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A Game with a Great Past and a Bright Future

Much has been made in recent years of the supposed demise of golf. If the game could talk, it would very likely echo Mark Twain’s famous words “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Sure, the total number of players and rounds are down from the Tiger Woods influenced peak of the early 2000s, but golf continues to have a strong core constituency, and is seeing growth in once excluded demographics, like women, children and minorities. In addition, total rounds may not be the yardstick you should use to judge the strength of the game anymore. How does the industry or private club track increased use of ranges and short game practice facilities? What about hitting balls in a Golf Performance Center or playing in a winter simulator league? And what about Topgolf, one of the hottest things in the industry? These represent the many ways today’s players participate in golf, and engines of growth for its future.

At most golf courses today, you will see a more diverse player profile than you would’ve seen a decade ago. Additionally, many of those players will more likely be on the range or at the short game area, not on the first tee. For example, at Blue Hills Country Club outside Kansas City, Mo., where membership is at an all-time high due to an influx of young families, the golf course stands at the ready for full 18-hole play or in shorter forms to suit the modern, time-limited member. From their tracking, the club has identified that 48 percent of the time golfers show up at the club, they don’t play a full round, choosing instead to go to one of the several practice areas or play the 3- or 6-hole loops they’ve structured on the course. It’s a great set-up, helping this club with a highly regarded golf pedigree to attract and serve a more diverse membership.

Private clubs had a wake-up call when the Great Recession knocked out many of the older generation of golfers and discouraged new ones from coming in; but, when people, businesses or games are threatened, they fight back. Tennis went through its nadir, only to become one of the fastest growing participatory sports in the country over the past five years. The golf industry is responding to its challenges in a big way, and there are signs it’s working. Could anyone have imagined a decade or so ago that the week before the Masters, Augusta National would host a Drive, Chip and Putt contest for boys and girls? Now in its fifth year, this collaboration between the Masters, USGA and PGA will in 2018 offer free qualifying opportunities to thousands of youngsters between the ages of seven and 15 at 268 venues across all 50 states. The finalists—40 boys and 40 girls—will compete in the finals at Augusta National on the eve of the Masters. That focus on young player development didn’t exist prior to 2010.

Many of the growth areas reaffirm the notion that the decline in 18-hole rounds isn’t driven by a rejection of golf as a sport, but rather a reflection on how time constraints are impacting participation. As such, clubs should reinvent their facilities and programs to overcome this hurdle. The top things clubs and members say will help include:

Optimized Practice Areas – Once a place to take a few swings to loosen up before a round or the den of only the most ardent players, practice facilities are now critical to the golf experience in today’s time-constrained society. When designed to replicate the on-course experience, and increasingly, a year-round component, they are very important to keeping players engaged when a full round is not an option.  

Professional Outreach to Drive Play – Today’s golf professional can’t count on tee sheets to fill themselves. Golf pros must create fun events and competitive tournaments and, as much as anything, get members out on the course for regular games.

Innovative Programs for Women – Women place much higher emphasis on group activities and a social environment. Reinvent your programs and modernize the club’s attitude toward women golfers to grow participation. The old schedule of 9-holers on Tuesday morning and 18-holers on Wednesday won’t cut for many women today, but a 6-hole event on a Thursday evening might.

Strong Junior Activities – Some of the more traditional youth sports are losing their appeal, due mainly to risk of injuries such as concussions. Additionally, Title IX continues to be a motivator for young girls to take up the game. Whether because of these external threats or just because it is a great game with positive core values, junior golf is booming.

Online Tee Times and Other Technological Advances – Technology can enhance the modern golf experience in many ways, including allowing players to sign up online (especially popular for younger players), helping to communicate playing and learning opportunities, enhancing the lesson experience through easier data tracking and sharing, and streamlining the process of tournament management through software such as Golf Genius.

Emphasis on Fun – Golf is a difficult game. Lighten it up where you can to make it more inviting.

Programs Drive Participation and Enjoyment

During the last decades of the 20th century, programs weren’t necessary to drive golf participation. Tee sheets filled so quickly that the gap between player demand and availability reached crisis proportions. This led to a building boom, the likes of which we are not likely to see again. This was an environment focused only on receiving and serving the organic demand, not generating participation. Very little focus was placed on higher handicappers and fringe segments. That’s all changed, and there are signs it will be good for the long-term sustainability of the sport. Here’s why:

Junior Play is a Huge Opportunity

Long ago, the road to becoming a golfing adult started in the caddie yard as a youth. It was the pathway to success for some of the most famous professional golfers in history including Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. More importantly, at least as membership is concerned, many of the doctors, lawyers and business owners who dominated the membership rosters at clubs started with that experience also. Convenience, revenue and other factors fostered the proliferation of golf carts in the 1980s and 90s. This killed the caddie program at most clubs, severing one of the more important player development pipelines. It’s taken the industry a long time to find a worthy substitute—programming.  

Junior (ages six to 17) golf participation, which according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), fell to around 2.4 million players in the depths of the Great Recession, has climbed back to around 3 million today. At the same time, the percentage of junior players that are female has nearly doubled, from 17 percent to 32 percent. Interestingly, among all golfers, women have historically made up only 20 percent of participants. This growth, coupled with the increase in overall junior participation, indicates that there will be a higher proportion of female golfers in the future.

PGA Junior League, igrowgolf, SNAG golf and other programs are incorporating many of the features that have long been part of team sports into golf. PGA Junior league has jerseys with numbers, player substitutions, and home and travel opportunities. Igrowgolf uses semesters, merit badges and other tools to measure and stimulate progress over time.

