Breaking Down Walls: Ratcheting Growth Via Innovative Thinking
For all of golf’s growth initiatives and outreach programs, most courses still have a long way to go to become a true part of their respective communities. Golfers are on board, sure, but what about the other 95 percent of the community? From field classrooms to concerts to car shows, beer fests to movies on the driving range, course owners and operators are nowadays thinking up innovative ways to let people know they are wanted through that once-barred gate, and sometimes it even involves golf.
A LIVING LAB
Out in the Coachella Valley, La Quinta Middle School teacher Laura Spradlin, a golfer and member of Bermuda Dunes CC, took her charges to the club for a day of STEM learning — science, technology, engineering, math.
“They had the opportunity to go there, to see inside. They typically just see the locked gates and block walls,” she says.
The session was coordinated through the First Green, an outreach initiative headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., that brings teachers and course superintendents (and other course personnel) together for a day of hands-on learning at what effectively is a vast, living, breathing outdoor classroom.
As with the more famous First Tee program — a golf-centric educational program that uses the practice and playing of the game to reinforce the life, learning and personal skills — the First Green is about education, with golf as a vehicle. The First Green is the golf-facility-as-science-project-for-a-day – a field trip operating under the tagline, “Links As Labs” — with some golf thrown in. First Green programs exist in multiple Western states and have leapfrogged to Texas and New Jersey, and north to British Columbia.
“Being in the desert we put our twist on it,” explains Tyler Tang, who at the time of Spradlin’s First Green session was Bermuda Dunes’ superintendent. “In the Coachella Valley we overseed, so we got the kids involved in calculating seed volume and spread. Then we talked about water and the desert, how we get our water, how the well, pump station and lake all operate.”
For additional hands-on activities the students conducted water-quality and soil tests. And then they hit golf balls.
Spradlin’s pupils come from diverse backgrounds, and to most of them golf is the sport others play. From the perspective of curriculum, she said these activities were tangible, practical reinforcement of the mathematical and related skills that appear as concepts in the classroom.
On a larger scale, given the demographics, the experience was valuable in that, “Many of these kids are working-class kinds of kids, they don’t see the inside of clubs,” she says. “Some might not know any aspects of golf past the mowing part. But with people like Tyler, they can see there is more, that there are opportunities down the road.”
“The First Green Program is not really about growing the game of golf,” adds Brendon Reaksecker, superintendent at Bonita GC near Chula Vista, who hosted earlier this year what he said was the first of many sessions to come. “It is that STEM base, that the golf course can be a place to apply the classroom lessons in a real world way. Kids can see that it is worth learning, to pay attention in school because some day they will use that knowledge.”
Yet exposure to the game can only drive participation, right?
“All of these kids are our future golfers, we have to get them involved in some capacity at a young age,” concludes Tang. “Through an experience like this maybe some kid decides on a career being a superintendent or a teaching pro. Another kid could take up the game and then some day join a club, and then get his or her kids into the game; that’s how it multiplies.”
SAME SPACE, A DIFFERENT PLACE
Every golf facility is a gathering waiting to happen: kitchen and grill, patio, dining area, green space and a view. It is a social spot that coincidentally offers a few hundred tee slots daily. And in most instances those attributes are underutilized.
“There is a lot of value from the financial side in investing in alternative facilities and uses,” says Rand Jerris, senior managing director, public services, of the USGA. “Take FootGolf, for example. FootGolf probably won’t bring new people into golf — the jury is out and there is no data yet that suggests golf derivatives are bringing people into the game. What they do is provide more revenue. Even if you don’t grow traditional golf, you gain needed incremental revenue for the golf facility, and that might be the revenue needed to fund capital improvements, to market golf, to keep the course open.”
Traditionalist or not, every golfer likely agrees that for golf to survive, golf needs to remain golf. We can make it more time-effective, we can lower barriers to access, we can lighten up on the architectural difficulty, we can ratchet back usurious pricing and the over-baked product-introduction cycle. But it still needs to be golf.
