GolfNorth, Canada's second largest operator, moving higher end

Slowly but surely, the No. 2 owner/operator in Canada’s golf industry is going upscale.

GolfNorth Properties, a going concern since 1994, was established to provide affordable, daily-fee golf in southernmost Ontario, the nation’s most populous area. Today it owns 20 properties and leases 10, more than any other Canadian company save ClubLink, which has 41 private clubs in its portfolio.

“We have the largest collection of golf courses that the public can play,” notes Shawn Evans, GolfNorth’s president.

For more than two decades, GolfNorth’s properties clearly played second fiddle to ClubLink’s. Canadian Golfer once described them as “mid-tier courses” that had “a reputation as being low-end, with questionable conditions.” A newspaper in Waterloo called the company a “blue-collar version” of ClubLink.

Evans said that such characterizations are no longer accurate. In 2011, GolfNorth set out to improve the experience at its existing properties, acquire new facilities capable of attracting higher-income golfers and broaden its footprint beyond its base in suburban Toronto. In recent years, it’s added a number of pricier courses to its collection, among them Batteaux Creek Golf Club, outside Collingwood; Rebel Creek Golf Club, outside Kitchener; and Settlers’ Ghost Golf Club in Barrie. This year, it leased Loch March Golf & Country Club, a venue in Kanata, Ontario that gives it a foothold in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, and other areas of southwestern Quebec.

“We’re changing the table,” Evans said. “We’re competing for more higher-end players every year.”

GolfNorth has no traditional, third-party management contracts. Its portfolio runs the gamut — it features nine-, 18- and 27-hole facilities, with greens fees that range from roughly $20 to more than $100 — and its courses collectively ring up 600,000 or more rounds annually. In Ontario, it offers multi-tiered membership programs – “the best value in golf,” says Evans – that currently count 6,000 members.

The company made an important statement about its future in 2015, when it assumed a 42-year lease on one of the nation’s premier golf courses, Cape Breton Highlands Links in Nova Scotia, and the associated Keltic Lodge. The properties, owned by Canada’s national parks system, have lost their luster of late, but Evans considers them to be national treasures, and he believes that Highlands Links’ restored Stanley Thompson-designed course will attract golf travelers who are beating a path to the world-class layouts at Cabot Links, a two-hour drive away.

GolfNorth’s reorientation is being directed by Jim Balsillie, a former co-CEO of Research In Motion, the Canadian technology company that designed and manufactured BlackBerry smartphones. Balsillie slipped into the driver’s seat in 2002, when he rescued and recapitalized GolfNorth after its short, disastrous experience as a publicly traded company. Golf isn’t Balsillie’s true passion, however. He’s said to be a frequent pick-up hockey player, and he’s tried three times to buy a National Hockey League team that could be relocated to Hamilton, Ontario: The Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, the Nashville Predators in 2007 and the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009.

With the financial security that Balsillie provides — Canadian Business estimates he’s worth nearly $800 million — GolfNorth believes it’s well-positioned to capitalize on opportunities that will inevitably materialize in a golf market that becomes more competitive every day.

“We’ll see more growth, for the most part among properties in the higher end of daily-fee play,” Evans said. “Those courses offer the best opportunities for decent returns.”

GolfNorth operates out of an office at Conestoga Golf Club, outside Kitchener. While it’s sure to remain No. 2 among Canada’s owner/operators over the near term, it’s clearly improving its market position. It’s adding to its holdings, while ClubLink hasn’t acquired any new properties since 2014.

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