The Perfect Combination

By Dan Kraft

The golf industry is a tough place for smooth-sailing these days, but one military golf course is finding ways to make a name for itself, as well as form partnerships and generate much-needed revenues. Located approximately 40 miles north of Chicago, Willow Glen Golf Club is part of Naval Station Great Lakes, home of the nation’s only Navy boot camp.

Although the military always has priority to the course, situated outside the base, tee-times, practice facilities, and the club’s food and beverage operations are openly available to all local golfers regardless of military status, via a Department of Defense waiver.

While the club maintains a long-standing Navy intramural program, neighboring companies such as Abbott Laboratories/Abbvie and United Conveyer Corporation are part of Willow Glen’s afternoon league roster. Club-sponsored tournaments are open to all golfers, and participation is generally divided equally among active duty and retired military, veterans and Department of Defense employees, and members of the general public. With this approach, we foster opportunities for new friendships to blossom. Weekend play illustrates the strength of this philosophy as foursomes frequently contain a mix of military and private-sector golfers.

Monday Discounts
Military, veterans, and government personnel are awarded reservation and price considerations throughout the year, with active duty and retired military always being afforded the biggest advantages. Our military puts their lives on the line for us daily, so there is no reason we can’t do the same for them in what we do every day. Still, like most military courses, Willow Glen has struggled to locate enough resources to offer and maintain quality programming, so the club has come up with some creative strategies. A small, local golf website was selected as an outside partner to help trumpet the club’s presence and provide discounts to the public at non-peak times. Every Monday the club offers each player a round of golf with a hot dog, a bag of chips, and a fountain drink at a special price. The response has been exhilarating. On a typical weekday morning, Willow Glen will be heavily populated with military retirees as well as seniors from the private sector, thanks to attractive green fees for both market groups and a golf course noted for its challenging layout and impeccable conditioning. 

Meaningful Partnerships
Forming partnerships is an avenue the golf course has chosen for success. One program specific to the military is RevelationGolf, a not-for-profit organization that uses the game to enhance a meaningful quality of life. Headed by Executive Director Donna Strum and Associate Director Kathy Williams, RevelationGolf encourages social, emotional, and physical growth among its participants. Over the years, Strum has worked with over 7,500 individuals at various golf clubs and facilities, providing educational workshops for golf professionals. Williams is a former LPGA tour professional, who has earned membership in the University of Minnesota’s Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. In partnership with Willow Glen, RevelationGolf visits the club twice each month and provides free clinics and playing opportunities for active duty military, veterans, post-traumatic stress-disorder patients, and children of military families. This organization is a wonderful partner. The satisfaction we gain by seeing wounded veterans have so much fun, even if they’re in a wheelchair, is incredible. And I’m not referring to just the response of our staff members—it’s impressive and powerful to everyone who’s at the golf course.

“Growing the game” is of vital concern, and to reach this goal, the club has also turned to partnerships in the private arena to foster youth participation. In addition to the junior clinics conducted by RevelationGolf, the course has become an increasingly popular destination for high school players. The club serves as the home course for the girls’ team from neighboring Libertyville High School, and as the annual tournament host for the North Suburban Conference boys’ championship that embraces 13 surrounding schools. In 2015, more than 40 high school teams utilized Willow Glen for tryouts or tournaments, enhancing its reputation among players and families already familiar with the game and with knowledge of courses in direct competition with Willow Glen for revenues. High school golf starts at a perfect time of year for us. Our leagues are finishing, and the high schools pick up the slack. It’s great to watch competitive golf through the wide-eyes of young adults, and the kids provide spark and life to Willow Glen. It also helps that coaches, players, and parents talk about us with other golfers and come back to play each year.

Capital Investments
Willow Glen’s long-term approach to sustaining a successful golf operation is evident in the capital investments made over the last 15 years. A remodeled front nine, combined with a new back nine, has enhanced interest through improved course playability and better aesthetics. A new clubhouse in 2008 was the crowning achievement in Willow Glen’s transformation. By reinvesting in the facilities, the golf course shows its guests that “status quo” is not in its vocabulary. We must continue to show our guests that their hard-earned dollars are being fed back into the golf program. Good enough is not good enough anymore.

Overcoming Obstacles
Despite the seasonal nature of operating a golf facility in the Upper Midwest, Willow Glen continues to perform well when compared to its peers in the Navy, many of which are year-round facilities. The window to have enough rounds to cover expenses and recapitalize is tight. Seven, maybe eight months, are available. One or two summer weekends lost to inclement weather can make or break a season. Heightened security on all military bases has also negatively impacted many Navy golf operations, and Willow Glen is no different when it comes to dealing with obstacles to success. With zero taxpayer dollars to support operations, self-sufficiency is not a goal in Navy Golf, but a requirement.

Every aspect of the Willow Glen game plan is based upon making friends and keeping them. As a result, Willow Glen’s (and the Navy’s) reputation grows each year. Youth clinics and high school tournaments are examples of how we reach out to form lasting friendships and maintain customers for life. Promoting ourselves carefully and selectively strengthens our relationship with our neighbors, giving us an opportunity to educate the public about Navy life and the military. A real sense of camaraderie has emerged between the military and civilian members of the community, and the more people we can reach out to, the more optimistic we are about the long range future of golf at Willow Glen.  

Dan Kraft is the Manager of the Willow Glen Golf Club at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.