Two years after purchasing the Big Fish Golf Club in Hayward, the Lac Courte Orielles band from Lake Superior Chippewa have good evidence that their decision to get into the golf business was the right one.
For the past few years, said General Manager Will LaPointe, the golf course has operated on one side or the other of break-even. But in 2020, thanks in part to a global pandemic that gave the sport of golf an unexpected boost across the board, the bottom line improved significantly.
“Yes, it absolutely helped Big Fish,” LaPointe said of the game’s surge over the past year. “For one thing, we’re profitable … so last year was definitely a good one.”
Now is the time to continue making positive progress, and things are looking good so far in 2021 as well. LaPointe became General Manager of Big Fish in May, taking over Indiana “Indy” Thompson, who recently purchased the nine-hole Pine Crest golf course in Barron County. It is LaPointe’s first job as a golf course manager, but he has experience running other businesses, including the tribal-owned Turtle Lake Casino.
One of the things that confused LaPointe was that Big Fish had never built a significant membership base with its Pete Dye design pedigree. While other courses in this part of the state could have up to 250 members, Big Fish could never bring together more than 55 or 60 for what it considered to be “the best in the Northwest”.
“So I did kind of aggressive recruiting.”
It sure was. Instead of memberships set at around $ 1,200 per golfer, LaPointe cut the price to $ 449, which increased membership from 52 to 218 in just a few weeks. LaPointe admits the drastic reduction is an experiment, but said that “something had to happen”. change, not just to stay on course with the food and drink, but just to stay on course.
“Hopefully this will lead to some better revenue streams going forward.”
Some of the new members are out-of-town people who own cabins in the Hayward Lakes area who can now play big fish on weekend visits when they “fish in the morning and play in the afternoon, or vice versa. (And) we get play-and-stays with several resorts in the area as well as the casino. “
The tribal Sevenwinds Casino is directly across County Road B from the golf course and is visible from the mostly open Front Nine.
The course is already seeing an upward trend in both gaming and food and drink sales, LaPointe said. And he notes that Big Fish was named Big Fish 2020 by the Hayward Chamber of Commerce, “what a nice feather in the cap”.
The Lac Courte Oreilles tribe’s decision to buy Big Fish – it netted the spot for just $ 1.1 million in 2019 after previously being turned down the option to buy it at a much higher price – was in line with a trend towards Indian communities that combine golf courses and casinos to do business with both. A year prior to the purchase, a Minneapolis consultant working with tribal governments reported that 70 tribes in 20 states own or operate more than 100 golf courses, including six in Minnesota, five in Michigan, and three in Wisconsin with the LCO’s involvement.
“It’s kind of a premium destination when you can play golf and gaming together,” said LaPointe.
Still, Big Fish stands out from most other tribal golf courses, according to LaPointe, as its designer was one of the biggest names in golf course architecture. When Big Fish was built 17 years ago, the work parties drove back and forth between Hayward and Kiawah Island, where Dyes Ocean Course was also built. The Ocean Course is now a world famous golf destination and where Phil Mickelson recently won the 2021 PGA championship.
“We’re part of a bigger cause here because we’re a Pete Dye design,” he reminds the Big Fish staff. “There is a certain expectation when you take a Pete Dye course.”
Big Fish has been described as having two courses in one. The Front Nine is left-like, largely flat, open and treeless, while the Back Nine has steep differences in altitude and winds through a forest landscape. In addition to the golf course, the purchase price included additional land that could be used for other purposes such as living, lodging or other development.
LaPointe said reducing membership fees wasn’t the only effort to expand the game at Big Fish. The golf course recently ran its first youth clinic of the season and attracted 54 would-be young golfers from the Hayward area for an introduction to the basics of the game. LaPointe said parents were delighted with the clinic and some volunteered to help, but it turned out that 32 of the children did not have their own golf clubs. So, he said, the course had reached the tribal government and arranged the purchase of 32 thugs to fix the problem.
“We went three ways with (the cost), the trunk, the Sevenwinds Casino and Big Fish,” he said. “Getting these kids’ clubs could go a long way in turning them into lifelong golfers. It was a good day. The kids loved it. “