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Where is Golf Headed? New Possibilities for the Pursuit of the Game

Herb Stein, an economic adviser to President Nixon (and father of actor and humorist Ben Stein), once offered this bit of sage advice: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Those of us who are trend-spotters have modified Stein’s Law accordingly: “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.”

And so it has been with golf. In a matter of about twenty years—commencing in the 1980s—the number of golfers in the U.S. increased about 50 percent from 20 to 30 million. Country clubs, which have always fused their identity and destiny with the traditions of golf and the cultivation of the country’s finest courses, benefited accordingly from this golf boom.

But the expansion of golf also kindled the fires of competition. Golf courses expanded to keep pace with the flood of players. Excellent public courses mimicked many of the features that were once the reserve of private clubs. New golf courses also proved to be a mighty stimulus for real estate development and the well-oiled marketing machine that moved residential property. Great golf got plunked into a range of interesting and even premium settings. The rising tide of golf was lifting many boats.

But that which cannot continue must end. Growth plateaued as we entered the new century. Then with the arrival of the Great Recession, the trend-line headed downward and rather steeply at that. Golfers decreased in number, courses closed and many clubs struggled. But this trend, too, could not continue indefinitely, and over the past several years, the number of golfers seems to have steadied at around 25 million.

Is golf ready to stage a dramatic comeback? Probably not, at least not in the near term. Indeed, the systemic trends examined in this issue of Club Trends—factors like the role of women and the time-constrained nature of modern life—suggest that the go-go years of golf growth are now behind us and that the sport is not likely to resume its rapid growth in the near future. But, neither should we expect the resumption of the game’s decline previously visited upon us.

What is the so-called “new normal”? More specifically, a less alarmist, more long-term perspective that should steady us with the reminder that the private club community has always played and will continue to play a key role in supporting and expanding the great tradition of golf. We can further expect that this mutually beneficial (even symbiotic) relationship will find new and interesting expressions. Therefore, the private club industry should imagine its role not so much as trend-follower, but as trendsetter. When it comes to golf, the country club community doesn’t just dance to the music, it can also play the tune. Clubs should look internally for the resources and creativity—and, yes, their simple love of the sport—to imagine what new possibilities might be out on the horizon for golf.

Golf isn’t going away. It is renewing itself—often in unexpected ways. For its part, the club world will want to gather behind these trends that offer new possibilities not only for the pursuit of the game, but also the positive contributions it can make to club life. Here are some of the most promising trends:

Golf gets Timely

Already the game has tried a variety of initiatives to quicken the pace of play. These have ranged from public service announcement by golf legends (“While We’re Young”) to tips for faster play (TEE IT FORWARD) to course designs and golfing programs that invite shorter rounds or other departures from the standard 18-hole round. We are now at the onset of a second wave of ideas and programs that invite club members to either participate in golf in ways that are shorter in duration, more flexible to schedule and even more modular in design, with components for play, for instruction and for socializing being sorted and assembled in a more impromptu and just-in-time fashion. Members appreciate this “you-pick” mentality and the prospects of more choices related to when, where and how golf is undertaken and ultimately enjoyed.

The storied Union League of Philadelphia recognizes the enduring appeal of golf and now offers its members a popular golf option at the Union League Golf Club at Torresdale. This appeal has been further boosted by a unique innovation they call “express” tee times. From 7-7:30 a.m. on weekend mornings, twosomes are sent out at six-minute intervals. These pairs of golfers cover the course in just a few hours and finish with the better part of the day before them. No longer does a round of golf crowd out other activities like time with the family, attendance at a popular sporting event or other social activities at the club. Express tee times have been embraced by members who want their golfing experience in a streamlined, concentrated manner, and this often means the family-oriented member, with competing demands for precious weekend hours.

Other pilots and programs are cropping up across the club scene. Riverton Country Club in Cinnaminson, N.J. has landed on a formula for family golf that reserves a time (Thursday nights, largely in the summer months), some real estate on the course (the first three holes—the remainder of the course is open for other members) and alternative blocks of time (five available slots) that suit different family schedules. Shots are traded and rules relaxed all in the name of fun. In the process, the golf course sheds some its forbidding, restrictive, adults-only vibe—a good thing for a sport seeking its next generation of players.

Golf gets Inclusive

We previously observed that there are about 25 million golfers active in the U.S. and that this is down from a high point of 30 million about a decade or so ago. So what happened to the 5 million golfers we might reasonably have expected to appear on the scene? Was there a lost generation? The suggestion is a plausible one and many of those who have gone missing are among the Millennials.

A recent analysis undertaken National Golf Foundation (NGF) observes that if Millennials had simply had a participation rate more in line with previous generations then the golfing community might likely have 4 million more players at present. As compared to the immediately preceding generation (Generation X) participation rates have dropped by a staggering 36 percent.