We can share and adapt our facilities. Golf courses are big affairs, often several hundred acres, and most have underused or unused open spaces, a food and beverage component that could be better monetized and, save the odd glow ball event here and there, the hours of golf operation leave a lot of dead time on the clock.
(And let’s not underestimate FootGolf, as nearly 500 American courses are now sanctioned by the American FootGolf League. Rather than look at it as only three percent of all American golf courses, look at it as 500 courses that are doing something outside the box.)
BIRDIES AND BREWS
Sedona Golf Resort (Sedona, Ariz.) is hosting a craft beer festival this summer, which isn’t exactly man-bites-dogs news, although the mountain bike race held on the course is.
Monarch Beach Golf Links (Dana Point, Calif.) has restored native habitat to sustain both Monarch butterflies and endemic birds, and allows access at times via walking paths and trams. Quail Lodge & GC (Carmel Valley, Calif.) annually hosts “The Quail,” one of the premier rare and collectible automobile and motorcycle shows in the land. A course in Nebraska has turned its fitness center into a full-service health club open to all, putting a decidedly different twist on the business model.
“We encourage all of our properties to look at other ways to make use of the facilities,” says Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperSports, one of the largest course management companies in the country. “That could be FootGolf, bocci ball, cooking classes or fireworks on the 4th of July. Each club is a little different and it depends on the local markets. Courses were overbuilt in the 1990s, golf participation is down, and all of this is a function of making better use of facilities, increasing business and being inclusive, and hopefully in the process new people are introduced to the game.”
“We have reformed the image of the club of the past,” shares Timothy Smith, general manager of The Loma Club (San Diego, Calif.), a nine-hole members’ facility with an open-door public policy. “We saw the expenses going up, rounds played everywhere flat-lining or decreasing. I figured if we are going to be able to continue to grow revenue and compete with the slowing of the golf industry, we needed to start rebranding ourselves.”
New cuisine, a liberal attitude toward food trucks and outside catering during events, live music, an upgraded wine list, revamped patio, non-golf competitions for fun; the club didn’t leave many stones unturned in transforming itself into what Smith wanted the joint to be, namely “everyone’s favorite backyard.”
“With the growth of the neighborhood around us [Liberty Station and Point Loma] we’re now seeing people, couples, groups coming here where before they would’ve gravitated toward a brewpub or restaurants in the area.”
And on another positive note, rounds played at the club are up by some 20 percent.
A NEW MILLENIUM
If there is a glimmer of hope on the participation horizon, it might just be Gen Y. According to the National Golf Foundation, Millennials account for one-quarter of current golfers. Before claiming victory, they’re also the largest generation in America, so those participation numbers are actually low. A large percentage of them view the game as elitist and standoffish, too. On the flip side, and specifically because they are the big bulge in the population snake, Millennials represent more than half of the game’s “latent demand,” meaning non-golfers waiting to be mined.
Whether offering 23 revolving microbrews in the grill room, providing mod modes of course-conveyance — golf boards or bikes — or using non-traditional platforms as revenue enhancement or a conduit to the game — FootGolf, TopGolf, simulators (sometimes referred to as flatgolf) — these industry adaptations all play into hooking Gen Y, who, according to a recent NGF report, need to be presented with golf-with-a-twist if they are to make the move en masse.
In short, golf needs to be more inviting, less tweedy, more accepting of technology and the group milieu in which these 18-34 year olds choose to socialize and interact, and more willing to admit that a “proper” golf experience need not consist of 18 holes, a $150 logoed shirt, six hours and four single malts at the end.
As the NGF report concluded: “Without throwing out the baby (traditional golf) with the bathwater (negative carryovers from bygone days), golf can focus on addressing these issues to modernize its brand and broaden its appeal among millennial golfers and non-golfers alike. It’s not about fundamental changes to golf’s core, but about taking back ownership of the sport’s image and how it speaks to millennials of all interest levels.”
Golf, at its most basic is an open, democratic concept, as the USGA’s Jerris noted. Privacy, the walls and gates, largely were a construct of the game after it came to America, as the sport of the elite. That wasn’t the historic mode. St. Andrews is a community park, after all.
It’s good to see walls now coming down.