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Thursday, December 4, 2014

State of the Game - GOLF AIN'T DEAD

Golf Ain’t Dead!

Contrary to dreary media reports, golf is still a vibrant sport

Story by Brian Hurlburt


If you listen to certain media reports about the state of golf, you’ve probably already sold your clubs and taken up another hobby. A quick Google search reveals stories done nationally and locally about how golf is declining and it won’t be long before the grass turns brown, at least metaphorically.

Fortunately, there are many silver linings in the facts and figures cited by the alarmists and as much cause for optimism as there is for concern. There is no denying that golf has taken a hit since the recession of 2008, and recent news about Dick’s Sporting Goods laying off hundreds of PGA of America professionals didn’t help the situation. In Las Vegas, golf courses have had some lean years and the private club industry struggles as a whole, but, overall, courses are busier in the last couple years than they were in the previous couple years prior the recent uptick.

There are some telling statistics that reveal golf is doing better and that future growth is on the way. The stats reveal that since 2011 beginner golfers are up 27 percent, junior golfers are up 25 percent and female golfers are up 4 percent accounting for an increase of 1.2 million gofers. Other stats and surveys reveal that 28.6 million non-golfers are interested in playing the game.

Plus, if you ever practice or play at the always busy TaylorMade Golf Experience across from Town Square you see a diverse demographic of golfers that ranges from true beginners hitting balls and enjoying a few laughs to the veteran player grinding over his fifth range session of the week. The TaylorMade Golf Experience is a partnership between international golf club power player TaylorMade Golf and the local Boreta family and oozes a fun atmosphere that many industry leaders are hoping takes hold in the overall game.

Former TaylorMade Golf CEO Mark King, who is now president of adidas North America, is one of the prominent industry leaders calling for changes in the game and was the man behind the creation of the HACK Golf website where ideas are hatched to increase participation. Among the ideas of the many generated by HACK Golf is the 15-inch golf hole, which is in play at the TaylorMade Golf Experience. King believes making the game easier and more fun are the keys to attracting new players.

“There's no doubt that our biggest challenge is finding ways to grow the game,” King told Golf Tips Magazine. “I think the biggest obstacle is the frustration factor. Golf is a hard game to learn and not much fun when you're a beginner and struggling to get the ball off the ground. What we can do is make it clear to new players that you don't have to play by the rules. Tee the ball up in the fairway if you want to. Take a free drop out of the trees, rough and sand. Count any putt that touches the hole as good. 

The truth is that a lot of long-time golfers already do this kind of thing. They realize that if you aren't playing for a living, why let the game beat you up? We need to emphasize fun and enjoyment first.”

It is the silver-lining numbers and enthusiasm of industry leaders that keep this golf writer excited about the grand ole game. This writer is more than happy to keep playing it and writing about it for years to come, and proudly watching as a son works on his game daily, seeking to make a difference on his high school team.

With all of the above being said, and with so much being discussed about golf, we thought we would reach out to a few key players in the golf industry and get their thoughts about the state of golf. The consensus of both those who believe the “golf sky is falling” and those who believe the sport can be “saved” is that improvements need to be made to help bring new people into the game and to activate kids to take up the game in bigger numbers in addition to inspiring current golfers to play more frequently.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet but different ideas are discussed in the below comments and it makes for interesting conversations around the 19th hole. If you have your own ideas, feel free to email them to bhurlburt@cox.net and we will share them in a future issue.

Excerpt from Golf Digest—Golf and Business article by Mike Stachura

Maybe the experts of doom haven’t been looking hard enough. The problem is, the signs that the naysayers, the analysts and even the business leaders keep citing don’t tell the whole story. 

Contrary to popular belief, there are positive stories in equipment sales, rounds played, and even employment opportunities. The professional game might be on better financial footing than any other individual sport, and maybe most important, the game’s leaders have embraced the idea of growing the game in its most important way: young people. The story of golf in 2014 certainly is not candy canes and rainbows, but those clouds might not be as dark as others have been so quick to point out. (While recent stats reveal golfers are leaving the game, long-term growth has been dramatic). There were about five million golfers in 1960. While U.S. population has increased only some 75 percent since then, the number of golfers has more than quintupled to around 25 million.

Butch Harmon, the World’s #1 Golf Instructor and Las Vegas resident

There’s no doubt that golf takes too long and is too expensive. It’s ridiculous some of the things I see. I watch 20 handicaps taking forever to figure out a yardage when they have no clue how far they hit any of their clubs. But they watch TV and see the pros looking at a putt from every angle and golfers want to emulate what they watch. The pros also don’t need to play so slowly and they don’t help the overall situation. We need people to get ready and hit their shot when it is their turn and that will make a huge difference. We also need Marshalls to do their jobs in a positive way at the course level and keep things moving.