This is a cautionary tale, one that that simultaneously points to the necessity and the value of clubs boosting participation rates in segments that require a smoother pathway to golf—one with fewer barriers and more benefits. Building a more diverse population of golfers is good for the game and thus, in the long term, good for most private clubs and their investment in golf and their historic commitment to building a sense of community around the game and the people who play it.

The pie-chart above illustrates that club golf programs need to imagine how to move beyond a rifle approach that accommodates the accomplished, avid golfer to more of a shotgun pattern that achieves inroads into multiple segments: not only by age, but also gender, skill, and even interest and inclination, as well as occasion and benefit-sought. Here’s what clubs are doing out on the front-end of this inclusive, community building approach:

Junior golf is no longer just kids’ play. The PGA Junior League is a well-established part of many clubs’ junior programs, but we notice several clubs doubling down on their commitment to youth. Ferncroft Country Club (Middleton, Mass.) takes the concept of a junior membership to a whole new level. Whereas many other clubs may offer junior memberships to up-and-coming young adults or those with legacy status, Ferncroft actually has a membership category for those under the age of 19 whose parents are not members of club. Initiation fees and dues apply, albeit at a much reduced level. (And scholarships are also available with more than a dozen extended this past year.) It’s a farsighted program that’s good for golf, good for the kids and good for the club.

Instructions and lessons are morphing into coaching and mentoring. Odessa Country Club’s “Little Gushers” program (see our “Case Studies in Club Membership,” in the Club Trends Summer 2015 issue) takes a long-term view toward developing the athletic talent of its youth. An introduction to golf (and other sports) may begin as young as age 5. Development is a cooperative effort with parents and other sources of support that will ultimately shape and encourage the child. The Little Gushers program also appreciates that many young athletes may elect to focus on one particular sport—and golf is a popular choice—and thus follows the trajectory of the young person’s growing understanding of performance, competition and sportsmanship. This holistic approach to personal development is the wave of the future. Damon DeVito, a director for Affinity Management, a multi-course operator, offers his opinion as to why: “The one-pro-for-many-students model is destined to fail. There’s no real institutional way to get beginners together to play. Our programs sustain themselves through camaraderie between [new players], our staff and members.”

The male monopoly relaxes. The “$2 Nassau” is increasingly yielding to the “9 & Dine” or parent/child programs. One club manager explains, “There has to be a reason [that is attractive] to the wife for the family to join, and a big part of that can be kids’ programs, ladies’ golf, social activities—all of that. The wife is the one who has to be sold. It is certainly not all about the husband playing golf.” And offering Ladies’ Day on Tuesday isn’t likely to pass muster any more.

The golf code gets cracked. Golf is about more than swing mechanics. Part of the game’s charm stems from its culture and its traditions. Everything from the initial bag drop to the drink on the 19th hole has the trappings of a stylized ritual that is often equal parts drama and comedy. But for novices it can be either intimidating or an outright turn-off. Clubs work to orient new members to the club rhythms and progressive clubs are offering patient and helpful introductions to the new player—whether young or old, male or female, Millennial up-start or late-blooming Boomer. Some of the larger programmatic efforts in this vein such as Get Golf Ready provide helpful resources and ideas.

Golf Gets Geeky

Golf was one of the first club activities to arrive at the new technology party. An invaluable tool for scheduling tee times and a helpful resource for determining members’ handicaps, technology found its “killer apps” fairly quickly. But there’s more to come. The golf cart has been and will continue to be a portal for the entrance of technological innovations. Already golf carts have GPS features that work to speed play, communicate with one another, order food, keep score and measure distances. Development plans are well along for video capture, gaming options, social media plug-ins and self-driving capabilities. More is at stake here than gee-whiz technology. Though traditionalists may blanch, the emerging technology is fully capable of increasing the entertainment quotient for the game for the many—especially Millennials—who desire this, with real-time video feeds, virtual competitions and artificial intelligence that may help us play smarter if not always better. The ubiquitous smartphone is playing an increasing role on the links (if not actually banned from the course at your club!). Apps are now pairing nicely with wearables like the Apple Watch—not only to conveniently offer distance information and scoring capabilities but also to analyze your round with driving distances, fairways hit and greens hit in regulation.

Golf remains a reliable mainstay at most country clubs, continuing to attract members and stimulating broader club utilization. Clubs will need to balance the game’s honored traditions and venerable customs with a necessary expansion and differentiation of its appeal. As the target audiences for golf potentially multiplies, the game will be tested for its fit with changing situations and new expectations. We’re confident the game will prove fully capable of offering different strokes for different folks.


Sidebar #1: Golf Apps That Are Trending  [maybe some screen shots to illustrate?]

