By Martin Kaufmann
When the San Juan Unified and Sacramento city school districts voted in 1983 to cut funding for high school golf, Ken Morton Sr. spearheaded formation of the Sacramento Area Youth Golf Association to keep the programs afloat.
For Morton, an inveterate organizer, the decision to form SAY Golf was perfectly in character. From his earliest days working at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex, he says longtime head pro Tom LoPresti preached the player-development mantra. To be sure, Morton had a personal stake. Ken Morton Jr. was 11 in 1983, and says his father wanted him to have the chance to play high school golf.
“But as he does with everything,” Morton Jr. says, “it’s adding one or two programs each year, and now it’s touching 4,700 kids.”
(In 1998, SAY Golf morphed into The First Tee of Greater Sacramento.)
Player development remains central to the culture and business strategy of Haggin Oaks, long operated under a city contract by Morton Golf, of which Morton Sr. is chief executive. Long before anyone in golf was talking about grow-the-game initiatives and The First Tee, Haggin Oaks was investing in player recruitment through targeted programs and promotions. It has developed a long list of programs for preschoolers, juniors, women, seniors, families and the disabled. And it has been able to rationalize this investment, in part, by building alliances with volunteers and more than a dozen local support groups that lend expertise and help defray costs.
As a municipal facility, Haggin Oaks benefits from the fact that its business goal of recruiting players from all parts of the community meshes perfectly with the city of Sacramento’s desire to provide all residents with access to recreation. The fact that Haggin Oaks’ golf programs teach life skills to juniors, help rehabilitate the disabled and roll out the red carpet for women only strengthens the marriage between city and facility.
“From a city standpoint, I look very favorably at what we’re doing here,” says Doug Parker, the city’s golf manager. “And I’m not looking at it in dollars and cents, I’m looking at it in terms of what we’re doing for the community. . . . We’re raising better young adults. That can’t help but infuse the community with a higher degree of civility.”
Haggin Oaks’ staff buys into those ideas. They also buy into doing it profitably.
“It’s our role as golf professionals to develop new players and grow the game,” says Mike Woods, Haggin Oaks’ head pro. “And if we’re going to do this . . . we’re going to do it like a business.”
While Haggin Oaks is a sprawling operation, everything comes back to Morton Sr., an avuncular, unpretentious man with big ideas and an obsession for the details that make those ideas a reality.
“If we had 15,500 Ken Mortons (at U.S. golf courses), we wouldn’t need Golf 20/20,” says Ruffin Beckwith, executive director of the Golf 20/20 program to increase participation.
Player development is run as a separate, self-supporting department at Haggin Oaks, bringing in $450,000 in annual revenues. Morton Sr. says that is split among the staff pros, with the rest funding the department’s overhead.
“Our goal with that department is to break even every year so that we can not only financially make that department make sense, but then enjoy the side benefits of it,” Woods says.
Those benefits include increasing traffic at the facility, not just from new players, but from their friends and family. Haggin Oaks’ two 18-hole courses each average 65,000 rounds annually and its Super Shop generates $8 million, according to Morton Jr., vice president of retail. To control costs, amateur players are paid an hourly wage to teach the Introduction to Golf program, a two-session program offered 36 times this year for $29.95. Forty percent to 50 percent of participants progress to the First Swing Class, and that retention percentage edges upward for more advanced classes.
Haggin Oaks’ 13 staff pros teach the advanced classes and collect about 40 percent of the fees, which range from $129.95 to $149.95 per person for nine hours of instruction. For private lessons, Morton Sr. says, staff pros collect about 55 percent of revenues, with Haggin Oaks deducting the rest for such things as benefits, advertising and accounting fees.
“Frankly, that’s not going to be palatable to a lot of pros because they are used to getting all the cash,” Morton Sr. says.
Under Morton, Haggin Oaks emphasizes tailored programs for various demographic niches, including one for disabled golfers. Ruben Samaniego, a staff pro who has championed this cause, formed Fore Golf Sacramento to assist disabled persons interested in golf, then aligned the organization with Disabled Sports USA, a 501(c)3 charity, to help raise money.
“As a single entity, we’d never survive,” Samaniego says. “It’s the coalition that we’ve developed that drives us.”
At his first clinic five years ago, Samaniego says he had three pros and seven volunteers, but only three participants. “We were prepared,” he jokes. Now more than 30 disabled persons show up each Saturday, assisted by 11 volunteers. The facility has four adaptive carts for those unable to walk.
Heart patients are prime customers. About 100 stroke survivors showed up for a Saving Strokes clinic this year, and Morton Sr. views hospitals as natural allies with golf in the rehabilitation process.
Complacency isn’t tolerated. Each fall, the staff gathers to assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in every part of the business.
The teaching philosophy of Haggin Oaks professionals also has evolved, in part because of conversations Morton Sr. and Woods began having several years ago with sports psychologist Dianna Wright, who now teaches juniors. Wright says the “mysticism” surrounding golf intimidates new players, and the typical, hierarchical relationship between teaching pro and student only exacerbates the problem.
So Haggin Oaks’ pros have moved from an instructional to a coaching philosophy. Students are called “clients” to underscore the lack of a hierarchy, and their input is sought during lessons. For example, Jim Colliflower, director of junior programs, says if a player muffs a chip shot during a lesson, the pro will ask the player to explain what went wrong rather than lecturing on chipping technique.
“The idea of a student self-discovering their own swing results in their learning process being so much quicker,” he says.
Morton Sr. personally oversees training of all employees, teaching from a manual that he compiled. No detail is too small. Employees are drilled on how to greet customers (“always say ‘hello’ to people within 10 feet of you”) and assist them (“call each customer by name”). There’s a virtual master’s thesis just on phone etiquette that even includes instructions on answering the phone (“never let the phone ring more than 3 times”), and placing calls on hold (“check back every 30 seconds”).
“When golfers come to our facility, they average about 20 encounters with an employee,” Woods says. “You have 20 opportunities to blow it, and if you get it right 19 times and blow it once, they’re going to remember that one time.”
Similarly, Haggin Oaks’ player-development program is the product of hard work and critical self-analysis. Morton Sr. points to a mid-1990s National Golf Foundation report that found 90 percent of women who try golf give up the game. After studying Haggin Oaks’ programs, he says, “We were embarrassed to find our percentages were right on the national average.”
So he assigned his general manager to study the women’s golf classes and interview participants. They found that women walked away from the game for fundamental reasons the staff hadn’t appreciated: They lacked equipment, they weren’t comfortable using the range and practice green, and most of all, they were scared of transition from the practice area to the course. New players – female or male – now receive training ranging from the most rudimentary (where to find the bathrooms and explanations of things like the tee box and the rough) to on-course instruction. The women’s retention rate has jumped to 60 percent.
Aside from the day-to-day programs, there are major events that require months of preparation. Staff pro Noni Schneider, a former LPGA player who grew up taking lessons from Morton Sr., in June coordinated Women’s Golf Week, a series of clinics, a fashion show and seminars, that drew 297 female participants.
Haggin Oaks uses every opportunity to put golf clubs in prospective customers’ hands. It runs a concert series in conjunction with local jazz and country stations, and Morton Jr. says this often results in attendees hitting balls on the 100-stall range in cowboy hats and boots.
“It’s a strange way of doing player development,” he says, “but it’s player development.”