Joe O’Connor and Jennifer Webster grew up 1,200 miles apart in far different parts of the country, but shared a common passion—golf. Little did they know their love for the game would eventually bring them together professionally, then in marriage and ultimately in a family business on Cape Cod.
This past winter, the O’Connors—both veteran golf professionals—purchased Holly Ridge Golf Club, a 78-acre, par 54 course in South Sandwich, fulfilling what had long been a dream for each of them.
Jennifer and Joe both took up golf at an early age. For Joe, who grew up in southern Minnesota, golf was “an escape from the activities of a home with seven siblings.” Jennifer’s parents played, so by the time the Peabody native was in grade school she, too, was on her way. Both grew up playing on public courses, and both found they were more than just pretty good at the game.
Jennifer was a standout basketball player in high school. In fact, she was recruited to play at Drexel University in Philadelphia—but she excelled on the junior golf tour. She won the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) girls state championship in 1992 as a high school junior. By that time, Joe, who is a few years older, was already a PGA golf professional.
Jennifer transferred to Temple University, graduated, and continued on there to earn an MBA, feeling sure she would be headed for a career on Wall Street. But that was before she turned pro. And before she met Joe.
The two met in 2008 at the PGA of America’s Education Center in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where both served as adjunct faculty. At the time, Joe was the head golf pro at Northland Country Club, a private facility in Duluth, Minn. Jennifer had worked as a golf professional at a couple of private clubs in Connecticut and then as first assistant golf pro at The Country Club in Brookline. She later became head pro at Prouts Neck Country Club in Scarborough, Maine.
Three years later, when Joe was promoted to general manager of Northland CC, he hired Jennifer to replace him as head teaching professional. The couple married in 2013.
The Family Business
“There’s a difference between being a golf professional and being a professional golfer,” Jennifer explained. “As PGA pros, Joe and I have passed playing tests and demonstrated a certain level of proficiency in both playing the game and operating a golf business. The difference is you won’t see us playing Sunday afternoons on NBC.”
Both enjoyed their roles as golf pros, but wanted more.
“As professional golfers, Jennifer and I are like many of our associates in this business,” said Joe. “Our ultimate goal was to own our own golf course, to be our own bosses, to run our own operation.”
Opportunity knocked for the O’Connors a couple of years ago. Jennifer had learned the game from her stepdad Chris Costa, who was and still is the teaching pro at Middleton Golf Course. Middleton’s owners also owned Holly Ridge, and when they decided to sell their facility on the Upper Cape, they reached out to Jennifer and Joe.
“It was something we were really, really interested in—immediately,” said Jennifer. It gave her the opportunity to move back to the East Coast and her New England roots. And for both, it would mean an opportunity to escape the brutal winters of northern Minnesota.
With the help of Rockland Trust’s Brian Griffin, who arranged a Small Business Administration loan (SBA), the O’Connors moved forward with Holly Ridge. The sale closed on February 2, 2016, and the course opened under new management a week later.
Building on a strong foundation
Golf’s overall popularity has waned some over the past decade. The O’Connors point to three reasons why: affordability, time and difficulty.
“When we looked at Holly Ridge, we saw the opportunity to hurdle all three,” said Jennifer. “We’re a first-rate facility with low-cost greens fees. Compared with a standard 18-hole, par-72 course, our par-3 format means the course is less intimidating, and it takes less time to play a round.”
Geoffrey Cornish, a well-known New England course architect, designed Holly Ridge Golf Course, built in the mid-1960s. The holes vary in length from 100 yards to 210 yards. There are 44 bunkers on the course and every hole is tree-lined. But, there are no forced-carries, no water hazards, and the greens are generous in size. Weather depending, it is open year-round.
“It offers a nice balance that should challenge accomplished players, but at the same time be accessible to newer or less-experienced golfers,” said Joe.
When the couple took over, they knew they were starting from a strong base.
“Holly Ridge had an amazing foundation,” said Jennifer. “It had a great and loyal customer base that we were fortunate to inherit. Our goal has been to enhance that foundation—be it on the instructional side or the menu side at our restaurant. We’ve added some things, but we didn’t have to re-invent the wheel by any means.”
The golf course has four profit engines:
In terms of cash flow, “rounds drive everything,” according to Jennifer. “Rounds drive business to the range. They drive business to the restaurant. And our instructional program is a feeder into that as well. The more we can help golfers improve, the more rounds they’re likely to play.”
Marketing their new enterprise has been a big focal point for the O’Connors. They’ve spent a lot of time interacting with the local community, telling the Holly Ridge story. They’ve advertised on social media and in newspapers, and even purchased TV spots on ESPN and the Golf Channel, all “trying to support the tag line of a family-friendly atmosphere,” said Joe.
The O’Connors have added two new group leagues to the offering – a couple’s league and a men’s after-work league. On the instructional side, they’ve made substantial changes for both adults and juniors, including the introduction of Operation 36, a national program aimed at helping youngsters progress toward playing par golf.
“Our instructional programs have grown exponentially from previous years,” said Jennifer.
“We offer instruction for students between three and ninety-three,” Joe added.
Joe and Jennifer both teach, and they’ve also hired a third teaching pro, Darren Falk, whom Jennifer worked with when she was the head pro in Maine.
Holly Ridge’s restaurant provides casual fare and a full bar. The O’Connors hired an executive chef, Phil Hahn, who created a new menu and restructured some of the service practices. In addition to serving golfers, it is becoming a destination dining spot for neighboring residents of the Upper Cape.
In June, the restaurant’s “BLTCB” sandwich—a BLT with cucumber and Brie on a ciabatta roll—won the local Chamber of Commerce’s “Best Sandwich in Sandwich” competition.
The O’Connors plan to have the restaurant open on a daily basis through golf season and on a limited basis—perhaps three to four days a week—during the off-season.
Challenges of a owning a golf course
“We are a small business like any other, but we also happen to own a golf course,” said Jennifer. “ For us, the biggest challenge is one that is 100-percent out of our control: the weather. We monitor it constantly because it affects all of our profit centers.”
Labor is the business’s biggest expense. “We’re very fortunate to have a great staff at the moment,” said Joe. “The majority of them are seasoned veterans.” But this is the Cape and the labor market is very tight, he admits, and the competition for qualified employees is tough.
Competing for player rounds also is tough. “There are a lot of great golf courses here on the Cape,” said Jennifer, “so we need to be sure that our standards are kept up.”
Although the course will remain open as long as conditions permit, as much as 85 percent of the company’s revenues will be booked within the six to seven prime months of the golf and vacation seasons on the Cape.
During the slower months of the year, the O’Connors expect to continue teaching at the PGA education center in Florida. But they will also spend much of their time planning for the 2017 season. “We know things will slow down in the off-season, so anything we generate during the winter we’ll consider as gravy,” said Jennifer.
On the expense side, the couple has renegotiated leases on some of the seasonal equipment they use. They also plan to do a lot of the labor themselves to accommodate their limited winter cash flow.
So far, with several more weeks of prime time golf still ahead, the O’Connors are pleased with their progress. “A lot of our expectations have been met, and we’ve exceeded some as well, especially on the restaurant and instructional sides of the business,” said Jennifer.
There are a number of capital improvements on the O’Connor’s growing list of projects. But they’re also aware of the mistake that many in their business make by undertaking capital projects that don’t contribute directly to the bottom line. “First and foremost, we want to become financially stable,” said Jennifer. “So anything we do now will be pointed at making our operations more efficient.”