Some clubs have taken the notion of junior members to another level. Instead of the typical approach where members’ sons and daughters are recruited to junior membership through preferred pricing, Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton, Mass., offers a membership to youth under age 19 who are not children of members. The initiation fee and dues are well below normal rates and nuisance charges like minimums and the like are waived. It is strictly a play on growing a farm team and giving back to the game. The category is limited to 40 and the brilliance of the idea is validated by the waiting list of juniors hoping to join.

The First Tee and other programs that reach out to a more diverse audience are also working. When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997, he was a person of color and an aberration. While Tiger’s success hasn’t done much to change the face of the game at the professional level—there are only two black men on the PGA Tour this year—NGF reports that nearly 30 percent of golfers between the ages six and 17 are non-Caucasians, up from six percent at the time of Tiger’s historic victory. The First Tee uses golf to teach youth life lessons and leadership skills, regardless of background or previous experience.

A broader player profile is a vital for golf’s sustainability, which has long been criticized for excluding these groups. NGF research also shows that the earlier people begin to play golf, the more likely they are to have positive perceptions about the game and remain committed as they age. When the golfing public looks and acts more like the general public, the game is clearly positioned for more success.

Women Are Key to Sustainability

For as long as NGF has been keeping statistics on golf participation, women have constituted roughly one-in-five golfers. As we read in the macro article, that number is now closer to one-in-four, and at most country clubs, rounds by females can run about 33 percent. Also, surveys have shown that the likelihood of a member staying at a club for more than five years quadruples when both spouses play golf.

Sometimes you just need an icebreaker to get things going. This has been the case at Country Club of Fairfax (Va.) where the Wine and Golf program has spurred a large increase in women’s play and in other club activities. The program began as a way for women to enjoy a low-stress  introduction to golf. The idea met with a positive reception as 40 to 50 women immediately registered.

The basic format is a 3-hole shotgun start with wine and cheese set out on each of the holes. A golf professional plays in each of the groups, to provide a little encouragement and instruction. The Wine and Golf program includes three key elements that feature prominently in successful programs: 1) on-course instruction and coaching; 2) wine (or something to spur fun); and 3) a focus on members meeting other members. Several women that started in the program have moved on to the 9-hole ladies league and a few even joined the 18-hole group. It also spurred huge growth in the club’s Friday night couple’s program and has served as a social catalyst for food and beverage and member socialization in general.

To succeed in this type of programming, start with your staff. If the entire golf staff is male, many women, especially those new to the club, may not feel especially welcome. It is also important to provide a good orientation to new women golfers prior to getting into any formal instruction or games. They are much less likely to know basic terminology and the customs related to arriving at the bag drop, checking in at the golf shop, getting your bag and starting your day. In addition, women like to learn in a group setting and the shared cost helps to keep prices down and value up. Be sure to have all the participants introduce themselves at the outset of the clinic or event so they get to know each other. Also, make sure there is a social dimension to the program, possibly serving beverages and snacks during the event or afterward. Use games to teach many of the skills they will use on the course, and get them on the course quickly. Again, a female golf professional on staff can go a long way to navigating the differences in how women and men like to learn an activity.

If clubs want to see a more diverse player profile—and there is good evidence that this will lead to more members and more committed members—they need to take steps to open the game to a broader audience. In addition, look at your tee sheet and determine if the playing schedule makes sense. Many of the policies limiting who can play at certain times are outdated. Offer women’s programs at times that are convenient to working women. Develop programs that take less time. This could include shorter events like 3- and 6-hole rounds as well as fun, social events.

Breaking the Rules of Golf

By now, anyone paying attention to the golf world knows about Topgolf. It combines hitting golf balls, technology and food and beverage to create a fun, energetic entertainment experience. In many ways, Topgolf’s mission fulfills another McMahon directive for private clubs—creating the Third Place, or neighborhood hangout, that people so want and crave today. The concept resonates on many levels, but it has been very well received by two of golf’s traditionally underserved segments, women and millennials. Topgolf reports show that about two-thirds of its players are millennials and about one-third are female. In addition, the company’s research indicates that some 50 percent of the participants develop a more favorable opinion of traditional golf due to their Topgolf experience and many of them indicated they were likely to give regulation golf a try. This should make it clear for industry leaders that nontraditional experiences can grow the sport.

Topgolf has also successfully applied their out-of-the-box thinking to the process of teaching and learning golf. In many ways, they are mimicking the principles of fitness and yoga classes and applying them to golf instruction through their program called Topgolf U. Regularly scheduled classes with drop-in availability meet students’ demand for flexibility while the group setting addresses the desires for shared experiences and socialization. Again, there is a lesson here for clubs. First, consider offering regularly scheduled, affordable clinics for players of all skill levels, but especially high handicappers and women. Most clubs continue to offer instruction focused on the proficient player that wants to improve. Use group classes—perhaps at the same times each week with no need for reservations—to help players improve, meet other members and become more engaged. Second, make sure socializing and having fun are core elements of the program. Have some music playing while players do their drills or make food and beverages available. Finally, eliminate the repetitive drudgery of swing drills by using “Big Break” style contests to teach skills in a fun format.  

The Pathway to Success

The pathway to success in golf is like that of any other business. Offer an experience that people want and customized to fit their lifestyles, promote it to encourage their participation, and focus on end-user satisfaction. Our experience and research indicates that the decline in golf play is not the result of lack of interest, but the lack of time to participate in today’s increasingly fast-paced world. To overcome this challenge, clubs needs to change the way they deliver golf to members, combining traditional play and tournament programs with new, less time-consuming alternatives. People join clubs and play golf out of an age-old desire to associate with others. Golf will be a success at your club if you reinvent your delivery in ways that spur connections with other members, between genders, as a family and for youth.


Club Trends Spring 2017