Basildon Golf Course Emerges from the Shadows

Basildon Golf Course Emerges from the Shadows

 Colin, who has spent most of his life running and writing about 9 hole courses and golf ranges, relished the opportunity of taking on a full length 18 hole course, albeit a course with lots of problems and not very many players. The challenge, which was caused by a combination of a failed landfill project by the Jack Barker Group and the difficulty that most local authorities have in running a golf facility, meant that Colin took on a course that was nearly closed, that nobody wanted to operate, and one with grass on some of the greens and none of the tees!
The declared turnover of the club prior to October 2013 was just on £110,000 per annum and there were only about 100 season ticket holders. The machinery was old and mostly not suited to the task of presenting a golf course properly and there were only two green keepers, both working very hard in an almost impossible situation to keep the course playable. The clubhouse, which was formerly the professional’s shop, was dark and cramped and not big enough hold any events in. In the area around the clubhouse there was a rough section of waste ground, where the old clubhouse used to sit. This area was the least appealing part of the site, providing a bombed out greeting of degeneration to those as they arrived at the course. The course, ominously located in Clay Hill Lane, also laid wet in the winter, and although some drainage had been done in the past, it was not properly designed, integrated into the main ditches or maintained. The irrigation system was decrepit and previously had required a full time employee to hand water the greens in the summer. One of the holes had been closed due to vandalism and local, bored children regularly made mischief on the course. Rutting badgers also added to the issues that the green keepers had to deal with. 
In short, the whole business was ruined and the course and clubhouse were in a very poor state of repair. 
There were a few things going for the business however: the course had a great layout, the regular golfers and membership were fun and friendly and it had a huge number of chimney pots - it was in a great location for a golf business. 
 
Colin describes his first impressions of Basildon:
 
“Obviously the whole site was in a mess when I first looked at it as a business proposition in 2012. I have never been afraid to take on big turnaround projects providing that I think that there will indeed be an eventual upside. The overall layout, which I had played in the 1980’s was interesting, and whilst you could write a book about its faults, I immediately liked it. The golfers too were fun, with a good sense of humour and always keen to offer advice - some of it was even useful! But, perhaps the most compelling reason for my interest was that it is in such a strong catchment area with well over 250,000 people living within a ten minute journey time. Everything else could be fixed and for the first time in my life I had an 18 hole course to work on. I was deliriously happy from the moment we took over, as I could clearly see how we could turn around the various failing parts of the business and create a really special golf facility.”
 
The historic course, which next year will celebrate its 50th anniversary was once one of the busiest courses in Europe, with huge queues (and fights) on the first tee. It regularly had over 70,000 rounds played each year, as the golf mad public had nowhere else to play. Today these figures are not reproducible, or desirable for most courses, but it is interesting to consider why. The Demand for Golf, the R & A’s report into the need for more courses was written in the 1980’s by Graham Hurst and his team of researchers. Graham’s conclusions were widely touted as a need for another 600-700 golf courses. In the report, Graham had actually spoken of the need for more 9 hole courses of a more basic nature - ‘rough courses’ as Sir Henry Cotton had called for. Nevertheless, untold numbers of courses were then built, with farmers and developers flourishing their copies of the Demand for Golf under the noses of planners and bank managers, without ever having read it properly.
The result was a vast increase in the number of golf courses in the UK and most were well built, and some were well funded. The main problem with the report was that when it came to calculating the number of courses needed it asked clubs the numbers on their waiting lists: almost all clubs shared the same golfers on these lists, as a keen player wanted to play in his or her local area and was happy to join any club, and so had their name down for 3-6 different clubs. So today we are blessed with an abundance of golf courses, which is good for the consumer, but less easy for golf operators.
In the twelve months prior to October 2013, about 12,000 rounds were played at Basildon, and whilst this is a very approximate guess, it does show how far the course had fallen in its desirability amongst local golfers. All of the local courses offered better playing conditions and reasonable prices. This year the Basildon course has exceeded 40,000 rounds, although Colin is not looking to have much more than 45,000 rounds played in any year. He elaborates:
 
