Break on through

State of the Industry - Cover Story | 2021 STATE of the INDUSTRY

Despite courses shutting down for weeks or even months early during the pandemic, rounds played increased more than 13 percent in 2020. What can the industry do to hold on to these new golfers?

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January 13, 2021

Golf courses, much like space and time, are a construct. We might glance at our scorecards or tee signs to check distances and pars, but there are no real boundaries. Each course can be whatever we want it to be.

Just ask Forrest Richardson.

“The game played 500 years ago, 400 years ago, 300 years ago and even 200 years ago didn’t look anything at all like today’s game,” says Richardson, owner of Forrest Richardson & Associates and the current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “Think for a minute that all the way up to the 1800s, there was no term golf course. It didn’t exist. There were no set number of holes. There weren’t any such things as fairways or greens, just holes dug in the ground. People started here or there. Holes could be 700 yards or 200 yards or 100 yards, and you could play till you quit or till the match was over. You might play 30 holes or 20 holes or eight holes.

“And the next day, a new band of people would come out and play a totally different route.”

The evolution of golf and the development of golf courses and their accompanying economies are welcome, but this current environment will not be permanent. There will be more change, and there is no time like the pandemic present to embrace it.

“In today’s world, where things move faster, my encouragement is that the game might make a leap even quicker to new things,” Richardson says. “Not to get rid of tradition, but there might be new ways to enjoy the game.”

The game might have never leaped forward more quickly than it did during 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic sparked first lobbying, then adaptation from coast to coast. Three-quarters of respondents to our State of the Industry survey were forced to close at some point during the pandemic — 32 percent reported losing at least a month’s worth of potential revenue-producing days, and the mean and median closures were 22.5 days and 16.9 days, respectively — but the ideas that sprouted up and helped make courses recreational safe havens saved plenty of seasons and perhaps even some clubs. Heck, more than half our respondents reported their facility earned enough revenue just from golf to cover losses from food, beverage and events.

Golf boomed during the pandemic. Rounds increased more than 13 percent year over year through the end of November and quarterly equipment sales topped $1 billion from July through September — just the second time that figure has hit 10 digits and the first since right before the start of the Great Recession in 2008 — according to Golf Datatech. Rounds played last year decreased at only 8 percent of courses, according to our survey results, and among those courses that reported an increase, 56 percent said their jump was at least 20 percent.

THE TASTER PORTION

What can the industry do to hang on to all those new golfers, and to keep those existing golfers who visited the course more frequently during 2020 coming back just as often?

Consider what Jan Bel Jan calls “the taster portion.”

“Some of the golf facilities that have been most successful are the ones who have made decisions in the last four or five years to add forward tees, to create short-game areas, to create short courses or even a short golf course inside the practice range, who decided that family events were a good thing, and who decided to make the golf facility not just family-friendly but child-friendly — and when you make anything child-friendly you make it community-friendly,” says Bel Jan, owner of Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design and the immediate past president of the ASGCA. “That goes a long way to people inviting a friend and engaging them in the game.”

Bel Jan and Richardson partnered in October to deliver a tremendous webinar on just that topic for PGA Show Connects, the virtual platform for the annual event, that is archived online. Watching or listening to “Where Do We Put All These New Golfers: Master Planning for the Present and Future” will be an hour well spent for anyone interested in the continued growth of the game.

“All the things we have been talking about for the last 15 years are very important,” Richardson says. “Flexible loops within golf courses — go play six holes, go play nine holes, go play 12 holes, pay by the golf hole — shorter courses, practice venues. The same holds true that if someone has more flexible time, they have more time to practice. If we’re getting more people to the course and our rounds are up, then our practice facilities need to be larger to accommodate more people. And I’ve always been an advocate for short courses.”

“There’s something to be said for the short courses, the nine-hole courses,” says Troon COO Bruce Glasco, whose company currently provides golf management services at nearly 600 locations and for more than 630 18-hole equivalent courses around the world. “There’s something to be said for the entertainment centers that got some kids to swing a club for the first time.”

Glasco cited Troon’s internal exit surveys when mentioning that, “10 or 15 years ago, golfers were more infatuated with the rankings of the courses and Augusta-type conditioning. The new generation of golfers is more concerned with who they’re playing with and the people they surround themselves with. It’s more about the experience. People like to be connected, and golf is one of those connectors. It allows you to put your phone down and spend a couple hours with friends. You can get some really valuable exercise, clear your head.

“There is just nothing like it. There is nothing like the game of golf. That’s why I remain so bullish on the future.”

EVERY MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD

And what about the future? 42 percent of our survey respondents said they expect another increase in rounds played at their facility this year, and another 43 percent said they expect the count to remain about the same.

Men still provide the most significant growth opportunity, with 43 percent of respondents saying that men ages 19 to 39 are the most important demographic for growth at their facility. Another 22 percent said men 40 and older are the most important demographic. Despite increased play by women and families last year, women 19 to 39 (15 percent), women 40 and older (10 percent) and children 18 and younger (9 percent) were all lower on the list.

