Late last October, the North Sound Club golf course entered into a new management agreement with Great White Shark Enterprises, owned by famed golfer Greg Norman. Since then the course, its operations and its facilities have seen steady improvements and the progress will continue.
The roller coaster ride of the North Sound Club through a bleak financial landscape is over. The track ahead is clear and the vista has improved and will continue to improve. The greens are already greener and golfers can count on there being better golf in the years to come.
The golf course still has some challenges, particularly when it comes to irrigation water, but there’s now a plan in place to bring the North Sound Club to new heights.
When famed golfer Greg Norman came to the Cayman Islands for the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit in November 2012, he announced that his company, Great White Shark Enterprises, had just signed a management consultancy agreement with the North Sound Club. Norman, who has opened more than 75 golf courses around the world – including the nine-hole Blue Tip at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman – said more and more his company was helping to redo old courses rather than design new ones.
“There was a time when we had 83 to 85 [new] golf courses under contract,” he said. “Now, in the United States, it’s entirely different. Golf is languishing. More are closing than opening.”
As a result, Norman said the company had to change its business model and now a lot of its projects involve improving old golf courses.
Norman’s company was brought in on a consultancy basis to look at both the internal processes of the North Sound Club operations and well as the exterior facilities, including the clubhouse areas and the course itself.
Although no major redesign of the golf course is planned – the same shot corridors will be used – there will be some redesign of some elements like bunker locations, all with the intention of creating a better golfing experience.
Uncertainty about Cayman’s only 18-hole golf course started back in late 2007 when companies controlled by developer Mike Ryan purchased a large tract of undeveloped land called SafeHaven, which included the SafeHaven Golf Course.
In June of 2009, Ryan announced plans to create a 360-acre, multi-use development called Dragon Bay, which incorporated The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and adjoining properties. Part of that plan involved reshaping the SafeHaven Golf Course, which by that time had been renamed the North Sound Club, by adding nine more holes to The Ritz-Carlton’s nine-hole Blue Tip Golf Course to create a private 18-hole championship course. The North Sound Club course would have ceased to exist under that plan.
A date of 16 November, 2010, was set for the North Sound Club to close to allow for the conversion of the Blue Tip course into 18 holes. However, a little more than a month before it was scheduled to close, Ryan announced that it would remain open, but only for a period of time that could be less than a year.
The global financial crisis severely limited the marketing of the Dragon Bay project, which never really got started beyond what was already in existence at The Ritz-Carlton and some of the adjoining lands behind it. By November 2011, the North Sound Club was facing even more trouble. It sent a letter to its members saying it would not be able to renew memberships past 16 November of that year. Ryan said afterwards that the course was losing between $60,000 and $100,000 every month, largely because of the costs to water the grass on the course.
The following April, Ryan suddenly announced that the North Sound Club would renew its annual memberships and that the golf course would remain open indefinitely. Two months later, Ryan announced that the Dart Group has made an investment in the North Sound Club and that golf course would get a major cash injection to improve the facilities. That cash injection has led to the changes now happening.
Part of the improvements to the North Sound Club involved changing its internal systems, everything from administration to marketing. Another part involved upgrading the facilities, including the rest room/shower/locker room areas, the pro shop and food concession patio. Still one more part of the upgrade involves the course itself and the equipment needed to maintain it.
To oversee this process, the North Sound Club brought in John Kennedy, who is connected with Great White Shark Enterprises.
Kennedy, who runs Kennedy Golf with his wife Holly in San Diego, California, took on the role of interim manager in late November during the initial stage of the upgrade process.
“I was supposed to stay 90 days, but I may stay another 60 days to see some things through,” he said.
Upgraded facilities and equipment
Some of the improvements to the North Sound Club have already happened. The bathroom/shower room areas have been upgraded and new locker room areas added; there is new furniture on the patio lounge.
Forty new solar-powered golf carts and new course maintenance equipment is scheduled to arrive by early March, Kennedy said, adding that the new fleet of grass mowers/soil aerators will make a huge difference to the condition and appearance of tee boxes, fairways and greens.
Kennedy will create a maintenance programme for the North Sound Club and start a process that will lead to the usage of all paspalum grass on the course, which now has a mix of Bermuda grass.
“Paspalum is really a hardy grass,” he said. “It has a nice green colour and its salt-resistant feature is key.”
Another maintenance feature that Kennedy will see established is a sod farm by the water tank, which is also scheduled for a good painting to improve its appearance. The 10,000 square foot sod farm will enable the maintenance crew to continually replace damaged or dead areas of grass with fresh sod.
With the Dart Group now being invested in the North Sound Club, Kennedy has been working closely with people from the Dart Nursery to add landscaping, including a series of hedges that will give the course more privacy from the road.
The water dilemma
One of the things that has been a hindrance to the financial viability of all golf courses in the Cayman Islands and something that Ryan has lobbied government for – to no avail – for several years, is the ability of the North Sound Club to create its own irrigation water.
One of the things that shocked Kennedy about the North Sound Club when he looked at the financials, was the cost of water.
“We spend over a half-million dollars a year for water,” he said, adding that the figure was conservative.
Kennedy said the cost of water here in Cayman was so high that it altered the whole business model. At one San Diego course where he’s worked, the course makes and uses 1 million gallons a day.
“And we basically didn’t have a water bill.”
The cost of water not only affects the cost of golf at the North Sound Club, it affects the way the course looks because the watering regime has to be strictly controlled.
“We’re not even irrigating the rough at this point,” Kennedy said.
Ryan is still frustrated that his requests to government to be allowed to create irrigation water for the North Sound Club have been opposed, even though he has made a commitment to keep the course open to the public.
“It’s not in the public’s interest to oppose,” he said. “This isn’t potable water. We’re not selling it to anyone. This is irrigation water.”
Planning permission to install a reverse-osmosis water plant have already been approved, Ryan said.
“Now we have to fight to provide it,” he said.
Ryan said he believes the skeleton of the North Sound Club course was already good to begin with.
“Now we’re upgrading it to where it will be a world class golf experience.”
Although some of the improvements have been made, Ryan said golfers will continue to see more.
“It’s a process,” he said. “Anyone who hasn’t seen it in a year will be stunned at the difference. It will continue to improve step by step.”
Kennedy, who has worked and played on many great courses, said he really likes the North Sound Club.
“I see great potential,” he said. “What [course designer] Roy Case did in 1994 using the natural elements of the island… he really did a nice job in creating a player’s golf course. It’s fun and it’s challenging with that wind.”
Kennedy said he also really likes the many water features of the course. He also believes that the course just needs a little care.
“It doesn’t need to be redone; it just needs reconditioning.”
The improvements on the course have already led to increased golfing at the North Sound Club.
“We had 2,400 rounds in January, which was 200 more rounds than any month in 2012,” he said. “That’s a good sign.”
January also saw 700 member rounds, which reflects the good growth the North Sound Club has seen in memberships, which Kennedy said was around 180. He said there is still room for more members.
“I think we can easily take it to 250 members and see how that feels and if we can bring that up, we will.”