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.
Flatstick Focus: Anser-Style Draft and Interview with Nate Stone from Chirrp
In Episode 10, Glenn and Parker draft a team of 5 Anser-style putters to compete for listener votes on Instagram. We also interview Nate Stone from Chirrp Golf to discuss their new product coming to the market later in 2020.
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
The best golf commercials of all time
The world of golf has seen its fair share of commercials; both memorable and well…not so much.
Lucky for us, and cinematographers alike, production values, camera technology, and creative concepts have certainly improved over time with the biggest creative leap thanks to Nike golf. This is look back and both some and the best and, let’s say less creative.
Golf’s Not That Hard, Right?
The Moment Tiger introduces Joe the 27 Handicap, you know it’s not going to end well.
Titleist DT – It’s Wound In.
I don’t know if the best part of this commercial is the music, the fist pumps, or the classic sweater and stiff collar outfits worn by everyone involved.
This was a big Superbowl commercial and it was long after that shankapotomus became part of the golf vernacular.
Kenny G Sells Clubs?
I’ll never quite understand that demographic that was targeted at. People, that enjoy forgiving clubs and smooth saxophone? I guess Lisa Simpson wasn’t available.
Boo Weekley – Launching It
When it comes to characters in golf, Boo Weekly will always be remembered as one of the finest. Although considering VJ is well knows for living right next to TPC Sawgrass I feel like they took some liberties with shooting locations.
Get Custom Fit!
Although the company certainly isn’t around anymore the message is a good one – You’re going to play better with custom-fit clubs. Throw in a groin-hit for good measure because that’s always fun right?
Big Bertha Caddies
This one is pretty good, and if you have ever caddied for any period of time it’s quite relatable. But regardless of the clubs there players are gaming, I’d rather not be carrying a staff bag around for 36 holes unless there is “a little something for the effort.”
PING G10 Irons & Driver
These will always be my favorite golf commercials. They are endlessly funny and play directly into many golfers often farsighted aspirations around their own golf games. Best line “Exactly. One good year and that’s all taken care of.”
What did we miss, GolfWRXers? Let us know your favorite golf commercials in the comments!
A 2015 conversation with Dean Snell
Have a bit of time travel with us, as we go back five years and read what Dean Snell had to say.
Dean Snell lists positions with Titleist and TaylorMade golf ball divisions over his 25 years of involvement with the development of golf balls. In 2015, Snell founded Snell Golf, selling golf balls directly to the consumer. He agreed to answer our interview questions, so have a read.
1. Give us an idea of how Dean Snell found golf and how it became the focal point of his professional life.
I actually did not like golf at all growing up.. I was a hockey player my whole life. My first golf experience was when i was playing hockey out in Hershey PA, my dad came out to see me play, and we had a day off, so he wanted to play golf. I rented clubs.. he was a very good player. The first hole I shot my ball so far right, never found it.. he made par.. Second hole I was again way right, in the woods.. when I heard a huge commotion in the fairway.. my dad was also a big boy, and took no crap from anyone… well these two guys were in his face, so I ran across fairway, clothes-lined one guy and we beat the crap out of these two guys on the second fairway. needless to say they threw us off the course.
I asked my dad what happened on the ride home… evidently he was waiting for me in the woods, and the guys behind us hit their ball and it rolled into him.. so he grabbed a 3 wood and fired it back at them… then they came down and it was GAME ON… so i thought maybe golf can be a fun thing after all.. haha..
I was actually working at BF Goodrich Aerospace and Defense in 1990 designing composite parts for F16 and blackwhawk helicopters when I answered an ad for a quality engineer at Titleist… which happened to be in my hometown of Acushnet MA… they sent my resume over to R&D because of the engineering degree and background I had… two weeks later they offered me a job and I started my career in golf.. i didn’t even have a set of clubs…So I got some clubs, started playing and have been hooked on golf since… which makes it easier cause my hockey days are not over…I started working on designing the engineering process to make cast urethane golf balls, and introduced the first cast urethane ball in Titleist Professional in 1994/95.
2. What were the most important lessons you learned while at Acushnet and TaylorMade?
I love both companies… Both extremely professional and very technical… While at Acushnet, I truly had to learn the game of golf.. engineering, performance, what was important, testing, EVERYTHING…. then i began to work with the tour players and developing a good understanding of what they would look for in a design. At TaylorMade it was a complete business start up… They had one ball patent, and didn’t even have a scale to weigh a ball.. so very interesting in building factories, processes, designs, development and complete business practices.. Again, worked very close with tour players and continued to understand what they need and how to make products they eventually would play and win at the highest level. Today, a lot of these players are still good friends and I keep in touch with.
3. Snell has two golf ball lines, the “My Tour Ball” and the “Get Sum.” What are the most important features of each ball?
