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Area Golf: Whitefish weathers the storm

Whitefish Golf Club’s No. 12 hole features a fountain in the fairway. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

PEQUOT LAKES — Kim Roden talks about Whitefish Golf Club like others brag about their children or pets.

She describes the 18-hole championship course located north of Pequot Lakes in Ideal Township with an energetic passion. Her words praise the property's assets, while leaving room for a bright future. It's clear she's attached to the club she's been a member of since 1981.

Her passion and attachment are also why she fought so hard in 2008 to keep Whitefish the club it was created to be.

Whitefish, which opened in 1968 as a community asset widely owned by shareholders, was under attack by a small group of shareholders who wanted dividends paid to shareholders instead of reinvested back into the course and clubhouse. In the end, the small group was bought out for a large sum of money and the club's original ideals remained intact.

Six years have passed since the takeover attempt. Roden's response to it all: "We're open for business," she said with a smile.

The shareholders who remained, and most did, learned from the events of 2008. The original charter was changed to prevent similar attempts.

"Going back at that time, I found it really interesting at how many of our shareholders, if not most, were vehemently opposed to what was going on," said PGA professional and Whitefish general manager Steve Bengtson. "In that perspective, from that point on and even during the mess, there was solidarity there. Here was a chance for people to see the dollars potentially and didn't do it because they believed in our original concept, which is a broadly held asset.

"It's for the community. Let's have fun with it. ... That said a lot to me. We had a tremendous amount of support for maintaining that model and this type of facility.

"Has that transferred through? I would say, yes. These people are still playing here. They are concerned with how things are going. They're seeing our success coming back after everything that happened."

Roden, in her second year as club president, is eager to talk about where Whitefish is now and where it's going in the future. She pointed out three advantages the course has.

"Our mission for when people come here is to have a premier golf experience. Our tagline is 'You're going to like it here,'" said Roden. "Steve has done a great job of focusing on the customer experience. We are in the golf business, but we're really in the customer service business.

"Our business advantage is we offer any level of golfer a really good experience. If you're a 3-handicap, you can play from the black tees and be very challenged. If you're a 20- or 30-handicap, you're still going to have a good time. That is something we take a lot of pride in.

"The third thing is we're investing in this golf course. This year we retiled four of our greens to improve their drainage, which is a huge thing. Next year, we're going to do four more."

Roden pointed to a "thriving" volunteer component found at Whitefish that helps with beautification of the course. Bengtson called it evidence of how the members have rallied around the course and the ideals it was built around.

But can it last? Membership numbers have maintained during the last six seasons. In today's golf landscape, that's a positive for Roden and Bengtson. Whitefish has around 950 shareholders. Two hundred of those are active golfing members.

"I think it has the potential to be a lasting (business) model," Roden said. "When this started in 1968, the landscape was really different. Then the expansion to 18 holes in 1981, again, it was a different landscape. I think it's up to us, as leadership, whether it's the general manager or the board, to really look at that and say, 'That's our model. How do we make it attractive?' That's one of the things we've worked on a lot. How do we build the value of being a shareholder?"

To answer that question, shareholders created the Whitefish 20/20 Committee to look into the future of the course.

"It's separate from the board," Roden said. "They're trying to take a look at who we are going to be in five years. Who do we want to be in five years? Are the demographics going to change and can we prepare for that? Is there anything we can be doing to help with that?"

For now, Whitefish is open for business.

Jeremy Millsop
My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.
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