PLANKINTON — Fish Lake Country Club had the option of becoming affiliated with GreatLife in the past.
In 2015, the nine-hole course, which is more than 100 years old and sits nearly halfway between Plankinton and Mount Vernon off Highway 16, flirted with joining the burgeoning Sioux Falls-based golf and fitness business. Ultimately, the rural course declined.
“Our board did not want it since our course looks great, and we haven’t struggled in any way to maintain our membership,” said Jackie Sabers, Fish Lake Country Club clubhouse manager.
The course currently has around 175 members, according to its website. That’s not the case for all of South Dakota’s rural golf courses, some are struggling to maintain memberships and keep up with the expenses of running a course.
There’s little doubt GreatLife has made big moves in South Dakota since forming five years ago. It has six GreatLife-managed courses — five in South Dakota — and 12 affiliate courses, with 10 in South Dakota. It offers members unlimited golf and fitness center access for a membership, which currently starts at $70 a month for golf and fitness.
In a paid advertorial story with Sioux Falls Business, GreatLife CEO Tom Walsh said that their partnerships could help boost a course’s business. Walsh said the business now has more than 40,000 members on 19,000 memberships from Mitchell to Worthington, Minnesota. Officials from GreatLife declined an interview request from The Daily Republic for this story.
Meanwhile, Fish Lake marches on, boasting both its beauty and some specials aimed at the unlimited golf market.
“Every weekday, we offer unlimited golf until 5 p.m. with a cart for $25,” Sabers said.
When asked if the course would ever reconsider GreatLife affiliation, Sabers responded, “Probably not.”
The question then being is GreatLife affiliation really a necessity for local area courses to maintain steady business, is it having a major effect, and why aren’t courses jumping at the opportunity?
In Howard, the city-owned course is doing just fine.
“Howard Golf Course, being that of a real small membership, does plenty well without GreatLife affiliation,” says clubhouse manager Dave Hodges. “Our membership runs from 125 to 130 members, and with a full bar and restaurant, we do really well.
One deal that the Howard Golf Course does to compete with some of the out-of-towner incentive that GreatLife provides is to provide any prospective member with a residency of anything past a 45-mile radius from the course with a $75 discount off a single membership, or $100 off for a family membership. They also make this offer to any first-year members.
“Being a small town we have a very faithful membership, as do probably a lot of other small town courses,” said Hodges. He said that his board has never been presented with the idea of GreatLife affiliation, and doesn’t plan on any kind of partnership in the future.
“(It) sounds like a great deal for other courses, but ours does well enough on its own,” said Hodges.
Mitchell has had a GreatLife connection since 2016, when the DWU/Avera Sports and Wellness Complex opened, which has been managed by GreatLife. The golf part of that connection is with Wild Oak Golf Course.
"Our membership has grown significantly in numbers since we joined with GreatLife three years ago,” said Wild Oak Manager Dave Backlund Jr.
He said it was hands down the best business decision he has made for his course, and said Walsh made the business idea for Mitchell an easy concept.
“It really makes golf and fitness affordable for everyone,” he said.
Backlund said with the addition of GreatLife there has been a larger demographic of people joining.
“With the addition of GreatLife we have seen many more families, females, and younger golfers joining the course’s membership,” he said.
The partnership with GreatLife has provided a value greater than just being an economically wise decision for the business.
“The biggest, or most important, thing that has come from this partnership is getting families and kids more involved with the game of golf and living healthier lifestyles,” Backlund said.
But Mitchell is one of the few standalone locations in the GreatLife affiliate chain that has both golf and fitness away from GreatLife’s Sioux Falls hub. Yankton has a new partnership with GreatLife, but the company doesn’t have any other rural locations.
When contacting Parkston Country Club, a GreatLife affiliate, their director of golf Tony Weatherford, declined an interview about the impact of GreatLife on their business.
Growing in different styles
With new options for membership, Lakeview Golf Course has responded with a similar-but-different partnership to the GreatLife business model.
Lakeview is part of the city of Mitchell Fun Pass, which includes access to the Village Bowl, Mitchell Recreation Center, and the golf course. The pass has been available for about four years, according to clubhouse manager Eric Hieb.
Hieb said that the pass resulted in an increase in membership, now with roughly 500 total members.
“We have really only lost some membership due to old age, but overall we are doing just fine,” Hieb said, when asked about the impact of other membership options. “I would like to see an increase in the amount of families that join our membership over time though.”
Even without the out-of-towner incentive GreatLife offers, Hieb said the course still receives business from the surrounding area. He says that’s a credit to the course’s conditioning, which he credits to Lakeview Cemetery and Golf Director Kevin Thurman and his staff.
“With the bad spring we have had, the course has still came through great. We get a lot of out-of-town play when some of the other courses aren’t even ready,” said Hieb.
Beresford’s golf course, The Bridges at Beresford, like Wild Oak is another satisfied customer of the GreatLife partnership.
“It has been a really good relationship, and we are very happy to be a GreatLife affiliate,” said general manager Ben Reiter.
Reiter said the affiliation has not resulted in an increase in membership but has helped with unsold tee time slots.
“I would absolutely recommend this to other managers,” Reiter said.
In the aforementioned paid advertisement story, Walsh said he does not plan to stop expansion anytime soon.
“I think we will be a national concept,” Walsh said. “I think we’ll be a $250 million business within five years. We’ve got franchises in progress in Utah, Texas, Missouri, the Phoenix area, and we’re looking at some in California.”