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McFeely blog: Kerfuffle over management at Detroit Country Club

The DCC board of directors in December presented a proposal to the city that would have Troon, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based golf course management company, take over management of Detroit Country Club.

Ben Strauman tees off on the first hole at the Pine to Palm as the No. 64 seed on the way to an upset of defending champion Chris Swenson Thursday, Aug. 9 at the Pine to Palm golf tournament in Detroit Lakes. Robert Williams / Forum News Service
Ben Strauman tees off on the first hole at a recent Pine to Palm at Detroit Country Club in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Robert Williams / Forum News Service
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Detroit Country Club near Detroit Lakes, Minn., is one of the gems in lakes country. It is home to the popular Pine to Palm tournament each August and a summer playground for the Fargo-Moorhead lake crowd, in addition to being the top golf course locals play.

Despite being deemed a country club, the 36-hole facility is open to the public and owned by the city of Detroit Lakes, even though it is a 501(c)(3). It is a municipal golf course, just like Edgewood and Rose Creek golf courses in Fargo or Village Green and The Meadows golf course in Moorhead. The club has nine board members, three appointed by the city, and there is an operating agreement between the city and board.

There is a kerfuffle going on over the management of Detroit Country Club, about which a handful of Fargo-Moorhead golfers who play at DCC told me. It's been reported on by the Forum Communications Co.-owned DL-Online newspaper.

The rub is this: The DCC board of directors in December presented a proposal to the city that would have Troon, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based golf course management company, take over management of Detroit Country Club.

Detroit Lakes mayor Matt Brenk said the board made an informational presentation at a workshop session. To date, no action has been taken by the council.

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Troon is a huge operation that deals mostly in resort or destination golf. It manages more than 650 golf courses in the U.S. and internationally. While Troon's bread and butter is higher-end resorts or daily-fee courses in warm-weather locales (like Arizona!), it does manage some small-scale country clubs and public courses, too.

Fargo Country Club has been under Troon management for several years. Two Duluth, Minn., municipal courses are managed by Troon.

Troon-managed operations are known for being extremely corporate.

The possibility of Detroit Country Club coming under the auspices of Troon has resulted in some pushback locally. A letter to the editor in the Detroit Lakes newspaper by David Crothers (a longtime DL lakehome owner from Bismarck and DCC member who happens to be a friend of mine) summarized the feelings I've heard from a handful of golfers who've contacted me.

"... the city council’s greatest concern should be how hiring out-of-state management to run the city’s golf course changes the relationship with the community," Crothers wrote. "Right now, Detroit Country Club is known statewide for many things, including the quality of its golf courses, its superior junior programs and making its facilities available to the community.

"It is a destination that brings visitors from across the United States. The course is one of the jewels of Minnesota golf. The City of Detroit Lakes is largely responsible for that success. For decades, D.L. city councils have given the Detroit Country Club board a tremendous amount of latitude and freedom, but at the same time demanded that course management commit to providing community members, especially young people, with affordable access to a sport where costs are spiraling."

As is always the case — especially in the often-cloistered world of golf — the accusations are flying about why a successful local public golf course in a small Minnesota city would turn over its operations to a corporate giant based in Arizona.

The board's reasoning, as outlined by president and Detroit Lakes lawyer Sam Rufer, is this as reported by the local newspaper:

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"We got to a point, kind of in the middle of the season last year, where we really decided that the current way of doing things wasn't working anymore," said Rufer, during the presentation. "The operation had gotten so big out there, the golf course industry landscape had kind of shifted to the point that the way we are doing things with the board basically being the day-to-day, on-the-ground management of the Detroit Country Club just doesn't work anymore. I'm an attorney, I don't know how to run a restaurant and I don't know how to run a golf course, so we started looking at options for how we fix that, what can we do about it?"

I have no reason to doubt Rufer's and the board's sincerity. I have no dog in this fight. Haven't played DCC in many years, despite being an avid golfer. But, being an avid golfer, I am reasonably well-connected to local golfers and those in the golf industry. I can say this with confidence: The golf community isn't buying what the board is selling.

Among the reasons that have been floated to me why the board wants to turn operations over to Troon (and these are admittedly based on nothing but the personal beliefs of those who floated them to me, but since this is a blog I can have some latitude in sharing them):

— The same people who pushed Fargo Country Club to Troon are trying to do the same thing at Detroit Country Club.

— Troon members are allowed access to other Troon facilities, so those doing the pushing in Detroit Lakes are doing it so they can have access to courses in Arizona and other locations.

— The board is trying to push out longtime PGA club pro and current general manager Mark Holm, who has been at DCC for decades.

— The real issue is the restaurant/bar, which like many golf course restaurant/bars ranges from problematic to disastrous, which the board spent $400,000 to renovate recently and yet can't seem to get the management right.

— Some members want to turn DCC into more of a private country club than the public facility it currently is.

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— The board is just farming out its duties to a management company.

Again, this is just talk I'm hearing but it's clear the board has heard it, too. Rufer posted a lengthy response to criticism on its Facebook page that says in part:

"Simply put, the operation at DCC had gotten too big the last couple of years to continue under the current operation structure. The amount of work and time that the DCC board was putting in to keep the course running was (and is) unsustainable. The DCC board began looking at a lot of options to restructure the course in order to give each and every one of you the best possible golf experience. The Board members collectively spent hundreds of hours talking to golfers, friends, colleagues, general managers, other golf courses, other golf course management companies, etc. To say we did our due diligence is an understatement. We've looked at this from a financial perspective, a cultural perspective, a golf experience perspective, etc. No stone has been left unturned.

"At the end of the day, the DCC board came to the determination that Troon Golf will be the best option for our course, and the best option to ensure that the Detroit Country Club is a shining jewel for many years to come.

"Now, I know a lot of you have heard a lot of rumors going around about Troon Golf. That they will come and gut the course. That they will double the prices. That they will ruin the culture and make it a corporate course. And many more. Trust me, the Board has heard all of these before and had many of the same concerns ourselves. This was part of our hundreds of hours of due diligence, and part of our extensive negotiations with Troon. I can assure you that none of this is true. Whatever rumors you may have heard about what Troon did to some course in some other part of the country is simply unfounded."

The city council will have to make a decision soon because — hard to believe looking out the window right now — golf season is fast approaching and the DCC board wants Troon in place by this spring.

From 50 miles away from the perspective of a middle-class golfer guy, it's an interesting kerfuffle.

Detroit Country Club is, at its core, is a small-town municipal golf course. Yet some of the wealthiest Fargo and North Dakota families own lake "cabins" nearby and are members of DCC. But being a member is not cost-prohibitive in the world of golf: A full-season family pass is about $1,700. You don't need to be a member to play DCC; it's a public course. Anybody can pay the green fee of about $50 and play 18 holes.

It's always looked like two worlds colliding.

My two cents, strictly as a golfer who is paid to give his two cents: Farming out the management of Detroit Country Club to Troon would be a mistake. Troon is throroughly corporate and DCC just isn't a corporate place. It is a comfortable public golf facility in a small lakes area city that needs a local general manager, not a national/international management company running it like a factory.

And if the problem truly is the restaurant/bar, do board members think there is a magic bullet that's suddenly going to make a bunch of money? Seems unlikely.

Golf has boomed the last couple of years because of the pandemic. I'm told the finances of Detroit Country Club are very strong. Hire a local GM who answers to the board, separate from the PGA professional, to run the place. Isn't that what boards are supposed to do?

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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