MY TOUR BALL is a 3-pc CAST URETHANE covered ball..this cover technology has been around since 1994 and I believe nothing will ever replace it.. it is outstanding… allows very soft covers for soft feel, extremely durable urethane and we cast it very thin to allow outstanding short game spin and control…The core is very low compression and FAST in ball speed, which equates to lower driver spin rates and faster ball speeds, both of which make the ball very long off the tee… the mantle layer is designed to control the iron spin… it works with the core on longer irons to keep spin down and prevent ballooning, and then works with the soft urethane cover to create high short game spin and control…LONG, SOFT, ,DURABLE, and spin control… great combo.
GET SUM is made to have low compression, low spin core and thin soft ionomer cover to give very soft feel. This ball is lower in spin, launches a bit higher with all clubs.. great ball for higher handicaps, as the lower spin helps reduce hooks and slices and helps the ball fly straighter… also easier to get up in the air, which is sometimes a challenge…
4. How does a start-up golf ball company hope to compete with established companies, boasting decades of success at all levels of the game?
In all honesty I do not think we plan to compete with the big companies. This is an on line direct to consumer based business where we reduce a lot of expenses and pass the savings on to the consumers… The larger companies will still have the big stores, on course and off course retailers, and even they sell some on line… I am trying to bring the best technologies and processes and performance at a lower price to consumers to help them play more, and want to play more..The way we sell will not be measured in any market share numbers reported by the larger companies.
5. Snell golf has a members forum on its site, for supporters to ask questions, contribute comments and offer opinions. What is the value in dedicating a portion of the site to your customers?
I love education and think that golf is very tough and technical.. I have some good experience and stories over the last 25 years, and if I can find a place to share this info to consumers, I love to do that. anyone can log on and submit any technical questions they may have about golf balls and technology, and I will do my best to give my technical opinion and help them out…
6. Currently, Snell golf balls are available only through the company website. Why is this and will it continue into the future?
We are a small start up… the niche today is selling direct to consumers.. so no big marketing expenses, no big tour contracts, no sales reps, no mark ups… so the balls cost the same to make as other balls, but all the expenses we can save is passed on to the consumers…I have a lot of pro shops call and want to carry… will it ever been seen in pro shops, I am sure it will… but today we have a niche and are not set up to support this type of system. If any pro shop wanted to call and place an order for their club or members, we would certainly take the order and ship out the next day…I have a crawl, walk run philosophy in business… i think if you try to do too many things too fast, you fail. we have a had a lot of requests to have distributors overseas… great ideas, but just not ready to do this yet… LET IT DEVELOP is my favorite saying.
7. How will you measure success for Snell golf balls?
Our plans are realistic and we plan to start small and let it develop… learn and try to do things right. We have target goals to meet in a 3 year plan, and will work hard every day to meet these goals…
8. What aspects of golf ball development and production are most unknown/confusing to the consumer, and deserve clarification?
I think I have two…compression.. people think they have to play a low compression ball to “compress” the ball..not true at all every golfer compresses the ball.. compression is a designers tool that helps us understand spin rates and has a small factor in the overall feel of the ball.. so dont worry about compression.. most balls today have not ratings for a reason.. they are not important… Second is swing speed… in my opinion players should not choose a ball based on swing speed.. if a player picks a lower compression ball based on swing speed, that means he or she is playing a ball that has a lower spin rate… so think about it… you are picking a ball that “may” increase your ball speed by 0.5 mph with a driver.. lets say that did happen.. that means now your 230 yard drive just went 231 yards… so now you are a whopping one yard longer (maybe) and you have to play the rest of the hole with a ball that is made to have no spin or low spin… and where do you need spin the most? around the green…you should play a ball that fits your game around the green.. test several models from inside 70 yards.. chips,… putts, etc.. then dont worry about driver.. they all go about the same distance today… but you score around the green… choose the ball that fits your game where you play the most… not off the tee…
9. What questions haven’t we asked, that you wish we had? Ask them and answer them, please.
Is this a cheap tour ball?
No, I never use the word cheap.. people believe that if the tour ball is cheaper then it is not as good.. i only ask that you try it… I used the same technologies and materials that have been used in tour balls for over 20 years… proven on tour… the performance is there.. the cost is a savings for you to hope you play more…
Will there be any tour players in the ball?
At this point, we have had a few players contact us to play the ball.. unfortunately, as a small start up, we are not paying large tour contracts at this time, and are passing this savings on to you the consumers… I have designed or co designed golf balls for the best players in the world over the last 25 years at both Titliest and TaylorMade, and have a good understanding of golf ball performance, and what it takes to create this type for performance. Golf is my passion today, but hockey is still my favorite sport… even if I have never been successful to tie the two sports together like I had in my first golf experience with my dad.. haha..
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