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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The Pro

Being the consummate golf professinal isn't about
back-slapping the members any mroe. Meet Kevin Thistle
half-CEO, half maître d'

Friday, March 30, 2001
Michael Grange

Ask general manager Kevin Thistle what they do right at Angus Glen Golf Club, and he tells a story. It involves Brett Hull doing what hockey players do best in the off-season--playing in a celebrity golf tournament. Waiting on the first tee, Hull mentions that he can't find a certain make of clubs made to his specs.

"He says to me, 'If you can get me a set before I leave today, I'll buy them,'" recounts Thistle. "He had them by the tenth tee."

Thistle beams in the retelling. In the competitive niche of high-end, daily-fee public golf, it's the kind of drop-everything service that gives an edge to Angus Glen, which taps the Toronto market from the suburb of Markham. Industry experts say Thistle is the model modern golf pro. Once a job that was all about back-slapping and looking good in a golf shirt, with Thistle--a University of Toronto graduate in commerce and economics--it means talking marketing and capital as easily as wedges and turf.

Thistle's golf course--or rather, the food-and-beverage, conference and retail business disguised as a golf course--did $5 million in sales last year, five times the industry average. "He's the best golf-course operator I've ever met, period," says Steve Johnston, national director of KPMG's golf-industry practice. "It's got to the point where when we consult on a property and the customer is talking about an operations person, they say 'What we need is a Kevin Thistle.'"

The 38-year-old Thistle's hyper-kinetic, personable style has shaped Angus Glen since it opened in 1995. This season, he oversees a $15-million expansion that will add a championship course and a 50,000-square-foot clubhouse (the existing 15,000-square-foot clubhouse will remain).

Thistle helped convince Angus Glen's owners, the Stollery family of Toronto men's wear fame, to grow the business. "People were calling for tee-times two months in advance and we had only one [course] open," he says. "We were turning away as many tournaments as we were holding."

To bring attention to the expansion, Thistle convinced the Stollerys to host Canada's two most-watched golf events: the Telus Skins Game, at the new track in July; and the Bell Canadian Open, at the original layout next season. While some facilities shy away from hosting big events because revenue drains away while a course is shut down, Thistle thinks big picture. "From an advertising point of view, once you host the Canadian Open or the Skins Game, they can never take that away from you. How can you put a dollar figure on that?"

If Thistle's concerned about a downturn, he doesn't show it. A Tony Robbins-calibre optimism (Thistle admits being a devotee without so much as an ironic shrug) is a trademark, like his goatee, flashy print shirts and talent for remembering names.

"I've tried to make Angus Glen recession-proof," Thistle says. "People will always have disposable income, it's just a question of what they'll spend it on. Will it be the Blue Jays, theatre or golf? And if people cut back, I want them to keep coming to Angus Glen."

Even if the economic numbers de-press the game in the short term, the stats for the sport itself should buoy it up in the long. The Royal Canadian Golf Association counts a jump in the golfing population from 4.8 million to 5.2 million between 1996 and 1998, with growth especially strong among women and juniors. What's more, "core golfers"--those who play the most--tend to be affluent men still in their early 40s.

An axiom of the business is that if the location and price are right, golfers will find you. "As long as you're not leveraged to the hilt, owning a golf course is close to an annuity," says KPMG's Johnston. Built on family land handy to downtown Toronto, Angus Glen is in good shape on the location score. At $160 per round, it isn't the most expensive day of golf in Canada--Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville has that distinction at a peak rate of $230--but it's not cheap.

The question, then, becomes how to deliver value at the high end, for Angus Glen has nary a shred of down-market in its genes. Arthur Stollery, a mining entrepreneur and scion of the well-known Toronto clothier, bought the rolling farmland in 1957 to raise Black Aberdeen Angus cattle and champion thoroughbreds. More land was added over the years, and a stately subdivision is now going up in the lush glow cast by the nearby golf development. Arthur Stollery died in 1994 before seeing the golf course fully realized, but it was taken up by his son, Gordon, and daughter, Laurie Mac-Lachlan. The original Doug Carrick-designed course is consistently ranked among Canada's top public layouts. Early reports on the new course--a rugged layout co-designed by Carrick and Jay Morrish, distinctive for its more than 70 traditional sod-wall bunkers--suggest that it will compare favourably. (The spread also includes a farmhouse where Thistle lives with his young family. "If I stand on the driving range and hit a 268-yard drive with a fade, I can hit it.")

That Thistle cut his teeth as club pro at Seaton Golf & Country Club, a beer-and-cigarette track in Pickering, seems an unlikely background for a post that is half-CEO, half-maître d'. "It's a difficult job. A lot of people would melt like butter," says Gordon Stollery, who also owns Calgary-based Highpine Oil and Gas Ltd. "But he has a knack for making that place sing."

Thistle has created a culture of atten-tiveness that stands out even in a niche where good service is expected. Any defection from the club's management team will be the first. That loyalty has helped Thistle's staff easily meet the friendly-greeting, shuttle-from-the-parking-lot, fresh-balls-on-the-range standard that any facility in the high-end market has to meet.

Another story: "I had a tournament there and it stormed in the afternoon," says Lori Heller, an event planner who has done $250,000 to $300,000 in business at Angus Glen in each of the past three years. "The roof was down on my client's car. By the time he got off the course to the parking lot, they'd already pushed the car into the cart shed."

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