Golf GPS & Scorecard from Swing by Swing is available for most smartphones (iOS, Android and Windows). Currently it’s one the most popular golfing apps, offering two principal features related to tracking your position on the course and acting as a digital scorecard. The aerial imagery offers a new view on your game and you can see not only where you are and how far you are from the green, but also precisely what lies around that sharp dogleg. The app also contains analytics, which can compare your most recent round to past rounds on the same course. Pay a little extra and you get added information like wind speed and direction. Your club’s course should be in the database as Swing by Swing claims to make virtually all courses available.

VPAR is similar to Golf GPS & Scorecard in the course-oriented information it relates to the golfer’s position on the course, but it offers more along the social media dimension. You can set up and score an online tournament, see the leaderboard (and those not leading, for that matter) and even chat with other golfers and groups on the app. VPAR is currently available for iOS devices and offers a free trial period, after which it costs $9 annually. This app covers of 30,000 courses worldwide.

Hole19, which is free on iOS and Android, integrates with Apple Watch and Android Wear smartwatches. So a glance at your wrist lets you know how far from the hole you are and you can likewise enter scores on your watch—no need to keep reaching and looking at your smartphone. Hole19 also has data for tons of courses—34,000 and counting.

Sidebar #2: Golf Car Technology Meeting Club and Member Needs

Technology is changing the way clubs handle golf course operations and enhance the golfer experience. Mobile golf information systems like Club Car’s Visage, make it easier for staff to spot bottlenecks on the course before they begin to affect pace of play and immediately message the slow group to pick up the pace—all from the pro shop.

New cloud-based technology also allows staff to perform tasks such as car control, geo-fencing, action zones and messaging. According to George Mason, superintendent at Old Edwards Club in Highlands, N.C., they save at least five hours of staff time per week by eliminating the need to physically move signs, ropes and stakes and they can direct grounds crews to work in areas not being used by golfers. The cars can be programmed to stay on cart paths, off the fairways or to avoid wet spots. In fact, daily golf car traffic can be viewed to see wear patterns on the course with unique aerial views (see image, below). Safety features allow golfers to report problems or be contacted/located quickly in case of emergency (especially in areas where cell reception is weak) and to automatically slow cars on steep or wet conditions around the course.

Today, golf cars can stream information about the fleet, such as rounds played, the condition of every car and battery usage. The technology can also record and store operational data and mechanical conditions of each car, so clubs can make informed business decisions to increase revenue, manage assets, reduce expenses and deliver a better experience.

Old Edwards Club President Lou Miller says the technology has helped exceed member expectations as well as improve operations. Jerry West, director of golf operations at Old Edwards Club, believes the system gives golfers two-to-three strokes per game because of the information provided. Features that calculate the exact yardage to the hole assist in club selection and also improve pace of play. The 3D flyover feature gives aerial views of the course, which is especially helpful for guests to see where the water and hazards are located.

Another feature that can enhance the golfer experience is the ability to order food and have it delivered to them. A bonus for Old Edwards Club is that on-course F&B sales increased by 35 percent once they began using this technology.

Sidebar #2: Louis and Beaver’s Excellent Adventure
In discussing the direction this article might take, Bill McMahon Sr. singled out one nagging problem that technology has yet to fix: the finding of stubbornly lost golf balls. Bill is pretty confident that a chip or RFID technology might plausibly be embedded in a ball and then linked to our phones or other detection device. Ever the entrepreneur, Bill also wondered aloud if perhaps this wasn’t an idea that could be pitched to, say, Titleist. That got our attention, as we happen to know that the McMahons, Titleist and errant golf balls have a certain history.

Louis McMahon was the distinguished paterfamilias of the St. Louis McMahons and Bill’s father. Louis was also an architect, golfer and dog-lover. Thus it was no accident that on his long walks through St. Louis County with his dog Beaver, Louis would frequently find himself and his faithful companion strolling through one of the many area golf courses. Wandering off the fairways and into the woods and streams, Louis—perhaps with some modest assistance from Beaver—would inevitably locate lost golf balls, quite a lot actually.

These he collected, cleaned and counted, observing that Titleist was the brand most frequently found but with many other brands jockeying for this or that position on his list. It was a list that Titleist eventually came to have an interest and stake in. Every quarter (with the exception of the winter) Louis McMahon would collate his findings and assemble his market share analysis of golf’s lost-and-found balls in a written report that would then be posted to the executives at Titleist.

The Titleist team was appreciative and expressed to Louis on multiple occasions that his report was an important piece of the company’s overall market intelligence. Bill recalls that although his father did not receive a fat retainer for this service, Titleist was nevertheless quite generous in sending his way clubs, balls and other golf-related merchandise. These reliably landed on the McMahon’s front porch, unfailingly addressed to Louis and Beaver McMahon.

Club Trends Winter 2016