Arizona’s golf community confident in sport’s future

As golf experiences a national decline, Arizona is not immune.

Across the country, the National Golf Foundation reported a drop in active golfers of 17.6 percent, from 30 million in to 24.7 million between 2005 and 2014.

But in talking to the people with their fingers on the pulse of the local golf community, there’s a consistent refrain: the game in Arizona is different than it was, but its heartbeat is steady and strong.

“We are very stable,” Ed Gowan, who is the executive director of the Arizona Golf Association, said. The association is 93 years old and serves as the official governing body for amateur golf in the state.

“If you look historically, golf has grown two to three percent per year every year since the early ‘50s, and then there was this boom when Tiger (Woods) took over, and corporate New York got involved, and all these investments were made in real estate, and there was a bubble. And now that bubble collapsed a bit, but we’re right back on the trend line.”

In Mesa, a longtime course owner sees the decline as a sort of homeostasis – a return to golf’s equilibrium.

“The industry peaked in 2005,” Bob McNichols, who is the owner and operator of Longbow Golf Club, said. It’s a thriving course in Mesa. “That’s when the most courses were in operation across the country. Ever since then there have been about 160-180 courses closing for business per year, and at the same time 10-20 courses being opened as new properties. That means there are fewer courses and less competition, but I think that’s also in the face of declining demand for the product.”

The National Golf Foundation’s March 2015 report found 201 golf facilities in the United States permanently closed in 2014, while only 15 new courses opened. The same study found that the cumulative supply of 18-hole-equivalent courses was at its lowest in 2014 since the turn of the century and down 3.8 percent since the industry’s peak in 2005.

But the National Golf Foundation’s findings also back up these experts’ analysis of recent trends. While the number of golfers did decline in the late 2000s, from 2013 to 2014 (the most recent numbers available), the number of golfers nationally held steady, as the number of golfers termed “occasional” increased by 100,000.

Golf, as Gowan and McNichols affirm, is an industry which derives much of its core consumer base comes from the Baby Boomer generation. Twenty-two percent of the game nationally comes from that demographic, according to the National Golf Foundation, making up 25 percent of all rounds played. Though still a force in the market, that group is starting to age out.

All agree the key to the long-term viability of the game and the industry lies in the challenging task of attracting youth to the sport.

That effort in Arizona is spearheaded in part by the Junior Golf Association of Arizona, the youth equivalent of the AGA.

“I would say from 15 years ago (junior golf) is slightly down,” Scott McNevin, the executive director of the JGAA, said. “But in the last 10 it’s pretty stable. I know Tiger hasn’t been doing so well the last five years, but the new crop of PGA Tour players have really done a great job in terms of promoting junior golf, and in a lot of our juniors you can see the Ricky Fowlers and the Jordan Spieths on the men’s side. And then the LPGA Tour, our girls’ program is growing and a lot of those young girls look up to many of the LPGA stars.”

According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golfers ages 6-17 peaked in 2005 at 3.8 million. By 2010, the number had fallen more than a third to 2.5 million but has since rebounded to 3.2 million in 2014.

Stabilizing the golf industry is as much about diagnosing the causes of the decline as it is prescribing a cure.

The Economy

In past years, private clubs were supported largely by the wealthy people and corporations who offered memberships to their executives as a perk or a feature to their employment.

“A lot of that stopped in the early part of the recession,” McNichols said. “Companies cut out those perks for executives and didn’t offer them anymore, so country clubs suffered because they lost members and didn’t get new members through the corporate reimbursement. And the wealthy were affected during the recession.”

Private clubs – down to 70 in operation in Arizona in 2014 from 81 in 2011, according to the National Golf Foundation – weren’t the only ones that suffered. The recession of the late 2000s had a predictable impact on the amount of golf being played on all courses.

Municipal courses have struggled and been forced to get creative, leasing out some of their courses to universities. The City of Phoenix operates only five of the seven courses they once did, leasing one course each to Arizona State University (Papago Golf Course) and Grand Canyon University (the Old Maryvale Course, now called Grand Canyon University Golf Course).

Daily fee courses, like Longbow, rely upon tourists, retirees and locals, all of which were affected, as McNichols said, “by cost of living, retirement incomes, and the exchange rate between the countries that they come to visit from.”

