Where the pro knows your name

Ian Gelsthorpe from Ruddington Grange has been at the club for 14 years, with the last five being spent as the head pro. He talks to Andy Brown about his love of coaching, how pay and play has affected the club and why he prides himself on knowing all of his members’ names.

Ruddington Grange Golf course in Nottinghamshire is a proprietary golf club with around 630 members that was established in 1998 – Ian Gelsthorpe has been with the club for the majority of those years. After completing a degree in Sport and Leisure in 2002 he joined the club as an assistant pro and when, five years ago, head pro Rob Simpson was given the opportunity of a new job at a different club, the owner offered Gelsthorpe the role. He admits that the transition from assistant to head pro was a bigger step up than perhaps he realised and that he has found the role difficult at times, but under his stewardship it does sound like real progress has been made, starting with the course itself.

“We’ve improved the golf course dramatically over the last two years and it’s mostly down to greens maintenance,” he comments. “For ten years we didn’t really do anything on the greens and then we got a new head greenkeeper and every six months we rip up the greens and work on them. You can tell now, two years into the process, that there is a massive improvement by how much firmer they are. Before we started they were soggy like a sponge.”

It’s not much good to the club though if the course is playing better than ever but not enough people are playing, so Gelsthorpe says they have embraced pay and play. Last year Ruddington Grange turned over £90,000 from green fees – pretty good when you consider that five years ago they were typically only making £300 on a Sunday, which should have been one of their busiest days of the week. These disappointing figures led the club to, as Gelsthorpe says, “attack Sunday.” Green fees were reduced but suddenly it went the other way and there were often no tee times available – now the right balance has been struck. “We upped our green fees this year because last year we were often fully booked on Sunday in the summer,” says the head pro. “On a Sunday now it is £27.50 up to 12.00 and then from 12-6 it is £20 and after that £10. Last year we were doing some silly deals. During the week we do Twilight offers now from 3.00 from £15 and a Monday special at £15.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 17.09.25The club ensure that members are kept happy by not allowing non-members out on a weekend before 8.30 in the morning and by allowing members to book two weeks in advance – compared to one for non-members – to ensure they can reserve their desired tee times. While pay and play has been good for the club it is clear that Gelsthorpe is very focused on the club’s members and the need to make membership attractive to a wider demographic than perhaps was the case in the past. “It is all about attracting the youngsters and ladies. That’s a big thing for us, as it is for most clubs,” he confirms. With this in mind this year is the first the club have offered a 26-29 year old category – prior to that they went up to 25 years and then customers had to pay the full rate. The head pro has also recognised that not everyone has the time to play 18 holes, so has introduced a monthly nine hole medal that is only a pound to enter and is very popular in the summer after work.

Another way that the club has evolved is through that perennial controversial talking point: dress code. “Two years ago the owner, who is 81 years old, relaxed the dress code. This was important to move with the times and say to people that you are allowed to be in the club house in smart casual now,” says Gelsthorpe. “People can finish work, play nine holes and then come for a drink without worrying too much about the dress code. It is busier in here now that has happened and the money taken from the bar has improved a lot. You have to keep your standards on the golf course but relax them in the clubhouse.”

The head pro engages with the Get into Golf scheme through the Notts Golf Partnership and for two years has been putting on ladies coaching on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Gelsthorpe says that the coaching is helping to break down barriers for people that wouldn’t in the past have considered becoming a member of a golf club and that the lessons build up to a point when the ladies play on a course by themselves. The head pro also works with Get into Golf in providing beginner lessons for students at Nottingham Trent University and, with the University team now playing their matches at the club, it has been a good relationship for all involved.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 17.09.39Glesthorpe’s enthusiasm for teaching shines through; this aspect of the job is clearly a passion for him. He estimates that he coaches four or five hours a day and doesn’t need to advertise his services – it’s down to word of mouth and members walking into the pro shop and asking him for a lesson. Perhaps this works for him because of the relationship he has with his members and the effort he makes to get to know them. “You see pros out there who know the names of some of their favourite members that they play with but no one else,” he says. “I pride myself on knowing every member’s name and we have around 630. I think it is nice if someone comes in and you can use their name, it makes a difference, and I say this to my assistants as well, who are good lads, so they know how crucial it is.”

The pro shop at Ruddington Grange is stocked with more equipment than many others and Gelsthorpe say that, as long as they ensure that the price point remains high, this is an area which draws people into the shop. He understands that people do look online for other prices but says that, as a Foremost member, they have a little bit of leeway with price, and that what his members want is support, service and the expertise of a pro; for this most are happy to pay an extra £20 than they would online.

“We have stocked Titleist for the last five years and that has been flying recently and what is important for us is that they keep their price point quite high. The irons sets have really helped us,” he says. “We also do Callaway; I’m a staff player there and I trust their products and they sell well for us and their reps are a big help. PING also sells well in this area; in terms of location we are an hour from Gainsborough where their fitting centre is and we send quite a few people down there.” One area that the club has been missing out on is custom fit, as the FlightScope that they have is a very old model, but Gelsthorpe was taking delivery of a new SkyTrak not long after I met him, something he hoped would lead to increased revenue opportunities. “I think it could be a massive thing for the club if we promote it in the right way, such as doing our longest drives on it, use it for teaching, custom fitting and having a bit of fun with it,” he comments. “Sometimes people don’t like the net as they can’t see the ball flight, so this is a great use of technology where you can show them.”

In terms of apparel Galvin Green does so well at the club that the head pro comments, with his tongue only ever so slightly in his cheek, that they may as well have a, “whole wall full of Galvin.” He comments that he has learned that the key to getting good retail sales is to fight the assumption of members that every year there will be a sale. “The problem with some members is that they wait for the sale to begin, so it is about getting them out of the feeling that you will have a sale every year,” he confirms. “Some years you have to dig your heels in and not have a sale and go with the full retail price.”

With the interview in the club’s impressive club house over, we stroll back to the pro shop. On the short walk there Gelsthorpe says hello to all the members we pass, stopping and chatting to a few for a bit of friendly banter. Sometimes people really do just want to go where somebody knows your name.