is a Donald Ross gem.
It is located in one of the most upscale cities in Northeast Ohio.
The grounds crew has done a solid job of presenting mid-level country club conditions on a tight budget.
No, the problems of Hawthorne Valley do not stem from “the current state of the game of golf”, nor the course itself, nor the superintendent, nor any of the other excuses laid out in the Crain’s Cleveland Business article on the club’s closing.
The fault for the shuttering of Hawthorne Valley is a lack of market insight and business model adjustment by the owners.
The Rzepkas believed that the private country club model was a viable one for a small facility like theirs right up to the day they closed the doors. In reality, it has not been viable since 2008, perhaps even a couple years prior to that. The course tried to mix in public play recently, but the prices charged were far too high and the transition was always uncomfortable, as if letting public players in was doing them a favor.
If you look at the Hawthorne Valley Golf Club website, policies like “carts-only” (no walking!) and a player dress code of “shirts with collars and no backwards hats” (I’m not making that up) might as well just say “we only want stuffy old people here”. Not good for growing a business.
Trying to secure a paid membership of 300 players at ANY amount in 2016 is a challenge. But given the great competition in Northeast Ohio and the limited number of people interested in joining a golf club, Hawthorne Valley had no chance as a private member club. The golf course is not a well-known brand. The clubhouse is cold-looking and dated. The practice facility is tiny.
The Rzepkas are correct to close the “club”.
But they shouldn’t close the golf course.
Instead they should lease the property to an outside manager or management company who has a modern perspective on the game.
If Hawthorne Valley were run as a slightly-upscale public facility, it would sell a good number of $25-$45 tee times every summer.
But first, the Rzepkas would have to change their mindset significantly to allow a management company to do what needs to be done.
A smart management company would not require a private club dress code.
A smart management company would allow anyone who wishes to walk when they play to do so.
A smart management company would take the monolithic clubhouse, strip it down to the bones, then repurpose and redecorate it with a modern, casual vibe for modern, casual events and people.
And a smart management company would charge greens and cart fees based on today’s market, not some inflated pulled-out-of-the-air price that made sense in the 1980s.
That’s what should happen. It will be interesting to see what does happen.
But what should NEVER happen is to have even one sentence of talk about the club being purchased by the Cleveland Metroparks, either as a park or a golf course.
Reason One: the Cleveland Metroparks already manages enough golf courses for the needs of the people of Northeast Ohio.
Reason Two: the Cleveland Metroparks already manages enough parkland for the needs of the people of Northeast Ohio.
And Reason Three — and perhaps the most important reason: Fred Rzepka was the longest serving Commissioner ever for the Cleveland Metroparks, arguably its most successful and influential ever, too. Selling his privately-owned property now to the public agency he once helped oversee would reek of cronyism, even though he no longer sits on the Board. The sale would not be wise for Rzepka’s legacy, nor the currently squeaky-clean image of the Cleveland Metroparks.
Hawthorne Valley Golf Club still has life in it. But that life will exist only if the Rzepkas are open to change, quickly.
The course needs a strong management team with the marketing vision and operational discipline to put it back together.
And it needs a pair of brother/owners who will stand back and allow full implementation of the decisions and efforts required of that new guy…