Also, golf has gotten very expensive and I don’t know what to do about making it more affordable but something has to be done because the average guy is being priced out a lot of the time.

We also need to get more juniors involved. It’s very difficult in bigger cities to get kids access so we need to figure out how to do that. The growth of the game needs to be the responsibility of every pro at every club and they need to do their part to grow the game. They need to take responsibility and figure out ways to activate golfers in their own communities. There are also associations in every state that need to be involved in growing the game.

On the pro level, I think golf is in very good shape. We are witnessing a changing of the guard and a new era of superstars. Just like in the past when Hogan and Nelson were replaced by Palmer and Snead and then it was Nicklaus and Trevino and now it is Rory and some others taking over for Tiger and Phil. We are watching history and I love what is happening now.

Eric Dutt, VP of Operations, Rio Secco and Cascata, Member, Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame

What I tell people is that golf is a great game and it creates a lot of opportunities in business and in life. Golf opens a lot of doors and sometimes it even knocks a few down so there are still many reasons to become involved in golf and take up the sport

To me it is very important to get kids involved in the game and I don’t think the industry has been doing a very good job of this. I am very supportive of the overall message of The First Tee and some of things they have accomplished, but I am not sure they are the organization that should be solely entrusted with growing the game as a whole.

Because I am in the business of golf, I have to make decisions that are meaningful to the bottom line and the future of the game. What I want to know is not only how many kids are taking up to the game but also what is the retention rate? We need to keep those former junior golfers playing once they become adults, but I don’t know if that is happening.

I also believe that the affluent junior golfers and excellent players are taken care of by the American Junior Golf Association while The First Tee has made a positive difference by giving the opportunity to kids who would have never played the game because of financial hardship, but what about the middle class? Golf is an expensive game and we need to ensure that kids from all backgrounds are given opportunities to play, so that is a focus on mine moving forward.

On a larger level, there are millions of golfers on the sidelines and millions more non-golfers who would like to take up the game. We need to reach out to these golfers and make an effort to get them involved. There are many reasons why people leave the game, but we need to do more to keep them involved.

Chris Cain, PGA of America, Director, UNLV Professional Golf Management Program

To place things in perspective, golf remains a big moneymaker according to market researcher SRI International. As of 2011, 26 million golfers in the United States generated $69 billion in revenue. While this figure is down from the industry’s peak in 2005 at $76 billion, according to the Census Bureau 2011, golf revenues top such professional spectator sports as baseball, basketball, football and hockey combined. If you take into account the spillover effect by golf-enabled industries such as tourism, the overall golf economy expands to $177 billion.

However, it is no secret that the golfing industry in the U.S. has contracted. The decline of annual golfing rounds from 30 to 25 million from 2005 to 2013 was mostly attributed to the decline of the core golfer. This trend causes concern to the sustainability of sales in product and services associated with the game. For example the golf course inventory in the U.S. has been reduced by 643 courses since 2006.  

Where do we go from here? Our leaders and managers in the golfing industry today require a different skill set than their predecessors. A decade or two ago, the golf industry’s work force managed demand and did so effectively. Today, our leaders and managers need to create and manage demand, and it starts with tailoring growth of the game initiatives to our current market demographics and generational trends. 

The game needs increased entry points at little or no cost and the majority of courses should be dialed back in yardage and difficulty-of-course conditions to allow for a faster-paced and more satisfying experience. Growth-of-the-game programming should focus more on the lifelong benefits of the game that can yield increased socialization, charitable giving and health benefits. The industry also needs to focus on inclusion. By 2050 the majority of people who currently play golf will represent a minority population in the U.S. With this being said, those growing the game also need to represent a diverse demographic.  

Given our economic climate over the past seven years, the game of golf has shown resiliency and in most major golfing markets throughout the U.S. golfing rounds and revenues are increasing. In addition, since 2011 the National Golf Foundation reports beginner golfers are up 27 percent, junior golfers are up 25 percent and female golfers are up four percent. That accounts for an increase of 1.2 million golfers. According to a recent study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, 28.6 million non-golfers are interested in playing the game. Initiatives to capture segments of this latent demand should be on the radar of all industry leaders. Companies like Top Golf, which augment the golfing experience to adapt more to the recreational golfer, meld hospitality and entertainment through the game of golf. The company projects four million participants this year from its 23 locations worldwide with 10 more locations planned to open in 2015. 

The "golf recession" has prompted the need for greater interaction of allied associations to coordinate efforts to grow the game. The PGA of America's Junior Golf League and Get Golf Ready programming are fine examples, and the collaboration of the USGA, PGA of America, and Augusta National to offer the Drive, Chip, and Putt initiative has established the standard for creativity in growth of the game programming.    