“We want to offer a really good service to all of our golfers and are very happy to accept annual fees or daily green fees. We don’t want to push the numbers of players to such a degree that there is annoying congestion and grumpy golfers. We book players every 8 minutes and there are only occasional queues. Happy golfers tend to spend more in the bar and are far pleasanter to deal with.”
In order to turn around the business, the overriding issue was to outperform people’s expectations of their experience at Basildon. They had been disappointed for years, so there was much to do. The golfers’ experience on the course was a disaster and going into the winter was not a great time to start, but it did, at least, allow for a period of organisation before the start of the following season.
The course was a mess and a great green keeper was needed. Stephen Swanson had heard that a new regime had taken over and got in touch with Colin. They immediately had a good rapport. Stephen had planted many of the original trees that now line the fairways of this mature course; he had worked for a landscaping company after leaving school and then went on to work on many of the finest golf courses built around the world, and had spent many years with Dave Thomas Design. Stephen adds:
 
“I was born and raised in this area and have always loved the land at Basildon. As a boy, I used to play on the farm, where the course is now and then I spent month after month planting saplings as my first job for a landscaping company, called Bale and Hay, who were part of the team constructing the course. I had always wanted to be given the chance to turn Basildon around after it started to go downhill many years ago and I am very pleased with the results to date.”
 
The course today is in exceptional order, with some of the best greens in Essex, with the tees, fairways, surrounds, bunkers, collars, semi rough and paths all pristine, neatly trimmed and covered by a comprehensive maintenance schedule. This has taken a considerable investment with Colin providing the money, and Swanson and his team providing the effort. The complex is equipped with excellent machinery and fleet of Toro mowers for fairways and greens, tractors from Iseki and John Deere. In addition, specialist aeration equipment and a greens iron have allowed the course to reach new levels of refinement. To combat the wetter months, specialist drainage equipment has been sourced and carefully chosen to fit into the annual maintenance plan. Club Car have supplied ten of their finest buggies, complete with the Visage GPS system allowing the golfer yardages to the centre, front and back of all greens and the operator the ability to monitor the fleet and therefore maximise revenue.
Swanson leads a fine team of green keepers, which include James Dennison, Tony Lucas, Chris and Mark Stafford, Jack Littlejohn, Andrew Whittaker and Derek Button. The first task was to get the greens themselves back to a condition which golfers would be happy to play on, so on the very first day Stephen set about hollow coring the greens for the first time in many years. The members and season ticket holders were very supportive (not always the case for golfers to approve of hollow coring!). The course had so nearly closed that they were happy to play on any type of improving facility.
In the clubhouse a better management system was needed. Colin chose ESP to run his tee booking system, as he explains:
 
“I wanted to have the ability to book all the rounds that we played and to keep track of the number of players that we have using the facility. Initially it was very quiet, but as the course and clubhouse improved, we got busier and busier. In the last 12 months we have handled 41,600 rounds. This is a fairly exact measure of play, as we can track the number of rounds and the number per group. The booking system allows us complete flexibility and season ticket holders can book up to three weeks in advance and the general public can book up to two weeks in advance. The ESP backup is exceptional and one of the best parts is the directly booked and paid green fees, which come directly into our account several times each week. This is growing and is a much better way of attracting new customers - and especially value seekers - rather than resorting to the tee time resellers such as GOLFNOW to get additional customers. They can be a good means to find new customers, but the battle is to retain these new players and have them book direct with you, rather than via a costly commission system. To maximise profits it is essential that the best offer to play at your facility is only available directly via your own website.”
 
For many years Basildon Golf Course had been regarded as a bit of a joke for the serious golfer. This was hugely damaging for the business. In order to improve the reputation of Basildon, it was decided early on to host the PGA East Anglian Open Championships in mid-September 2014, less than one year after taking over the course. Colin explains:
 
“As a PGA professional myself, I realised how important it was to get the best players enjoying the course as soon as possible. Prior to taking control of the course I’d had conversations with John Smith, who was then secretary of the PGA in England (East). The course inspection was arranged for that winter and despite the serious misgivings of Stephen and the rest of the team, we ploughed on and the prospect of not having the course in great shape for the coming September was a great spur to everybody involved. The idea was that if we could get great recommendations from the best players in the region, then Basildon would soon be back on the map for all keen golfers. Stephen and the rest of the team worked their socks off to get the course ready and this was duly acknowledged by the pros and the PGA. The plan worked a treat and we were delighted with the results. We hosted the event again the following year and all of the golfers enjoyed themselves despite some disastrous weather, which forced the pro am to be cancelled. I would recommend hosting a PGA event to any golf operator who wants to enhance the image of their facility.”
 