Residential courses started passing costs onto homeowners associations with the threat that if HOAs did not pick up the tab, the courses would close. This led to to resident displeasure and often legal battles.

Resort golf, McNichols said, “has declined with new paradigms in the hospitality industry. Major hotel developers have stopped building the mega resort projects in favor of the leaner, full-service and limited-service hotel properties. For a hotel operator, a golf course can be as much of a liability as it is for a private club, daily fee, residential or municipal facility.”

Gowan said golf mirrors the economy.

“The stronger the middle class and the more young people are playing, the more golf is played,” Gowan said.

So has golf recovered along with the recession?

The AGA sees a stabilization and steady growth. The JGAA’s membership numbers are stable and on the rise. McNichols sees need for change but feels confident he and other strong courses have weathered the worst of the storm.

“What we’re doing to address the declining interest in golf throughout the industry is creating special reasons that people should play here rather than somewhere else,” McNichols said.

Marc Connerly, executive director of the National Golf Course Owners Association of Arizona, said the declining demand has created a kind of evolution in the industry.

“When you go through tough times, whether it’s economic or some other drought, the difficult times lead to more innovation, more efficiency, leaner operations,” said Connerly. “And so I think what happens is the herd gets thinned a little bit and the strong survive. On the other side of it, the strong operators will survive, and they’ll find ways to do more with less and to be a little bit leaner and more efficient. I don’t think we’re going to see a mass loss of courses.”

The Generation Gap

Connerly said a major factor in golf’s decline is the number of golfers.

“To some degree it was the aging of the population and the fact that some of the younger generations are not adopting golf quite as readily, or readily enough to replace those who have aged and maybe gotten too old for the game or maybe passed away,” said Connerly of a major factor in the decline of the number of golfers.

The new generation is into instant gratification, McNichols, 69, said.

“They’re playing games, sports, team sports, which are easier to play than individual sports,” McNichols said. “When you go out to play golf, you’re the only one addressing that ball and you’re the only one who can make the score you’re going to make. And if you are looking for the ball to go into the hole every time you hit it, you’re not going to enjoy golf. And the video games and the things that kids play now are very fast-paced and they return almost instant gratification. And golf isn’t that way.”

It may sound to some like a broken record from an older generation, but McNevin, 36, sees the same phenomenon.

“Golf takes too long,” McNevin said. “It’s too hard of a sport, so trying to get over those hurdles is the biggest challenge.”

But something must be done to attract the younger generations to the game.

Gowan, for one, doesn’t believe the sky is falling.

“Most people say yes, because they don’t think about golf the way we do,” Gowan said. “Wrong answer. If they (young people) like to play golf in certain ways or spend money in certain ways, then we need to facilitate that, not challenge it.”

Gowan said that includes offering better nine-hole options, but more than anything it involves being more proactive in finding out what different populations of golfers will spend money on and finding ways to give it to them.

“Course owners today have to be so much more attuned to data-driven marketing,” Gowan said. “What are people wanting, what are they willing to pay for, what do I have to do to incent them to come to my facility?”

The effort – which includes programs ranging from developing revolutionary new training techniques to building better golf instruction networks – seems to be working. The National Golf Foundation’s study showed 2 million beginning golfers in 2014, the second-most of any reported year since 1985, after 2000.

McNevin and the JGAA are taking this concept to the earliest stages of attracting new golfers. Through partnerships with courses, associations and others, they’ve found ways to ameliorate the reality that golf as a game prices out enormous swaths of the population, making it possible for young potential players to fall in love with the game without having to pay a fortune for the first date.

These programs include an ecosystem of club lending and borrowing that allows less wealthy young people to obtain the tools of the trade while they are growing without needing to pay for expensive new clubs every time they gain a few inches. The First Tee program has also reached into new communities to bring young athletes to the game. And many clubs and courses provide substantial discounts to junior golfers, opening their world to the rising generation.

For junior golf, which McNevin said declined with the rest of the sport in the late-2000s, avoiding another decline is all about fostering the love of the game.

“Really try to cater towards the fun aspect, especially with the younger kids,” McNevin said. “And then as kids get older, that’s where our membership usually grows.”

