Glen Abbey closing would sad but understandable

abbeyI felt sad when I saw the news yesterday that ClubLink is looking to develop Glen Abbey Golf Club, but I could also accept it as a business decision.

Turning Canada’s most well-known course into housing has been speculated upon for years, especially with the rise of Oakville, Ontario into one of Canada’s wealthiest cities. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Abbey has pushed through about 35,000 rounds this year, but that revenue is peanuts compared to what ClubLink can make developing thousands of homes on the property.

I can reconcile that, as a public company, ClubLink must make decisions based on financial factors first and foremost. In fact, it’s when developers of golf courses have operated mainly from their hearts without sound business stratagies that they’ve got in trouble.

That’s how ClubLink got started. In the late 80s, construction began on about 20 high end golf courses around the Greater Toronto Area. The economy was rocking; this was Bonfire of the Vanities era when stock brokers and high achievers had two and three memberships in private clubs.

But by the time the courses opened in the early 90s, the economy stalled and there were a glut of courses aimed at the thin upper layer of high-income earners. As a golf journalist, I wrote about the phenomenon, particularly about high-end courses that were now being developed like condos and provided you with equity.

Bruce Simmonds, an entrepreneur with a strong accounting background, saw opportunity. Through operating Cherry Downs Golf Club with his family, he became convinced that the golf business was antiquated and rife with inefficiencies, especially due to golf’s high operating costs. He raised $60 million and put together a public company that bought three struggling courses and provided a novel membership strucuture that provided members with reciprocal access to four private courses. Hence, ClubLink.

I came on board as ClubLink’s Director of Communications in late 1998, and got to know Bruce as my boss and occasional playing partner. I was struck by Bruce’s comment to me that while he liked playing golf, he wasn’t passionate about it. “I don’t lie awake at nights thinking about my swing,” he said.

He is proof positive you can play great golf without being emotionally invested. Bruce was an aggressively dynamite putter and routinely shot in the high 70s with a muscular swing.

In 1999, Bruce made his boldest move when ClubLink purchased Glen Abbey from Golf Canada (at the time, known as the Royal Canadian Golf Association) for a reported $40 million. The RCGA wisely determined that it wasn’t in the business of operating golf courses and it could use the funds to bolster its programs and tournaments.

One of the first things that ClubLink did was raise the cart and green fee from $175 to $250. There was brief hue and cry but Bruce said the Abbey was far under-priced and he rationalized that American golfers—a key target—equated price with quality.

And he was right. ClubLink made $4.3 million on Glen Abbey, at the time ClubLink’s highest first-year return on an acquisition. However, an ambitious plan to develop a hotel on the property fizzled.

Bruce retired in 2004 and Rai Sahi has run ClubLink as CEO for about the last eight years. Sahi has made most of his money in real estate, and under his watch the company has grown to 54 courses, including 11 in Florida.

If Glen Abbey closes its doors—real estate is never a sure thing—it will be sad. Like many people, I have a lot of great memories that include RBC Canadian Opens. I witnessed Tiger Woods hit his incredible 216-yard 6-iron from a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole that propelled him to victory in the 2000 Open and Mike Weir’s heart-breaking playoff loss in 2004. I have hosted many friends and media types for games, and now I coach players at the ClubLink Academy at Glen Abbey.

But the Abbey and ClubLink have flourished because of dispassionate business decisions. Not everything in the world should be dictated by the almighty dollars, but the Abbey isn’t a cultural heritage site. Besides, while I love the course, it gets mixed reviews.

With whatever time it has left, I will attempt to savour every moment that I get to spend there.













About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!