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Out of Bounds: Why Public Golf Has Lost Its Appeal
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.