Are you currently satisfied with the playing conditions found at your golf course? Have you grown tired of trying to salvage par on surfaces that refuse to roll true? Maybe the course you call home has neglected the average golfer in favor of accommodating a professional tournament that never has and will never roll into town. Or maybe your course has become too expensive to continue playing on regular basis. These are just some of the reasons why golfers have been steadily abandoning the game over the last decade, raising serious questions about what the future holds for public access golf.
Granted there are certain courses that are virtually bulletproof to any mention of the word attrition. An iconic gem like a Torrey Pines, a Bethpage Black or a Brackenridge Park are never going to have trouble filling out their daily tee sheets. Courses like the Black, however, represent a fraction of the over 11,000 public facilities in the United States (21 percent of which are municipal) feeling the affects of the recession in one form or another.
According to the National Golf Foundation, nine out of every 10 golfers plays regularly at a public facility. Many of them have enjoyed the game at budget-friendly, no frills clubs. The local municipal or town course, the sort where golfers use the parking lot as a makeshift locker room, are a by-product of a 1960s golfing boom that coincided with the emergence of the middle class. These courses were the weekend battlegrounds for Arnie’s Army. They were the classrooms for fathers passing down lessons to their sons and daughters. They made a generation of kids late for dinner at a time when life moved a little slower. Now, these same courses are struggling to remain relevant within the fabric of American life.
The number of rounds logged at value courses (facilities with green and cart fees under $40 during peak season) has declined 26 percent since 1987, according to NGF. The same report predicts 5 to 10 percent of public courses will close shop within the next decade. At face value, it’s easy to categorize the trend as a market undergoing self-correction. Perhaps a number of courses deserve to be put out to pasture. But things are not that simple.
The industry as a whole is experiencing strain. A survey conducted in 2011 by Golf Course Industry (GCI) found that one-third of private facilities and more than 40 percent that are public lost money. Not surprisingly, facilities have slashed their operational budgets over the past several years with more than half of superintendents at both public and private courses indicating a reduction in labor.
By streamlining their budgets, some golf clubs have avoided the red or even turned out a profit. Other clubs battening down the hatches haven’t fared as well. As bleak as the situation may seem, you might be surprised to learn that more than half of all superintendents polled by GCI believe they will be economically viable three years from now. The reason for their optimism? With all the courses expected to close this decade (somewhere between 500 and 1,000 according to NGF) they are anticipating a spike in demand. This is a simple case of addition by subtraction and shouldn’t be interpreted as a cause for celebration. It doesn’t address the fundamental problem that golfers are packing up their stand bags and heading home.
Rather than use current economic conditions as a crutch and maintain a business-as-usual policy, course owners are going to have to take a hard look at their budget plans. They may have to consider refurbishing facilities that have seen better days. They may have no choice but to lower their green fees. And they will be expected to aggressively market to a new generation of Americans accustomed to finding and getting the most bang for their buck. Don’t expect a five or six hour march up and down less-than-pristine fairways and greens at a premium price to be part of any successful marketing plan aimed at generation Groupon.
“Golf is a repeat business,” said Bruce Glasco, senior vice president and managing director of Troon Golf EMA in a discussion panel coordinated by KPMG in 2010. “Forging those relationships is critical. Once you lose that trust, you lost a customer, and they don’t come back quickly. There are other options out there.”
Unfortunately, the term “other options” has over the past couple of decades meant making a tee time at either expensive daily fee courses, resort courses or private courses. Like their thrifty forebears of the 60s, these modern, upscale courses were equally driven by market forces, primarily those of real estate development in the 1990s. The NGF was particularly instrumental in spurring demand, publishing numerous reports including a “Strategic Plan for the Growth of the Game” that cited a need to build enough golf courses to meet the demands of baby boomers in their retirement years. The golf industry averaged 400 golf course openings per year throughout the decade, peaking in the year 2000. According to the NGF, more than 40 percent of these courses were tied to master planned communities and were leveraged to sell real estate at premium prices. They were also influential on public golf course construction.
“Ironically, this real estate development strategy also indirectly inspired many existing golf courses as well as many entrepreneurial developers of public golf courses that did not have a real estate tie-in, to build more costly, longer and more difficult golf courses, because they wanted to offer a ‘country club for a day’ golf experience,” wrote NGF President, David B. Hueber in August 2012. “These golf courses were too difficult for the average golfer; and, it took more time to play a round of golf. … It was a perfect storm of unintended consequences that created golf courses that did not meet the needs of its customers and that were not economically viable.”