The Clubhouse
The clubhouse, which was converted from the former professional shop was a bit of a mish-mash and was very dark inside, having no windows. It was a bit like a crypt, both for those visiting, and for those working in the clubhouse. It was also cramped and none of the rooms made sense for customer flow. Plans were submitted and approved and the clubhouse extended so that it was possible to seat 50 plus people and to run the bar and golf reception with ease and in a pleasant environment. The previous conversion had been done very cheaply and the bar was covered with a horrible formica worktop. It was important to change not just the look of the place, but also the feel, so oak worktops replaced the wretched formica. With extra light and extra space, and then a re-launched modernised kitchen, it was possible to serve customers better.
Best of all, it enabled Colin to provide a better working environment for the excellent team that managed the clubhouse and interact with the golfers every day.
The business at Basildon is very much a family concern for the Jenkins. Both daughters, Joanna and Lucy help out when their studies permit and Colin’s wife Marion is fully involved not just as company secretary, but also with the catering and clubhouse organisation and management. She added:
 
“Colin and I have been running golf facilities for over 23 years, so when the opportunity came up to take over the reins at Basildon, I could easily see the potential. It has been a lot of hard work, but also lots of fun turning around the fortunes of the business. The clubhouse team have been absolutely superb and their hard work and attention to our customers’ needs has been quite exceptional. It is one of the most friendly clubs I have ever known and we both enjoy it enormously.”
 
Will Farrow has been a PGA professional for many years and runs the teaching and golf retail side of the business at Basildon. He is heavily involved in the clubhouse as well and liaises with the club to ensure the smooth running of the business and club events. 
Victoria Littlejohn, together with Kim Clarke, Karen Scoot and a marvellous gang of part time staff run the clubhouse activity. This includes the bar and catering and attending to all the requirements of this very busy club. The word sociable would only just start to describe the atmosphere at Basildon. There is very little hassle, as almost all of the customers appreciate the genuine efforts being made on their behalf by all involved. There is still a little trouble with some children misbehaving on the course, but this is diminishing every year due to the understanding and welcoming nature of the greenkeeping and clubhouse team.
Basildon Golf Club was formed a year in advance of the golf course and celebrates its fiftieth birthday this September. The club operates from an office at the golf course and works closely with the business to ensure that competitions are worked harmoniously into the complex schedule of events. Golfers can join the club for a fee of £70 annually, which includes access to a handicap and all sorts of NAPGC events and club competitions. Members pay for their golf either by season ticket, which is available annually or via a direct debit system of monthly payments, or they can just pay the appropriate daily green fee. This is a great system for both club and course and works very well. The business respects the sensitivities of its best customer (the club) and the club is aware that the commercial interests of the course are also important.
As the business has grown, it has become clear that the current clubhouse is bursting at the seams. A planning permission is pending, which will allow for about another 150 square metres of space. This is being built onto the existing extended clubhouse providing the option for two separate function areas for meetings and a much larger capacity for big events. The success of the golf course is stimulating an interest in the whole social side of the club, which has been dormant for some time. The other major advantage of the enlarged clubhouse is that it is, to some extent, weather and season proof.
 