“Across the board, all of those groups are important,” KemperSports CEO Steven Skinner says. “I do think there were a lot more women and families playing this year, and that was one of the more gratifying things to see this summer. But the biggest gap we had was 19 to 39, or however you define the millennial generation, because they weren’t playing.”

Skinner acknowledges he might be biased because his own children — Jack, 23, and Caroline, 21 — both started to play more last summer.

“We probably played 10 or 15 times this summer. We might have done that once before when they were 10 or 12,” says Skinner, who also played regular late-afternoon or early-evening nine-hole loops with his wife, Anne, throughout last summer. “Sometimes it takes that immersion into the game to get that bug. It’s fun to see and it’s one of the best things about the game.”

Women are a focus group for facilities around the country.

“When I look around our properties, it’s 90, 95 percent men,” says Sean McHugh, executive director of golf operations for the Cleveland Metroparks’ eight Northeast Ohio courses. “We’ve been trying to get women golfers to feel more comfortable for years. The other group is the younger generation. You have to grab them when they’re young and get them interested in the game. They may not stay with you the whole time, but I think they’ll come back to you eventually.”

Bel Jan, only the second woman to serve as ASGCA president after the late Alice Dye, recognizes important grassroots programs that have helped grow the game among women and younger golfers.

“Some of them have just been stellar,” she says, listing Operation 36, LPGA*USGA Girls Golf, PGA Jr. League and First Tee. “When you start seeing that 35 percent of the junior golfers are girls, and 10 years ago that number was 17 percent, that’s pretty remarkable.

“Golf courses do bring something to the entire community even if only — only — 10 percent of the community plays golf. But how many in that community play baseball or softball, or go bowling, or play tennis? To be able to understand that golf courses are contributing to the society and the environment is pretty important.”

In 2016, Bel Jan was at work on a course renovation in Naples, Florida that included the addition of forward tees — what she calls “scoring tees,” a term that is gender-, age- and skill-neutral.

“It took me a long time to come up with that name,” she says. “They’re not ladies’ tees. They’re not fast tees.” Why call forward tees “fast tees” when that term might put more pressure on, say, a 36-handicapper? “Golfers might say, ‘I can’t play fast so I won’t play at all,’” but everybody, Bel Jan says, wants to learn how to score — pars, birdies, maybe even an eagle here and there.

Forward or scoring tees can also encourage golfers with physical or mental challenges, Bel Jan says. She remembers a player at that Naples club who wore leg braces and had to drive a cart to every edge of the course to play. “The course was 5,100 yards and it was too long for him,” she says. “So he left the club and took a membership at a par 3 course. The guys he played with three or four times a week continued as a threesome.”

The green committee chair announced the addition of those new “scoring tees” that measured around 4,100 yards, “and he came back,” Bel Jan says. “He was there playing as a member. He wasn’t a member with a disability. He was a member. And that’s important. What you’re going to see, what I’ve been working on for 10, 15 years, is that people with disabilities are potential customers, and they’re a significant group of potential customers. … This is a trend I believe you’ll see.”

The potential audience for the game is only as limited as we think it is.

“It’s up to us as operators to make sure we keep those individuals engaged and excited about the sport so it becomes a generational sport for families,” Glasco says. “We’re so fortunate we can play from age 6 to age 100, and when we’re passionate about it, we can pass it on and it can become a generational gift.”

“That’s what golf is about, being out with your son or your daughter, playing the game, passing down your love for the game to another generation,” says Steve Mays, president of Founders Group International, which owns and manages 21 courses in and around Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “The biggest thing is just to focus in on the fun of the game. It’s not so much about dress code, about that image. It’s just fun. It’s good exercise, it’s good to be outside, it’s a constructive hobby. We just need to keep that momentum going.”

NOW STREAMING

In addition to his public work, Richardson is the father of Haley Lu Richardson, a young actress with more than a dozen movies on her resume, including The Edge of Seventeen, in which she starred alongside Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick and Hailee Steinfeld, and Five Feet Apart, a love story that cast her at a pre-pandemic social distance from her fellow Disney Channel alum Cole Sprouse. Richardson is tuned in to Hollywood thanks to his daughter and the trends he sees there might work for golf.

“You see millions and millions of dollars being invested in Netflix or Amazon Prime miniseries,” he says, “and there’s a reason for that. People can watch them in increments. Some people have an hour, some people have six or seven hours. Golf is going to continue to realize we need to offer our commodity in different sizes to meet different types of players and what they’re looking for.

“Time is one of the most precious commodities golf course architects can give people. We’re not supposed to provide a golf course that beats you up and keeps you out there for five hours. As Bill Yates, the pace-of-play guru, said, the golf course architect determines how much time you spend on the golf course. We need courses that aren’t as long and don’t take as much time — and we’ve needed these things for 15 years or more, but now would be a good time to get them done.”

Richardson, Bel Jan and so many others across the industry expect more investment in bringing in and holding on to different demographics, in short courses and executive courses, in instruction areas and putting greens, in ranges where people can escape to during lunch.

After all, golf courses can be whatever we want them to be.

© Danny O’leary