The golf course industry of today is slowly coming around. This change in mindset is most clearly reflected by the way in which modern golf course design is beginning to assert itself, embracing a strategy that exercises restraint without sacrificing creativity.
On the north shore of Long Island, a links-inspired public course designed by famed architect Gil Hanse has thrived by delivering a picturesque, shot-making marvel at a budget-friendly price.
Located roughly 70 miles east of New York City, Tallgrass Golf Course is tucked inside a neighborhood the size of a shoebox that divides the suburban sprawl preceding it and miles of farmland to the east. Built in 2000, Hanse transformed a sod farm with just one foot of elevation change into rolling landscape of terraced fairways that play above and below each other. Although Tallgrass is situated on a 150-foot acre square-shaped parcel of land, the open nature of the layout ensures that a golfer never has the feeling of being boxed in. The course features false fronts on the greens, strategically placed pot bunkers and tall fescue grasses that should be avoided at all costs if you intend to keep your score low and your round moving.
At 6,500 yards from the tips, Tallgrass is a pleasure to walk and to play. The course itself is not especially penal but the wind makes up for that, testing golfers on their ability to keep it low and shape it both ways.
Phil Tita, general manager and head golf professional, has overseen Tallgrass for the past five years. It’s a course, he said, that fit a variety of playing styles and could be genuinely enjoyed by golfers of varying caliber.
“We want the course to play as firm and fast as we can,” Tita said. “We don’t have a lot of forced carries into greens. Better golfers can play a variety of shots including lobs into the greens. But if you don’t have that ability, you can still bounce the shot up on almost any hole.”
To keep the course playing firm and fast, Tita and his superintendent keep watering to a minimum. Approaches into greens were watered only twice in 2012. Crews will use a technique called syringing to apply a light mist of water to cool the putting surface when the heat index rises.
“It takes a higher degree of skill when drying out the place,” Tita said. “It would be much easier to dump a whole bunch of water and keep it lush.”
Not only would over-watering increase electric and fuel expenses, but it would also ruin the character of the course and make it play one-dimensionally — primarily through the air. As a good custodian, Tita has no such designs. He uses the conditioning of the course, the distinctive links-style layout and most importantly — the Gil Hanse brand — to attract new business while giving existing customers a reason to keep coming back.
During the past three years, Tallgrass has been recognized as one of the best courses in New York according to Golfweek. Not surprisingly, Bethpage Black has a strangle-hold over the coveted top spot. But the Black charges residents $75 on weekends, twice that amount for out-of-town players. By comparison, peak green fees at Tallgrass max out at $50, cart included.
Even with reduced green fees, Tallgrass remains profitable, but it’s no walk in the park. Tita and his staff are constantly scrutinizing their budget and rejecting any expenses that aren’t deemed essential to the presentation or operation of the course. Revenue was up 19 percent last year, but Tita admits the numbers could’ve been better if they raised their green fees or were less diligent about staggering tee times.
“We have 10 minute intervals between groups,” Tita said. “We try to get you in and out within four and half hours or less. We could do more intervals, but you’d have six-hour rounds.”
Sound familiar? It should be for anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of spending their Sunday morning languishing behind a foursome that’s behind another foursome. A typical municipal golf course sends out groups in six- to eight-minute intervals. Get more players on the course and bring in more revenue, or so the thought goes. But it comes at the expense of overcrowding and customer dissatisfaction. In this regard, Tita and his staff have sacrificed what they believe are short-term gains in favor of maintaining long-term engagements with their customer base.
Tallgrass may have a unique blend of factors contributing to its success, but it’s far from being a one-of-a-kind concept. Rustic Canyon, another Gil Hanse design opened in 2002 in Moorpark, Calif. — 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Like Tallgrass, Hanse used imagination and the natural lay of the land to build another affordable, retro-style golf course.