Colin’s Folly – England’s Largest Putting Green
The old clubhouse stood on what is now a large waste area between the car park, the current clubhouse and the leisure centre next door. An area of just over three-quarters of an acre in size. It was almost perfect for adventure golf, however it was decided from the outset that adventure golf would be the wrong mix to add to this superb golf course. There is definitely an element of overt commercialism that an adventure golf course can bring to an established golf facility. This is a very positive factor for a family golf centre, but for a golf course striving to re-establish itself as a top venue it was thought that this would have the opposite affect. Also there were substantial issues with parking.
Putting, nevertheless, is a vital part of building golf for the 21st-century: putting is what unites all golfers, of all ages, of all abilities. There is hope for everyone on the putting green. Many of us started as toddlers with a borrowed or shortened putter, scraping the ball towards the hole by the seaside on a putting layout of some description.
There are many stories of the commercial success of the Himalayas putting course at St Andrews in Scotland. It takes several hundred thousand pounds per annum and provides for an exceptional experience for visitors, local residents and families to all participate in the most accessible of the golfing arts. Since the squeeze was put on Council’s leisure budgets, most local putting greens have closed, which is a great shame as these were often the catalysts for young golfers to take the next step.
However, adventure golf courses have been extremely successful and Golf Features have been proud to encourage the promotion of such ventures at golf facilities across the country over the last 14 years. The question was whether the economic success was solely down to the fact that they use artificial grass and have a theme, or could a similarly interesting grass layout also make economic sense?
Colin Jenkins: “Having had substantial experience with adventure golf and encouraged everybody to consider it for their golf facility across the UK and beyond over the last dozen or more years, I felt duty-bound to establish a proper grass putting green given the outstanding opportunity we had at Basildon. I wanted the surface to be undulating and exciting for the putter and this flew in the face of almost all golf green design. Yet the most memorable putting greens across the world of golf are the ones with bumps and swales and hollows and humps - ones that require imagination and vision to negotiate. These are the ones that bring out the child in us all. Who can help but giggle when some famous golfer putts into a bunker on the 17th at St Andrews. This hardly ever happens on a parkland course. The Himalayas at St Andrews works on many levels, but one of the most important ones is that the putting itself is fun. Fun in putting consists of undulation, unpredictability and a multitude of options for those playing the game. If only golf course designers took this a little more to heart. The best putting green that I have seen in recent years belongs to presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and was designed by Martin Hawtree at Trump International, Aberdeen. It is huge and has all sorts of bumps and swales - it is a fabulous course to enjoy the delicate art of putting.
“So with more than a little borrowing from Dr Hawtree and the St Andrews Links Trust, I set about explaining my vision to the now long suffering Stephen Swanson. He, of course, thought that I was mad, as did my wife. But, blessed with a ridiculous level of resilience, I pushed on and insisted that we build a crazy grass putting green. 
“First, we had to clear the scrubland, which was a complete eyesore for anyone arriving at the golf course. Then we had to spray off all of the weeds and unwelcome vegetation. We had to carefully build smooth undulations, which would be both interesting and cuttable with modern golfing machinery. The area contained all sorts of unpleasant foundations from the old clubhouse, it was poorly drained and we had to cover it with substantial amount of soil. Having drained it comprehensively, we then had to consider the irrigation of such a large area. Chris Marden who had been such a help in re-establishing and repairing the irrigation system for the main course worked his wonders again. 
“We purchased hundreds of tonnes of good quality root zone, which was by far and away the most expensive part of the build cost. Finally, in September last year we were ready to seed. Within a couple of weeks a green fluff covered almost all of the new green. Over the winter months this thickened up and over the spring growth began to really take hold. There were several areas which needed additional attention and we still have much to do before the green is perfect, but it would be a substantial understatement to say that I was merely thrilled with the new green. Stephen and the rest of the green keeping team have done us proud with their efforts and attentions on this mad scheme, which now gives Basildon the most beautiful emerald calling card. England’s Largest Putting Green is a title, which will soon be taken by another facility as putting continues to soar in the affections of the public.  It’s a great place where golfers can putt and chip for hours on end and we are all very proud of it.”
 
The course has just opened, less than 10 months after it was seeded with prices for non-season ticket holders set at just £4 for adults and £2 for children under 18. This entitles someone to putt all day. Use of the putting course is also included in any green fee paid on that day.
As the putting green became established it began to dawn on Colin, his OGRO colleague Rohan Barnett and their good friend Jerry Kilby that there might be considerable mileage in promoting the art of putting. British Putting was born and the British Open Putting Championships will be held at Basildon on 1st and 2nd September this year. 
There will be plenty more to come on putting in the following issues and all golfers and golf operators are welcome to visit Basildon whenever they wish. 
 
For more details please visit:  www.basildongolfcourse.com  
 
You can also reach Colin by email: colin@ogro.org or call him on his mobile (07768) 887033