Junior golfers (ages 6-17) made up 12.9 percent of total active golfers in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation. That’s up from just 9.6 percent in 2010.

McNichols said much of the solution lies in something as simple, yet critical, as the course design itself.

“The thing the industry has to do to survive is make golf fun again,” McNichols said. “And by that I mean, the trend became to watch the pros on television and aspire to play golf like they do, and for 99.9 percent of the population, that will never happen.”

McNichols sees much of the failing in the industry in misconceptions course designers have encouraged. Instead of making courses longer and harder, he said they should do the opposite.

“We’re not going to have Tiger Woods or Davis Love or Jordan Spieth coming out to Longbow Golf Club for a round of golf on Saturday, I can guarantee you,” McNichols said. “But another 150 people that don’t play as well as they do are going to come out here on Saturday and play golf, and they want to enjoy themselves. They don’t want it to be so hard that they can’t par a hole or can’t bogey, or they can’t make putts.”

Adaptation

As the cost of playing golf remains a prohibitive factor for many and disposable income remains more scarce than in years past, the industry must find a way to successfully make itself available for consumption.

“Operators have looked at the way they’ve done things forever: 18 holes, and if you can’t do 18 holes, you’re still going to pay us,” Gowan said. “And that formula no longer works. Now, the whole industry, with Arizona in the lead, is adapting more quickly, to get back to, ‘What do you as a customer need, how can we best service what your needs are?’”

Gowan said the key to the success of the industry is similar to that of any industry: better consumer data tracking.

“If you want to go to Encanto,” he said, “every time you go in there, if you use a credit card, we ought to track that date, time of day, and what you spent. Did you buy a sleeve of balls? Did you go to a Vans and buy a sleeve there? Did you go to a PGA Superstore and buy a wedge? All that data’s out there. It’s a matter of collecting it and then sharing it within the industry.

“So, let’s say that you have a tendency to play golf on Friday afternoons. Over a period of a year of collecting data, we know that you like to go to one of these three or four places on Fridays. Now if those three or four places were to give you a special the day or two days before, you’d be more inclined to play once or twice more a year.

The AGA’s numbers show about 8 million rounds of golf played in Arizona every year, played by about 500,000 residents and about 700,000 visitors.

“What if everybody played one more round?” Gowan said. “We wouldn’t have any place to play. It’d be too full. Too busy. And is one more round in a year’s time really that big a push?”

Gowan said the United States Golf Association is developing tools to be shared throughout the industry to help courses and others in the business better cater to consumers.

“The critical thing is we have to stop people from leaving the game because of the perception of time and expense,” Gowan said. “Because as many people quit as start. So, what are the inhibiting factors there? It’s a difficult game to learn. If teaching made it easier for you to play better, you’d be more inclined to play more. How easy is it for people to get lessons? It’s difficult.”

Connerly said adaptation is as much about learning what the traditional golf consumer wants as it is about being willing to offer products non-traditional golf consumers – or even non-golfers altogether – are willing to buy.

“There are courses that are realizing that we need to be more responsive to what the younger generation wants,” Connerly said. “That there don’t need to be so many strident rules and regulations of golf. So if you allow them to wear more comfortable clothing on the course, if you allow them to take their music on the course, as long as it’s not too loud, I think more courses are getting that, and certainly the ones that are more successful.”

Connerly also sees the future of successful golf course ownership as catering to non-golfing audiences as well.

New sports like Footgolf, AeroGolf, which uses a bow and arrow, and FlingGolf, a hybrid of lacrosse and golf, are becoming popular, and are options for courses to fill empty courses. More and more courses use their pristine venues to host picnics, receptions, reunions, car and trade shows, concerts and weddings.

“Some of the traditionalists might call it sacrilege, but the smarter operators get that this is a business and it’s about maximizing this asset that you have, the asset being the golf course.”

Not everybody agrees with Connerly’s assessment, but it’s hard to argue with the logic behind it.

“The bottom line is supply exceeds demand,” McNichols said. “If demand cannot be increased, then supply must be diminished.”

Supply has diminished. Courses have shut down, and fewer and fewer are being built. But demand is in better shape than it was a few years ago. And, if nothing else, the industry is learning better how to attract, serve and protect their customer base.