Sterling Golf Management keeps focus on affordable golf

If nearly a quarter-century of golf management experience has taught Kevin Osgood anything, it’s that the vast majority of golfers in New England play at courses that are located within a 15-minute drive of their homes. 

“Most golfers in our area don’t drive past one golf course to play at another,” said Osgood, the president of Newtown, Mass.-based Sterling Golf Management. “They won’t drive an hour or two to spend $100 so they can be pampered for a day.”

Osgood established Sterling in 1993, with a management contract on Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, and from that moment the company has committed itself to delivering affordably priced golf in metropolitan Boston. You won’t find any overpriced resort courses, PGA Tour-approved venues or highfalutin country-club-for-a-day tracks in its portfolio. Instead, Sterling caters to pay-as-you-go, fun-seeking blue-collar golfers, a vast population that’s sadly become an afterthought in today’s golf economy.

Sterling owns The Shattuck Golf Club and, pending an expected closing in late February 2018, Crystal Lake Golf Club. (The transaction is “as good as done,” Osgood advised.) The company also leases seven Boston-area properties, among them three municipally owned tracks. The group features roughly equal measures of nine- and 18-hole courses, including some par-3 and executive-length layouts.

At all of them, Sterling promises “superior customer service and great golf in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.”

Golf operations in the Boston area have stabilized, Osgood says, but growth in rounds and revenues remains elusive, and margins remain perilously thin for many owners. Osgood has first-hand knowledge: In early 2018, Sterling agreed to buy Crystal Lake at a bank-ordered auction (price: $960,000), and in 2017 it lost a contract on the struggling Winchendon Golf Club, which closed when its owner could no longer stomach protracted losses.

“There’s a lot of price competition,” Osgood noted. “Prices are up in certain areas, but you can drive 10 or 15 miles away and find courses that are still offering low-ball membership deals.”

Over the near term, Osgood expects to continue on the growth path he established years ago. He hopes to add a course to Sterling’s portfolio every year or maybe every other year, so that by 2023 the firm would own, lease or manage 12 or 14 properties. Of course, like many of his competitors, he’d rather own than manage.

“We’re absolutely looking for more purchase opportunities,” he explained, “but it has to be the right facility in the right market. A lot of courses for sale today don’t fit our criteria.”

Regarding criteria, Osgood says that Sterling’s ideal property is located within a two-hour drive of downtown Boston, in a community with “better demographics” and “less competition.” And though his targets don’t need to be in tip-top condition – Osgood, a former superintendent, knows how to improve neglected layouts – it must have good bones, because he believes that a high-quality course is fundamental to drawing a crowd.

“I’m not really concerned if the course conditions aren’t wonderful, as long as the core layout is good,” he explained. “If your layout isn’t good, golfers will play somewhere else.”

As long as it’s not too far from their homes, presumably.

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