Sixes and Twelves – Not Eighteens

A new company based in Bluffton, S.C., is taking a unique approach to designing golf courses. In response to the declining number of avid golfers, Prestwick 12 Golf hopes to build and operate courses divided into six-hole segments.

Headed by Mark Brown, the founder and editor of Links Magazine from 1987 to 1994, the company seeks to entice both beginners and veteran golfers by minimizing the amount of time it takes to play nine or 18 holes. “People have finally realized that the golf industry has to change, because we’re actually losing golfers rather than gaining them,” Brown told reporter Jeff Kidd of The (Bluffton) Island Packet.

Brown, who’ll be the primary designer of the layouts, has assembled a solid team for the venture. Key members of Prestwick 12 Golf include Florida-based Terry LaGree, a registered landscape architect and certified course builder with over 25 years in golf operations, construction and management; Tom Wheary, president of Golf Strategies, a company that specializes in property development and turnaround of troubled golf facilities; Douglas White, the founder of Golf Strategies; Cindy Brown, Mark’s wife and a marketing specialist; and Jim Gray, a Hilton Head Island teaching pro who will help develop the company’s teaching programs.

Brown and Co. are basing their business model on recent statistics which show that the golf industry is still in the doldrums. The pace of golf course construction has dropped 50 percent since 2000, and golf is losing players faster than it’s replacing them. According to Pellucid Corp., an industry consulting firm, the number of players declined by 3 percent in 2003 and the per capita rounds dropped 8 percent.

Named after one of the first links courses in Scotland, which originally consisted of a dozen holes (before the standard became 18), Prestwick 12 Golf hopes to reverse these trends by making golf a game that takes less time and is less expensive. In addition, the company’s courses will not be as demanding as many of the new championship-caliber tracks being built. “Our company’s goal is to make golf more fun for more people,” Brown said.

The company plans to begin working with real estate developers and cities to build 12-hole courses divided into two six-hole segments. “You can play six holes in about an hour and 15 minutes,” Brown told Kidd. “That’s something you can do on your lunch break. The idea is that you don’t have to spend four to six hours to play a round of golf. People today, especially people with families, don’t have that much time.”

Other benefits include lower construction and maintenance costs which, in turn, will enable cheaper green fees. Brown and LeGree say they can build a turn-key 12-hole course for about $4 million, about half the amount needed for a typical full-blown layout. They also plan to build modest clubhouses to minimize costs, while ensuring the facilities have expansive practice areas.

“Everything being built right now is on the high end, for people who are already avid golfers,” Brown said. “They’re ego courses. No one wants to build the daily-fee facility or the municipal course, but that’s where you’re going to attract new golfers.”

Prestwick 12 Golf intends its courses to be well-conditioned, but with an orientation toward heavy play. The facilities will also emphasize customer service and teaching programs for beginners.

“They won’t be ‘bunny’ courses,” Brown told Kidd. But, “. . . We want to build less-penal golf courses. The challenge of golf course architecture is to provide high-handicappers a safe route to the hole and low handicappers an opportunity to gain some advantage by taking a chance. There has to be more than one way to play each hole.”

Though many traditionalists have scoffed at the plans of Prestwick 12 Golf, others like the idea of abbreviated courses. The concept is particularly appealing to developers who “have some land restrictions or price considerations,” according to Brown. “This offers another variation that is a good potential alternative.”

Cary Corbitt, Sea Pines’ director of sports and president of the Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association, is intrigued with the idea, saying the industry is ripe for such innovations, “whether it’s a six- or 12-hole concept or family learning centers that give you the ability to go out and play two or three holes, something that appeals to the total family.”

Brown said he’s nearing a deal with an Ohio developer that will allow the company to build its first abbreviated golf course. Negotiations are also underway with two other possible clients. “I think it’s going to work, but you really don’t know,” Brown told Kidd. “I’ve talked to at least 100 people about this who think it’s a good idea, but until you talk to the people with money and sign a contract, you never know.”