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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

President Obama’s Need for Change Applicable to the Golf Business

“We Need Change!” On Tuesday, January 20th, an historic event takes place in our nation’s capital as Barack Obama takes the oath as President of the United States of America. Indeed the change he called for throughout his election campaign probably wasn’t levied at the golf industry, but it certainly does apply. Just like other industry sectors such as banking and automotive, the golf industry needs change in order to survive.

For years, our nation has been spending freely and not looking toward the inevitable downturn where unprecedented spending often leads. We have been besieged by experts telling us that credit is good and debt is not bad. Somehow, even, we can roll bad debt in to good debt and lower our expenses as if we never have to pay our debt off. Such a great idea is nothing more than delaying the inevitable and at one point, the buck will have to stop!

That time has come for the golf business in the United States, even as numerous international golf developments with ‘pie in the sky visions’ (and budgets) follow the same path we followed. They seemingly are blind to the pitfalls that now face the American golf business. Personally, I have witnessed over-indulgent budget numbers for proposed golf projects in the eight-figure range becoming much too common. More frighteningly, they were becoming much too accepted as well. Budgets just half that amount were flippantly considered ‘the cost of doing business’. Well, my friends, the cost of doing business may just cost us the business – lock, stock, and barrel.

The bottom line is golf costs too much for the average golfer and We Need Change! So, where do we start as proud stewards of a game we love and a business that is a major provider of not just recreation, but jobs as well? We as an industry must first relate to the golfers that the game can still be fun without the bells and whistles that have been promoted by those looking to improve profit margins or sell real estate. When I am in a budget crunch, I curtail the spending. I don’t spend more in order to charge more, because at some point that cycle will stall (here we are in a deep recession –point made). Ironically, I believe the average golfer will accept less spending at their golf course in order to continue to play the game.

The golf industry needs to stop focusing on marketing the next best thing that doesn’t do anything but raise costs. Instead, focus on the attributes of a game which started as a common man’s sport long ago yet morphed into big business centuries later. Back to my earlier question, “How do we improve the golfing economy in America?” Here are five ideas to get the conversation started:

Stop selling golf as a backyard first and a game second!

About eighty percent of all golf courses built in the past few decades were to enhance residential development, yet only forty percent of homeowners play the game. Those numbers simply add up to a supply of facilities with a lack of demand. Maybe golf isn’t the silver bullet to success for homebuilders. Green space, yes. Golf, not necessarily. If golf was built for golf first and real estate frontage second, the supply would better reflect the demand and expenses would be less as well.

Let’s play on a surface that promotes fun over carpet-like emerald conditions!

Reduced maintenance budgets will help provide some wiggle room when golfer rounds are down. The game of golf captured everyone long before we accepted carpeted conditions as standard. Besides, the green many clamor for is an artificial condition that requires a large amount of energy and money. In fact, the greener a golf course is, the wetter the golf course as well. The result is a soggy playing field with little chance for bounce and roll. Fast and firm is how the game was always meant to be played and very few places offer that opportunity. The fun is seeing where your ball ends up, not repairing ball marks after your tee shot on par fours and fives.

Quit clamoring for fair conditions and accept the rub of the green!

Hand in hand is perfect maintenance with ‘fair’ playing conditions, but the game (like life) was never meant to be fair. The PGA Tour player was the first to complain about conditions. They are playing for a living. Most golfers are not. Yet as Tour purses rose, so did demands for fair conditions on and off the tour. Golf is not just about putting a proper swing on the ball, but about learning to extract the ball from whatever may come one’s way. Do you know that the average maintenance staff spends more time on sand bunker maintenance than putting surface maintenance nowadays? The sand bunker is a hazard, not an alternate fairway. Again, less maintenance means less expense.

Market the golf course, not the technology!

Instead of spending money to install GPS in all your carts and using that as a marketing tool, why not invest in thoughtful design of your golf holes to distinguish your facility from the competition. Granted GPS is a less expensive proposition, but eventually all courses will have it and the advantage is gone. The point is not really to beat up on the GPS concept, but to stop the search for newer and better ways to gain business and start focusing on why we play the game. That truly could be enough for an operator to improve cash flow, provided the operator is willing to invest in smart design. Please note that I said smart, not expensive. There is a difference. Give the golfer a golf course where the golf holes are fun and challenging.

Respect the ground for what it is and not for what it could be!

One of the primary costs of golf course construction is earth moving. The great golf courses of the golden age as well as other ones which have always been considered top layouts had one thing in common: The design of each golf hole was determined by the lay of the land. Nowadays, the typical golf course architect depends largely on moving ungodly amounts of dirt to replicate their vision achieved (or developed) elsewhere. Each piece of ground is unique in its own special way. Enhance that individuality with some creativity, not with the easy solution of a bulldozer.

We need change in our industry and these five simple thoughts all have one common theme – the game of golf is what created the business of golf and is what will sustain the business as well. At the end of the day, these solutions will reduce development costs as well as operational costs. In return, hopefully lower fees for the end user will still allow the businessman an acceptable return on investment. Let’s drop our expectations from unrealistic and failing to common sense practicalities to succeed. I hope this rant can be a microcosm not just for the game of golf, but the big picture. Good luck, Mr. President. Let common sense and not the critics or experts influence your decisions.

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