7 min read.Updated: 11 Apr 2021, 02:38 PM ISTPAT DOOLEY, The Wall Street Journal
People flocked to socially distanced golf courses over the past year. Now the courses are looking for ways to make sure they stay.
Golf has had a resurgence during the pandemic, with about half a million more players picking up clubs than did in 2019.
Can it hold on to the growth in a post-pandemic world?
Golf-course operators are scrambling to make sure it does, as they look for ways to keep the newbies coming back once the country gets closer to normalcy. They’re aiming to make the game more informal and responsive to newcomers by loosening the dress code, easing some rules of play and offering shortened rounds. They’re also trying to play up the idea of golf as a social occasion or opportunity for exercise rather than just a sport. And they have to implement all these changes without driving away the longtime golfers they already have.
“The conversation in the golf industry is to see if we can keep those golfers," says Kevin Purcell, the executive director of the New Jersey State Golf Association.
Sustaining the growth
This deluge of new players couldn’t have come at a better time for golf courses. After Tiger Woods won the Masters in record fashion in 1997, golf saw a boom in rounds played and courses built. The industry continued to grow with the population, reaching a peak of 30 million golfers in 2003.
Then, in 2006, came the housing collapse and subsequent financial crisis and economic downturn. Courses around the country closed, and the number of rounds played dropped for 13 straight years.
But last year, as cabin fever gripped the country, the two most popular activities were binge-watching TV shows—and playing golf.
According to a report put together by the National Golf Foundation, golfers played 502 million rounds last year, the most since 2007. Research firm U.S. Golf Datatech reported a 13.9% increase in rounds played, the largest increase since the company began tracking in 1998. Also seeing growth: operations such as Topgolf, where players hit balls and enjoy a party-like atmosphere in individual spaces set up with bars and beverages.
What’s more, the growth came despite big obstacles for courses and players. Most charity tournaments—a major part of any public course’s budget—were canceled. Meanwhile, the number of rounds increased even though more than half of the nation’s 16,166 courses were closed at least briefly because of the pandemic.
Many of those golfers were either new to the game or pulled a dusty old set of clubs out of the closet to start up again. And the number of nongolfers who say they’re very interested in playing golf has risen to 17 million, up 1.5 million from 2019, the National Golf Foundation says.
So, how to keep all of them engaged?
Many courses say they are paying more attention to what the customers want. Sounds simple, but that hasn’t always been the way courses have operated.
For instance, Touchstone Golf, which manages 39 golf courses in the Western U.S., used to stick to the traditional golf experience, says Steve Harker, chief executive and a PGA professional.
But it’s now trying to engage with customers and their interests. “That hasn’t been a part of the golf culture," he says.
Touchstone surveyed 7,000 golfers after the start of the pandemic, asking them what services they would like to see the company offer. “About one-third wanted the 15-minute golf tuneup," Mr. Harker says. “They needed a little bit of help with their games." Customers also liked the idea of social events such as “Nine and Wine"—tournaments with golfers playing only nine holes and having a social gathering after the round.
The company is now offering customers both options, Mr. Harker says.
Joe Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, sees the mission of the golf industry as being three-pronged—identifying and enticing people who might be interested in playing; making sure the newcomers feel welcome; and nurturing their games with training clinics so they feel comfortable around other golfers.
“The golf courses that are doing it right are doing these things," he says. “These new golfers have to experience success early. They need to experience shot euphoria." For instance, he says, new golfers should get the chance to take half-swings with wedges early on—which naturally pops the ball into the air—so they can succeed at getting the ball off the ground.
Tim Schantz, president and CEO of Troon Golf, which manages more than 500 golf properties world-wide, believes a key strategy is offering different flavors of golf for different audiences. The expert golfer can insist on finishing every hole and hitting from the tees that are farthest back, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to.
“We’ve been trying to break down the barriers to entry," he says. “Dress codes, things that come across as more formal or stilted, can be relaxed in a way that’s better for all involved. At the same time, you don’t want to push people away. There’s a medium in between there, and we want to take the right kinds of steps."
For instance, he says, “there’s nothing wrong with someone playing six holes carrying their bag and throwing the ball out of the trap instead of hitting it," rather than a traditional style of play, or playing rounds with just one club instead of a whole bagful.
“It’s all OK, and that’s still golf," he says. “I’m probably a core customer and I don’t begrudge the noncore experience. The different flavors don’t bother me. I think there’s more of that mentality seeping in overall. There’s room for everybody in a way that doesn’t change the game."
Moving beyond the game
Speeding up the game and not making a round take half of your day could also entice more golfers, especially when people are going back to work in their offices and don’t have as much leisure time.
In Austin, Texas, the division manager of golf for the city, Kevin Gomillion, has seen a “crazy uptick" in the six courses he deals with, including at a nine-holer that had been losing money for 20 years but has seen an increase of 5,000 rounds in the past four months, almost double the monthly rounds played on the course in 2019. The course is now covering its costs, he says.
“It’s been a really good learning process for what we need to do in the future," he says. For instance, he adds, “pace of play is the No. 1 thing that discourages people." So, the course has added more space between tee times and no longer allows fivesomes—which means that groups don’t bunch up against each other on the course, and larger groups don’t slow down play.
“It’s rare that a group has more than a four-hour round," Mr. Gomillion says, “and that makes it more enjoyable for the golfers."
Another strategy that some courses are adopting: appealing to golfers who want exercise but don’t want to be encumbered by a heavy bag of clubs. In some cases, they’re using technology to help implement the idea. During the pandemic, the Tempo Walk, a Roomba-like device that follows along behind golfers and carries their clubs and other gear, has gained popularity.
Danny Eckles, a territory manager for Tempo Walk maker Club Car, says he has leased between 1,500 and 2,000 around the nation since the company put them into production in 2019.
At Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra, Fla., the club is leasing 12 of the devices, four for each of the nine holes that make up the layout.
“I’d say that 10 of the 12 get 36 holes a day," says Sawgrass Director of Golf Stefan Brunt. “It’s the closest thing you can get to a caddie. We’ll see if people are still walking in the summer months, but if it’s trending that way, we will probably get more."
Of course, the pandemic isn’t over, even as the number of new Covid cases drops—so some in the industry think the current boom may continue for a while for that reason alone. “We anticipate June and July to have a pretty robust tee sheet," says Brett Berniger, who manages two courses for the city of Lakewood, Colo.
Richard Singer, the senior director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation, thinks that part of the bump in activity comes from regular golfers who are working from home and have more control over their schedule. “If that work-at-home trend continues, I would expect golf demand to remain strong," he says.
But, he says, the long-term health of the industry comes down to the simplest equation. “There’s no magic formula," he says. “It’s up to the individual operators to find the pathway at their location."
Mr. Dooley is a writer in Gainesville, Fla.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.