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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Focus on the Golf Experience First

In discussing an economic stimulus for the golf industry, I pointed out five specifics that would help balance the game and the business of golf and have focused on the first two ways to accomplish that goal. A third suggestion for the golf industry is simply to focus on the golf experience first. How does this differ from the first two points, ensure golf is not a secondary proposition and stop building golf courses solely to sell back yards? Both of these concepts obviously allude to golf not being the primary driver in the bigger picture of a development project. Focusing on the golf experience first, though, specifically refers to the design process itself.

Decisions made that affect the design of a golf course but have nothing to do with the actual golf experience have resulted in golf courses that fall below the potential of the golf experience and struggle financially because of those decisions more than anything else. The process is a domino-effect of poor product. One simple example is the effect on golf that residential housing may have on the layout. When residential development is a component of a golf course project, the golf architect has just one more constraint in developing a golf course routing.

There are many great golf courses in the world that are surrounded by homes where each hole follows the basic criteria of good golf course design, but I submit that without the constraints of residential lot development, the golf architect would have created an even better golf course. Without having to worry about where to put roads and homesites, the golf architect can strictly focus on where to find the very best golf holes.

Taking the residential component out of the equation, there are still other examples of where the golf experience is sacrificed for the need to create an additional profit center or create more efficiency in operations. Granted those are legitimate business concerns, but sometimes the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater (or into the water hazard as the case may be). For instance, the subject of returning nines is one that always comes to the forefront in the early stages of golf course routing. It is hard to prove to me that a golf course with returning nines is better than a golf course without returning nines on the same property. Again, the reason is due to fewer constraints put on the golf architect.

With free reign to route a golf course, I have more opportunity to find the best golf holes. With returning nines as a requisite, I find myself beginning to think of how to return to the clubhouse halfway through each nine hole loop. My focus moves away from the best holes and toward circulation. There may be great golf holes to be had between this point of return and the clubhouse, but odds are the return trip will be a bit more convoluted than if I had to concern myself with returning to the clubhouse later in the routing.

The reasons to create a routing with returning nines usually have to do with being able to run split tee times off both nines, especially in a tournament setting. I have found myself deep in a spirited debate with others who insist that without returning nines, the food and beverage revenue would be greatly affected. When confronted with the possibility of a halfway house as a solution, the quick response is that it is an operational hazard.

The potential fallout from these decisions is never fully recognized as an influential element of the specific composition of a golf course. But the character of the golf course can be so greatly affected throughout the life of the project that it could mean the difference between success and failure. Of course, failure is always a slow death and rarely is tied to one particular decision. Often times, the assumed answer is that there just wasn’t as much demand as the feasibility study portrayed. Could it be that the design of the golf course was so affected by decisions such as these that the demand dissipated due to a poor golf experience?

Construction costs associated with trying to fit numerous golf holes into the ground (in terms of earthwork moved, drainage, erosion control) because the golf architect was forced to manipulate square pegs into round holes can be so costly that final construction costs have a damning affect on the original business plan. As costs go up, so do green fees and the course is priced out of too many golfer’s wallets. The potential liability issues that are compromised with these routing decisions can have endless negative results as well.

There are many other small-scale examples of where golf course design has been compromised for factors which do not focus on the golf experience first. In my opinion, the importance of conditioning has far outweighed the strategy of the golf course in defining the “golf experience” and the numerous decisions that have been made in the design and construction phases of a project that have been based purely on conditioning (not to be confused with efficiency of maintenance) have dropped the quality bar when it comes to pure design for the sake of challenge and excitement. A mantra in the business is that good maintenance can always cover up poor design. Of course the flipside of that is that poor maintenance can ruin great design.

At the end of the day, the golfer may be unaware of what could have been, but the quality of the golf course may be such that not enough rounds are being produced to ensure a viable product. Many will point to time or cost as the leading indicator for a lack of revenue. But an argument could be made that if the focus was on the golf experience, the golf course architect could have a freer hand to create the best possible product. The resulting great golf course itself would be the marketing silver bullet to improve sales (not deals, GPS, wall-to-wall conditioning, impressive rock walls or fountains). Sacrificing a handful of lots for a much improved golf course could be the difference. Too many times, that rationale is never given enough legitimacy.

I obviously feel the golf experience has been minimized for the sake of other elements of a golf course project both on a large and small scale. Many will argue that a project is not just simply all about the design. Nonetheless, those same people have continually caused project costs to rise with flippant consideration for good golf course design. The irony is that good design does not cost as much money as bad design, yet golf course development costs have steadily risen as strategy is eschewed in favor of perfect playing conditions and extraneous factors which are given too much importance by operators and marketing firms alike. Now that the bottom has dropped out, I think the connection was pretty strong. So let’s stop ignoring the golf experience and return to smart design. If the golf course is good enough, the golfer may not mind rougher conditions or getting a hot dog at a halfway house.

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