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February 1, 2013

Las Vegas Variations– Skills Events Move On-Course

Skills challenges escape the range and spill onto the golf course when creative Las Vegas golf managers spy an opportunity to add fun by bending a few rules

BY: JEFF WALLACH

When a recent skills challenge set up for golfers at Desert Pines Golf Club in Las Vegas ended in a draw, Course Superintendent Erik Ostlund had an idea for a tie-breaking event: hand-mower races. The two potential champions received a quick lesson in mower operations and were then set loose on the practice putting green for an out-and-back sprint to determine the day’s winner. Of course, Ostlund set the mower blades high enough that they weren’t actually cutting grass, but that didn’t make the event any less fun.

And fun is what Desert Pines and the other courses and practice facilities in the Walters Golf portfolio are all about; they’ve taken the idea of making practice into entertainment to a whole new level. Walters Golf Director of Operations Joe Dahlstrom sees a clear connection. “Las Vegas attracts all types of people–from guys playing in serious, multi-day Ryder Cup events to bachelor party groups who hire six of our Par Mates to accompany them on their golf rounds,” says Dahlstrom, referring to the resort’s appealing female fairway guides. “We try to spend enough time with our customers to see what they want, and then deliver it.”

For serious players, that might mean setting up a series of skills challenges–not on the range, but out on the golf course. Recent events have included stations where players hit from one green to another for a closestto-the pin competition; executed five different kinds of bunker shots toward concentric circles drawn around the hole and representing different point values; and even a contest to see whether players could skip a ball across a water hazard to the other side. (Hey, it’s a respected tradition on par-3 day at The Masters– why not in Vegas?) Other events, designed for groups consisting of “real” golfers but also folks who’ve never picked up a club, have included a water-balloon toss and chipping into a kiddie pool along with more traditional golf challenges.

“Our whole business model is for people to have fun,” Dahlstrom says, “whether that means having players hit out of the eight-feet-deep Hell Bunker, from St. Andrews, on our Royal Links Golf Course (the company’s British replica layout) or setting up a bar and a DJ and creating a real party atmosphere on a hole or at the range. Las Vegas is the city of entertainment and so it’s important to make sure that our golf experiences are fun and friendly.” That’s another way of saying that operators need to know their audience and what that audience really wants from an experience at your course or practice facility. As we see clubs as prestigious as Muirfield Village play six-inch-cup tournaments, we know it’s time to see how far the game’s guidelines can bend–in the name of enjoyment and even skill-building–without going too far.

Because hey, even just off the Vegas Strip, there’s a serious side to all this, involving genuine instruction. In a sincere effort to help even novice golfers improve, all group outings at Walters Golf venues include a complimentary golf clinic an hour before tee off, with golf pros moving up and down the line and offering tips. For groups of serious players the clinic might be taught by Top 100 Instructor Mike Davis. It’s a legit–if shortened– golf lesson that takes place in s setting much different than the typical 30-minute tutorial in the range bay. And anything that helps a player improve even a little is likely to bring him back.

Further to the point of taking skills challenges off the range and onto the course, Walters Golf also offers its Par Three Challenge on all three courses in its portfolio (Desert Pines, Royal Links, and Bali Hai)–which is something any operator could take from the golf course and move to the range, as long as a target green is available. Of course, you will need a fairly liberal attitude toward wagering–but that’s an old golf tradition. Playing this Par Three Challenge, golfers will bet any amount within a reasonable limit that they can hit their tee shot onto the green–or, in some cases, get closer to the hole than a pro hitting the same shot. If the player bets $100 and loses, he still gets a $100 credit in the pro shop. If he wins, he gets a $200 credit.

Especially in Vegas, Players love the opportunity to test their skills with a little something on the line. And the good news for them is that they can’t come up empty. “The Par Three Challenge is a very profitable line of business,” Dahlstrom says. “And it’s an additional service so it leads to better retention, referrals, and repeat business. It’s absolutely made a difference in growing our business.”