Rustic Canyon sits at the base of Happy Camp Canyon 800 feet above sea level and is framed by mountainous terrain. The golf course originally stretched to 6,906 yards (it’s since been expanded to 7,028 yards) but hardly any earth — just 17,000 cubic yards — was moved to sculpt the layout. By comparison, around five million cubic yards was shoveled for nearby Moorpark Country Club which was constructed in the same year. The front nine at Rustic Canyon features a relatively flat walk through an area defined by a dry wash. The rest of the course climbs into the base of the mountains and is a much tougher test.
By allowing the course to follow the shape of the land and take full advantage of the natural elevation changes, Hanse was able to keep construction costs down and design Rustic Canyon on a modest budget exceeding just over $3 million. The low overhead and the universally acclaimed design has allowed the course to keep green fees low and still bring in a return. The $66 weekend rate for Rustic Canyon is about half the fee charged by neighboring Moorpark Country Club.
Golf Digest Magazine named Rustic Canyon the “Best New Affordable Public Course” back when it opened. The course has also been recently recognized by Golf Digest as one of the most fun public courses in the United States. Unfortunately, only five other golf courses with rates under $60 made the cut.
If Tallgrass and Rustic Canyon can stay busy year-round and make a profit with other courses struggling to stay open, one would think that more courses would be modeled after these two. But it seems there’s a disconnect between simply acknowledging what is necessary for the future of the game and actually making it happen on a mass scale.
If golf’s major stakeholders want to turn around their slumping numbers, they had better reclaim the public’s interest in the game. You can’t continue billing golf as a game you can play for a lifetime when so many golfers are hanging up their spikes and putting their clubs into storage.
A breakdown of NCAA golf’s 2018 early-signing period
With the early-signing period for college golf ending about a week ago, I wanted to examine the numbers and see how they compared to last years. As you may remember, I reported last year that the average National Junior Golf Score Board (NJGS) ranking for a player that signed at a Division One Institution was 365. Likewise, the average NJGS for Power 5 Conference School was 114, while 52 percent of signees where from in-state. This year during the early signing period there were 173 players who signed at D1 schools. Of these the average NJGS for all division one signees was 262.6. The average for the Power 5 Conference signees was 113.76 and again 51 percent of players signed from in-state.
An important question is “what do we know about the 263-ranked player in NJGS (the average rank for D1)?” At the end of the signing period, this player was Ben Woodruff. The native of Huntersille, NC signed to play in-state for the University of North Carolina Charlotte. According to NJGS, Ben played 9 events with one top-5 finish, an overall rank of 507 and a scoring differential of .35. Historically, we see that the average Division One player has a scoring differential very close to .5 or better.
For the second consecutive year, the number one player chose a non-power 5 Conference school; Ben Wong decided to play his college golf for Coach Enloe at Southern Methodist University (SMU), located in Dallas, Texas. This means, Wong a native of Spring, Texas (a northern suburb of Houston) will be playing college golf about 3 hours north. He will also be joined by NJGS second-ranked player Noah Goodwin, giving SMU a formidable pair of recruits! Florida, Louisiana State University, Pepperdine, North Carolina and Texas also all nabbed two players each from the top 25 in their class, while UCLA grabbed three!
Among the most interesting trends in recruiting is the preference for college coaches to recruit “in-state” players. Over the past two years, the number of “in-state” signees have remained about 50 percent. This number, in my opinion, is based largely on limited recruiting budgets; less than 20 percent of schools have major recruiting budgets. Instead many coaches rely on recruiting budgets of a couple thousand dollars, which is not going to “travel” well.
It is also interesting to note that of the signees for Division I listed on NJGS, only 24 of 197 players where international. This means that international players make up 12 percent of the signees. This number is steady from the previous data collect. Of these players, Wake Forest signed players ranked 305 ad 702 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR), while UAB signed a player ranked 2476, Iowa State a player ranked 1098, UTEP a player ranked 2132 (also 325 in NJGS), Western Carolina a player ranked 3699, Stanford a player ranked 208, Arizona a player ranked 141, Colorado a player ranked 754 and 1050, Louisiana Monroe a player ranked 1524, Washington State a player ranked 3251, Northwestern a player ranked 332, Oregon a player ranked 527 and 2229 (also 291 in NJGS), VCU a player ranked 3216 (also 168 in NJGS) and George Washington a player ranked 2851 (also 276 in NJGS). The average WARG for these players is 1,558.5 (please note these represent their current WAGR rankings).
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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
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