Though this contradicts what you hear and read, the game itself is not distressed. What is foundering is the business of golf due of course to the decline in the number of people participating in the game.
Fewer golfers mean fewer customers to buy the clubs, the greens fees and the golf trips which generate the revenue for every business in the industry from Titleist and TaylorMade to Pebble Beach Resort, the city muni to the local golf shop.
It’s this business we have to worry about, not the game.
A common assumption is the declining health of the golf business will be reversed by the well-publicized efforts to recruit new people to become golfers. The reality is however society’s cultural and demographic trends are moving away from golf as a leisure activity. The reasons (less leisure time, employment demands, kids’ activities, etc.) have been studied, discussed and written about. The inescapable conclusion is no one should pin their hopes on droves of newbies taking up the game. It also means the millions being spent by the USGA, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America to find new golfers is not likely to produce the desired results.
Charitably these efforts might be labeled as ineffective but futile and wrong-headed are not too strong since the very act of creating “programs” and dispensing money creates the sense that what is being done – whether it works or not – is progress. Rather than all these efforts to bring in new people to golf, a better target would be developing ways to keep present players.
In other words retention not recruitment.
The front lines in this battle to keep players playing and wanting to play more are at your favorite golf course and the soldiers are PGA professionals, club managers and owners.
The logic looks like this.
If someone already plays golf, it’s a reasonable assumption he or she receives at least some enjoyment. Therefore efforts to make the experience even more fun should result in them playing more and encouraging friends and family to join them.
The common factor in every golfing experience is the golf facility but many are still operating in ways which push customers away with little attention paid (other than the self-defeating discounting of fees) to attracting and holding new customers. With no particular prejudice here are the most obvious factors:
Pace of Play – Boy, talk about missing the boat! A 4½ hour round has somehow become “normal” when an hour less is easily done. It not magic. Get golfers playing from tees matching their ability on a layout not set up for the US Open. Four inch rough, warp-speed greens and pins perched barely over bunkers are too often the norm. There’s only one word for this and the word is inane. Is it any wonder pace of play is a problem?
Atmosphere – Simple things such as the signage around a club create an atmosphere that can help or hurt a customer’s experience. Welcoming signs such as “NO CARTS ALLOWED” or “NO PRIVATE COOLERS” or a particular favorite “NO CUTOFFS, SHIRTS MUST HAVE COLLARS, WOMEN IN SHORT SHORTS NOT ALLOWED” say a lot and it’s all negative. A facility should set standards for customer behavior and attire but the way those “rules” are conveyed makes all the difference. The “THOU SHALT NOT…” signs betray that management’s attitude and business methods need an overhaul.
Staffing – Sadly, too often there is little of no employee training or it’s attempted in a slipshod manner and obvious when training does not have priority. Customers aren’t greeted nor treated properly and tasks, even simple ones like checking in a foursome, assume the status of a 12-year old practicing the piano. He’ll do it but he won’t enjoy it. Then, in what seems to be a purposeful customer-aggravation program, course rangers are often drawn from a hiring pool composed entirely of retired Marine drill sergeants. Management must get their priorities straight with staffing at the head of the list. Golf facilities are not an “employer of last resort” for people with low motivation and a bad attitude.
Cost – Economics 101 tells us about price versus supply and ideas such as elasticity and demand pricing. Simple fact: courses need enough revenue to maintain the facility and provide attractive services for customers and therefore the everyday discounting of greens fees has to stop. Courses must have the money to find, hire, train and retain high quality people and cannot if they continue to cheapen their product by discounting. On the other hand customers also have to get out of the “gimme-a-deal” mindset which in the long run is ruining courses’ financial health.
Rules of the game – Though not something that can be controlled at the golf facility, the Rules Of Golf and the way they are administered by the USGA do have an effect, a distracting effect on the business of golf. The vast majority of golfers don’t play by the Rules. What’s more they don’t want to and more significantly don’t care. Therefore all the sound and fury over the ball going too far or whether a drop is one or two club lengths are distractions. All the noise about the Rules and what club is deemed conforming or which ball has excessive initial velocity muddies the water from what should be the overwhelming concern of keeping people playing and playing more often. The debate about coefficient of restitution and non-allowable anchored strokes really relates to the miniscule percentage of players who are the most visible to the media – the pros and elite amateurs. The average guy and gal who tee it up after work on a Tuesday couldn’t care less if the Rules must be changed because of the immense skills of those fortunate few players who compete for millions of dollars.
Difficulty – Some say the game is called golf because all the other four letter words were taken but it’s time we paid more than lip service to how difficult it is to become even modestly proficient. Why not offer free lessons when someone purchases a greens fee…or a sleeve of balls? This may not be the way to acquire the skills to challenge Tiger Woods but if it gives players a better chance to have fun the game and business benefit.
Social – Surveys show a big reason golfers quit is they don’t know people with whom they are comfortable playing either due to lack of skill or social awkwardness. Sounds as though that’s ideal situation for 6-hole leagues, mixed gender play, “Nine & Wine,” or anything else to encourage those unsure of themselves to play more. This doesn’t cost a lot. All it takes is the commitment by course management to make it work and more importantly this is also the key in attracting new golfers/customers. Those unfamiliar with the game are most effectively introduced by those already playing. Women appear to understand this and are often successful bringing other women to golf which is why the number of women players is growing. Men on the other hand seem to feel it’s not something they can or should do.
Family – Mom, Dad and the kids teeing it up is talked about a lot but as a rule not much is done by operators to make it a fact. Why not allow free golf for families when there is little or no play, say after 5 pm on Sundays? Combined with no or low cost group lessons for adults and juniors this could be a real winner. In most families Dad’s interest in an activity means maybe it gets on the agenda but if Mom thinks it’s a good idea it usually goes right to near the top of the list. Make family golf affordable in terms of money and time and it becomes a reasonable alternative for them.
Perhaps the reader has noticed the use of “customer” rather than “golfer” or “player.” This was on purpose as too many times the game (golfer, player) is confused with the business (customer) paving the way for even more fuzzy thinking. Any business person can tell you the cost of getting a new customer is several times more than the cost of keeping a current customer. The game and the business of golf must have retention as the first priority.