Thanksgiving is a time of reflection (as always) and this year the reflections are bittersweet for the golf industry. In fact, it’s more bitter than sweet as the whole nation struggles to rebound from the economic meltdown of previous months. Recent events have only intensified the already ‘in progress’ meltdown of the golf industry over the past few years.
Directly related to the housing crisis, the majority of golf course developments have proliferated in past decades in order to sell homes first and provide golfing grounds second. A golf slowdown was inevitable regardless of recent national economic events. In efforts to sell golf for reasons that weren’t always ‘golf’: Overspending during construction; Over-managing with the focus on fringe profit centers as we neglect of the game itself and; Over-maintenance have created a major golfing recession that was in dire need of a correction anyway. I’m glad we are here as an industry and I see many benefits of this correction.
Below are five reasons golfers should give thanks for this current economic challenge.
Reason #1: A Far Overdue Contraction of Golf Courses
Attention: Too many golf courses, not enough golfers. As mentioned before, the driving factors in building many golf courses has not been to satisfy golfer demand. There are pockets of demography screaming for golf, but in many locations (especially major metropolitan areas) that is not the case. If the presence of ten golf course developments within a six mile radius of a burgeoning suburb in (pick a city) seems odd to you, there is good reason. You don’t have to be a market expert to understand that.
As many golf courses with unworkable business models go under, the most obvious result is the proper scaling of supply and demand. But a more attractive by-product is that many golf courses which have realistic business models but were forced to compete irrationally will slowly get healthy and provide a better product for the golfer.
Reason #2: A Downsizing of Conditioning
Sustainability is one of those cool new words in the lexicon of many when discussing the greening of America and being more environmentally friendly (I prefer environmentally respectful). A golf course though, by nature, has been a great use of land regarding the sustainability of its resources when compared to other land uses such as shopping malls or condominiums. The golf course superintendent has made great strides in continuing to push the boundaries regarding Best Management Practices through daily maintenance procedures. Gone are the days of over-fertilization and pesticide management by the calendar. Yet more can still be done if the golfer will allow it.
One of the reasons costs have continually risen over the years is a rising maintenance budget to match the expectations of management and golfers alike who want to play in pristine, unnatural surroundings on top of a carpet-like surface, etc. The game of golf was never meant to be played on perfect grounds and the United States is the largest perpetrator of the “Augusta syndrome”. Sustainability has reigned in the British Isles forever, yet the American golfer thinks the golf courses viewed on TV during the (British) Open Championship are sickly and unplayable when in fact nothing is furthest from the truth. The turf grasses of those courses are actually healthier plants than the emerald stalks that dominate American layouts. We need to start realizing brown is good and that too much green makes our wallets sick. With operating budgets slashed for survival, the American golfer must embrace the brown revolution. That will be a good thing.
Reason #3: Strategy, Not Aesthetics
Another primary cause of rising expense, both in construction and maintenance comes in the driving need to create a landscape that rivals the Seven Wonders of the World. For too long we strove to create a wonderful palette of green grasses contrasting with sculptures of brilliant white sand and pristine blue waters while the golfer can’t get around a course in a reasonable timeframe. The focus has been on a pretty picture and not a fun challenge.
The fun challenge comes in creating golf holes with choices for the golfer based upon thought and not just strength. That is what we call strategy people! The incorporation of strategy means less earthmoving and less built hazards. Conditioning issues aside, Augusta National is still one of the most strategic golf courses ever built. Count the number of sand bunkers there and compare that to the number of bunkers at the next great ‘must-play’. With a return to strategy and not just aesthetics, less construction and maintenance costs will mean more affordable (and fun) golf experiences.
Reason #4: Allow Golf to be the Driving Force in a Golf Course
The industry will now have to really re-evaluate ‘service’. People come to a golf course to play golf, first and foremost. They aren’t coming to your facility because you have warm terry cloth towels in the bathroom or GPS in the carts. They just aren’t. Clubhouse advocates also must realize that if your golf course stinks, people aren’t going to join your club because of the 45,000 square feet of dining and catering facilities and workout space.
So let’s stop thinking we need to supplement the golf course with these other profit centers and start focusing on providing a reasonable and fun golf experience. I will say that an ‘over the top’ clubhouse has crippled a golf course many more times than a golf course put a clubhouse in the hole. By the way, this is another one of those ‘if it doesn’t make sense, then it probably is a non-sense’ things. You don’t have to be an industry expert to think otherwise.
Reason #5: More Affordability
There has been a battle over slashed green fees all over the nation the past few years as operators continue to fight for their piece of the pie. Many industry insiders feel that the continuous drop in fees will cause irreparable damage to a facility’s well being. Whereas I cannot speak to that concept specifically, I will say that as expenses come down, competition goes away, and poor business models make drastic attempts to be smart operators, lowering costs will be offset by lowering operating budgets. The winner will be the golfer again.
But the big winner will be the new golfer. By dropping price points, not only will that open up golf to more people, it will require operators to more readily accept coming up with ways to attract new golfers at more affordable prices which won’t seem as out of line as previous price points.
The bottom line is the golfer does not need gigantic clubhouses, a valet pulling up in the parking lot, GPS, and our own personal wet bar in our cart. We don’t want to pay for it and the operator isn’t making money from it. We just want good golf! I, for one, have great confidence that the silver lining in all this will reap great benefits for the golf industry in the future and feel it is a quiet (but major) first step in an industry correction that will return the game to the forefront, thus saving the business.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!