Why Sinclair runs a Mill River beside the Barry Burn

Colin Sinclair has the distinction of being the first ever head professional at Carnoustie Golf Links. In 2018 the Championship links will once again host The Open Championship. Glyn Pritchard spoke to him about his preparations for the event and his development of the pro shop.

Sinclair started his career at Blairgowrie Golf Club in 1991 under the tutelage of Gordon Kinnoch. He proved to be excellent mentor says Sinclair. “I learnt retailing from Gordon at Blairgowrie and to focus on the needs of the majority of your clientele. Gordon mapped the shop out so he knew the revenue and profit potential of every area in the shop right down to an individual bay with three panels. We follow that example. A lot of guys buy-in stock and think ‘where shall we put it?’ I know before the rep comes through the door that I want three styles in three colours for a particular area and I know how long it should take to sell-through.”Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 14.32.00

He became fully qualified in 1995 and moved to Walton Heath in 1997 to further his knowledge under Ken Macpherson. “Ken was outstanding at customer service for his members, the very best I have seen. I was fortunate to learn from two great mentors. Between them Ken and Gordon had something like 90 years’ experience as club professionals. I benefited from that and I try to pass on those lessons to my own staff.”

Sinclair enjoyed his two years at Walton Heath. “I made some very good friends at the club and the quality of courses in Surrey is excellent, not just the world famous ones such as Wentworth and Sunningdale, but also gems like the New Zealand, The Addington and Hankley Common. But in 1999 Gordon called me and said Carnoustie Golf Links was going to appoint a pro and that I should go for it, so I returned to Scotland.”

Sinclair hails from the east coast of Scotland. “I was born up in Inverness but grew up in Forfar, which is where I learned to play golf and I played to a decent standard. However, I knew I couldn’t make a living by just playing so I studied law at Dundee University. But I loved golf and wanted to make a career as a club pro because I enjoy retailing and coaching. Training at top clubs helped me become a professional club pro and that brought me to Carnoustie.”

In a similar way to St Andrews, Carnoustie Links is owned by Angus Council and administered by a charitable trust, with season ticket holders required to live within the municipality of Angus. Historically there are six clubs associated with the course, which run competitions and tournaments. “This type of arrangement is unique to the east coast of Scotland. We have around 2,500 members, with about 750 members of the Championship course and my staff and I look after both the Championship and Buddon links. In addition to local resident members, we get over 16,000 visitors a year and between the two courses about 60,000 rounds are played annually. That’s a lot of golfers to look after, but we manage it quite successfully.”

It was to meet the interests of members that Sinclair began a Mill River Plan for them last year. “The visitors, who dominate sales in the pro shop, want high-end quality apparel and crested merchandise. But my members don’t necessarily want to buy luxury brand goods. So they were waiting until our winter sale before making purchases. I was looking for a way of giving them a better year-round deal and the idea of a Mill River Plan was brought to my attention by a guy I played with in a tournament in Florida.”

For those not familiar with the scheme, it takes its name from The Mill River Club in Oyster, Long Island, New York state, which first introduced the plan in 1964. As operated at Carnoustie, members who choose to pay an annual fee are then entitled to purchase stock items (and not special orders) at cost plus VAT. “The annual fee represents a reasonable profit based on an average members’ annual expenditure in the shop. It allows me to look after my members. We make a little bit of profit and they are happy, which is my prime objective. We’re only into the second year of operation, but it is generating a decent profit from the members that have joined, where we made next to nothing previously and they get an unbeatable deal on some luxury brands.”

Carnoustie-clubhouseTo cater for the needs of the huge number of visitors, Sinclair stocks shirts from Adidas, Ashworth Marbas, Peter Millar and Tom Morris. “As an American brand Peter Millar is very popular with the 10,000 visitors we have from the States each year. We get incredible levels of service from Bob Smith and Mark Hilton at Peter Millar and the sell-through is phenomenal at 90 percent on full margin. It performs fantastically well for us.”

Regarding the other brands Sinclair says, “In my opinion Marbas make the best cotton shirts from mercerised Egyptian cotton. Their rep Dave Kinsey provides us with great service. Tom Morris is a niche product with the tighter continental fit that the younger guys like. In terms of revenue Adidas and Ashworth are our number-one generators. They have a ‘shop-in-shop’ area and the sell-through is great at good margins.”

As you might expect at a classic Scottish links, knitwear plays an important part of the Carnoustie pro shop sales. “Knitwear is very important for us because it makes over 45 percent margin. All our knitwear is made in Scotland because I think it’s important to support the local textile industry and also because visitors want something which is authentic and locally made. Our main supplier is Johnstons of Elgin and they will make up bespoke pieces for us to tie in with other lines that you can only buy at Carnoustie. About 80 percent of our knitwear comes from Johnstons of Elgin and it sells incredibly well. The other 20 percent comes from Scott & Charters, a family business based in Hawick. Both companies do a great job for us.”

As well as apparel brands for men, the Carnoustie pro shop stocks six women’s brands including EP Pro, Rheign, and Kate Lord. “Our visitor profile is about 90 percent male, so we don’t carry as much women’s wear. I wish it were different but you have to cater for your visitor profile.”

Of course accessories make great souvenirs and Carnoustie sources its leather accessories from an American firm, Links & Kings. “They make premium quality, high-end accessories supplied with our crest”, Sinclair explains.

In terms of supplier relationships, Sinclair says, “We look on all our suppliers as business partners and we expect them to take an active part in caring for their retail area in the shop. Our regular suppliers hold stock for us and can supply embroidered crested apparel in 24 hours. I brought in supplier contracts five years ago, because if they expect us to sign their contracts, I think it’s only fair that they sign ours. We’re flexible and I wouldn’t always hold them to the letter of the contract, but I don’t want nasty surprises with late deliveries that end up costing us money, so it concentrates minds.”

The Carnoustie pro shop does not sell any equipment. “We have a TaylorMade fitting centre with Flightscope and GASP analysis software. We charge £40 for a fitting and supply the specification but we don’t fulfil the order.”

Sinclair says there is a marked difference in demand for coaching between Scotland and England. “I like coaching and at Walton Heath I would do anything up to five hours of lessons a day. But Scots don’t care for lessons as much. We offer each member a free lesson every year and out of 2,500 members, six took it up last year. Two lessons a day would be the maximum that I do now. On the positive side it allows you to give plenty of personal attention to the student. I don’t believe in methods, I teach the person and not a formula.”

Sinclair is preparing for the return of The Open Championship 2018. “We are already planning for The Open, with 147th Open Championship merchandise on sale now in a small dedicated area of the shop. I have a good team here including great support from my number-two Nikki Christie and we are confident of meeting The Open challenge.” There are two other assistant pros in training and Sinclair is responsible for 11 members of staff including retail staff and concierge/locker attendants.

“We take a PGA intern from Birmingham University each summer, which means our full-time staff get the chance to take holidays in the summer months. I manage to get out and play a couple of times a week in the summer, which I really enjoy. I just love golf and being part of the game is very important to me”, Sinclair confirms.