Ryan Chackel, Owner, Las Vegas Golf and Leisure Magazine

Given that we publish five golf publications in Las Vegas, Reno/Tahoe, Southern California, Palm Springs and Oregon, we work with a lot of golf courses in the western United States. These courses range from municipals to standard daily fee and high-end resort courses to the private clubs. Across the board I would say things are better today for them than five years ago. The hard part is to assess what that really means. The high was so high and the low was so low, we’re now left in the middle and now have a “new good”. But it appears that the growth our clients are having is sustainable and more dependable in terms of operations, budgets and expectations. Golf has its hurdles for sure, but they seem to be manageable. A collapse of the sport like some people believe doesn’t appear likely.

The days of course managers charging whatever they wanted for a round of golf are gone, which is not a bad thing as the game was becoming too expensive for a lot of people. The challenge now is to attract new players to the game and to make it more appealing to the younger generation.

I’m of the opinion that this is possible. I have three kids ages 14, 12 and 4. The athletic opportunities available to them today are far beyond what I had at the same age. In the last 15 to 20 years we have seen the emergence and outright birth of so many sports that take their attention away from learning about golf: some of those sports competing with golf include wake boarding and wake surfing, snowboarding, cross fit to some degree, action sports in general, year round AAU leagues for basketball, football and baseball instead of seasonal offerings.

But most of these sports can’t be played for a lifetime and I think kids can learn that as they get older. For example, my oldest son, Colby, was competing in wakeboarding for many years until the falls began to take their toll on him. He has since reassessed his athletic priorities and is committed to basketball and recently asked to play more golf (where golf used to be a non-starter for him).

Ann Sunstrum, Executive Director, Southern Nevada Golf Association

Over the last few years, golf has been down, but recently the numbers are coming back nicely here in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. Because of our climate and visitor count we have an advantage over some other destinations, but I believe we are headed in the right direction.

Overall, I believe golf needs to become more family friendly. We see a lot of former junior golfers stop playing once they get older and have families of their own because there is so much value placed on time in today’s society. But I see a lot of courses doing different things to try and welcome families like using 15-inch holes, installing family tees, encouraging more 9-hole rounds, and other initiatives. I am very encouraged by this.

As an association, we believe that we have to be much more than solely a handicap provider. The members we talk with enjoy playing with others and meeting new people so it is important for us to offer more social golf settings and we are doing that. We believe we offer something for every level of golfer from the avid, scratch player looking for the most competitive tournaments to the beginning player just looking to have some fun.

I also believe that it is very important that the ownership, management and staff of each course feel a responsibility to help grow the game and to offer junior development programs. It seems like a cliché, but the kids are the future of the game and we need to make sure they start playing and keep playing once started.

Greg Brockelman, PGA of America, President, Southwest Section, Southern Nevada Chapter

I feel like the recession made golf less affordable or completely unaffordable for a large percentage of the golfing population. Existing golfers have been able to play less or not at all as the economy slowed down. Golf has struggled to convert non-golfers into golfers because of a range of factors, but I believe largely because the game was seen as too traditional and too difficult to learn. All golf industry allied associations are certainly aware of the need to immediately grow the game of golf and collectively these organizations are making some progress. Research shows that there are millions of non-golfers who would like to become golfers so the industry must make them feel welcome and meet their expectations to convert them into our future customers.
What can we do to grow the game? The cost of participating must be kept affordable. The sports that have shown growth over the past several years are typically activities with a low level of entry and on-going participation costs. Sports like hiking and running are growing and these offer participation at a minimal cost. Some of the traditional values of golf have become barriers to progressing forward and attracting a younger demographic.

Younger golfers are also familiar with the "team" concept through various other youth sports so the new PGA Junior Golf League allows boys and girls to play on a golf team and participate in the social benefits of a team sport. The Junior League has seen huge growth over the past three years and I believe these team-golf concepts will continue to grow.

The ability for golfers to keep and utilize all of their electronic devices while on the golf course for four hours is important to many younger people and also very busy people. Installing WiFi on golf courses and providing a power source within the golf carts is happening now. Making the game easier for the golfer who may enjoy playing, but doesn’t have time to practice and improve or maintain, will help lessen attrition problems. Playing a forward tee or using a larger hole will make the game easier for less accomplished players and still provide the enjoyment of a round of golf. 

For information about what local organizations are doing to grow the game, visit SNGA.org, southwest.pga.com/sonevada/, SouthernNevadaJuniorGolf.com or TheFirstTeeSouthernNevada.org.

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