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Noblesville's Sagamore golf club emerges from the rough

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The Sagamore Club has pitched itself out of the rough and almost onto the green.

The once ballyhooed Jack Nicklaus-designed course near State Road 37 and 166th Street in Noblesville was perilously near bankruptcy just a year ago.

“Bankruptcy was a very real possibility,” said Wes Marshall, Sagamore Club general manager. “We had to take a hard look at the entire operation.”

An ownership and management change rejuvenated the private club, which has added 51 members in 2010 and 95 in the last 18 months. With initiation fees at $15,000 (they were temporarily reduced to $9,000) and golf memberships ranging from $365 to $465 a month, the growth has given the club a badly needed boost to its revenue stream.

The Sagamore Club fact boxSagamore Club initiation fees have tumbled from $40,000 when it opened in 2002. That’s a sign of the times.

As the resurgence hit full swing, the club also nabbed two big events this year, hosting the NCAA Division II Men’s Golf Championships and a 500-person mayor’s ball in June benefiting Helping Hands Charities.

“We’d like to host a tournament here every three years or so,” Marshall said. “It solidifies our golf course as a true championship course.”

Nicklaus, who has won 115 professional golf tournaments, including a record 18 majors, told IBJ the only thing holding The Sagamore Club back in terms of hosting golf tournaments is its inability to host huge spectator crowds.

“It’s certainly designed to be a truly challenging championship course,” Nicklaus said. “It has every feature it needs from that standpoint. It just wasn’t designed to accommodate large galleries like you’d see at major PGA Tour events. But it’d be perfect for something like the NCAA championships.”

Any turnaround is impressive coming during a down time for the sport, said Mike David, executive director of the Indiana Golf Office, the organizing and sanctioning body for golf in Indiana.

Nationally, the number of rounds of golf played in 2010 is projected to be down more than 6 percent from 2008, according to the National Golf Foundation, a Florida-based firm that acts as the industry’s primary research arm. In central Indiana, the situation is worse, with course operators reporting declines of 10 percent or more over the last two years.

“Simply put, central Indiana is overbuilt,” David said. “There’s too many courses and not enough players right now. So any course or club growing now is doing something right.”

Marshall credits an aggressive grass-roots marketing campaign and member referral program for the club’s growth.

“You have to make sure you’re taking care of your current members,” Marshall said. “That’s job one. The word of mouth from your members has got to be one of your most powerful marketing tools.”

The turnaround began in March 2009, when Nebraska-based Landscapes Unlimited LLC bought out three other partners in the club and took over the surrounding residential development from South Carolina-based Melrose Cos.

Marshall was installed as general manger in April 2009. He said “the entire culture of the staff has changed.”

“We’ve focused on reducing costs without reducing services,” Marshall said. “As a result, the bottom line has improved 400 percent from 2008 to 2009, and is projected to improve another 220 percent this year over last year.”

Marshall declined to divulge the club’s revenue, but said he expects the club to break even this year and turn its first profit in 2011.

“We’re an awfully long way from where we were less than 18 months ago,” Marshall said.

Landscapes still owns 71 of the 330 original lots on the surrounding residential development. Only 136 of the 259 privately owned lots have houses on them, but Marshall said there’s been a flurry of activity.

“We’ve had four new homes built in our development in the last year.”

The club and subdivision finances are separate, but Marshall said the houses are key for building memberships.

“That’s what we’re selling, a country club lifestyle,” he said.•

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