Feature Article - November 2017
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Roll With the Changes

Strategies for Municipal Golf Operations

By Chris Gelbach

Across the nation, many municipal golf courses are struggling to operate in the black in the face of waning sport participation, deteriorating courses and shrinking budgets. They also battle the ongoing perception that the sport is too elitist, time-consuming, difficult and expensive. Despite this challenging environment, many municipal facilities are also experiencing relative success by embracing a variety of fresh initiatives. These include innovative new course designs, welcoming programming that attracts new participants, the adoption of new play formats and golf technologies, and an expanded vision of the golf course as a broader community amenity that can benefit golfers and non-golfers alike.

Welcoming New Customers

According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), the number of golfers has continued a slow but steady decline in recent years, from 25.7 million golfers in 2011 to 24.1 million in 2015. But NGF research also shows that interest in playing golf is at an all-time high, with roughly 37 million non-golfers expressing interest in trying the game.

"I think the biggest barrier is welcoming," said Richard Singer, senior director of consulting services for the NGF. "We've surveyed quite a bit and there's a lot of interest in golf among non-golfers, but their number-one barrier is that they're intimidated by the whole process. They don't know where to go, what to do, how to behave at a golf facility. Their concerns are that basic."

As a result, Singer recommends that municipalities and parks and rec departments make a conscious effort to reach out to non-golfers through their broader programming communications and to emphasize the availability of beginner programs that are unintimidating and fun-focused.

"You need to get the right people with good imagination who can develop these programs that are welcoming and have a social component and a giggle component, so nobody's intimidated if they make a bad shot. And everybody's having a good time—that's what it's all about," Singer said.

Creating a Broader Vision

In the current environment, many municipal golf courses are so economically challenged that Singer is now seeing private companies show little interest in leases to take over the operations of municipal golf courses in exchange for payment to the municipality.

This environment leaves many municipalities tempted to start looking at ways to cut expenses by cutting staff and programming—and it's often a mistake. "You can't cut your way to success in golf," Singer said. "That's only going to make your problem worse. You put yourself into a spiral to where your conditions deteriorate and you become less appealing. You cut staff and lay people off, and then there's no one to welcome the beginner when they come in the door. You're basically flushing the whole thing down the toilet."

At the same time, however, courses can achieve dramatic long-term savings by making smart investments when they renovate a golf facility. "There's tremendous technology advancements in irrigation equipment, irrigation computers and programming, and the types of grasses that are being engineered these days that use upwards of 50 percent less water," said Andy Staples, a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) and the president of Staples Golf Design.

One course Staples is working on in Michigan will more than halve its water consumption by switching to a new Bentgrass. On another course in the Southeast, the conversion from a Bermuda grass to a Paspallum will cut water usage by 30 percent, while also enabling the facility to use less costly, saltier water.

Municipalities can also transform their facilities by consciously turning them into amenities that appeal to a significantly broader community by offering value to golfers and non-golfers alike.

This concept is central to the Community Links model that Andy Staples has championed through projects such as his work with the city of Hobbs, N.M., on the Rockwind Community Links project. The new golf facility replaced an older 18-hole course, the Ocotillo Golf Course, which had a dated irrigation system, growing maintenance costs and declining revenues.

Using the same site plus some additional nearby land, a new 18-hole course was created, along with a new 9-hole par 3 course. The clubhouse was situated as a central recreational point for the facility, which also features a comprehensive trail system and a large area to the back of the clubhouse that is now publicly accessible and features a 5-acre lake with a seawall that gives visitors a place to relax without fear of flying golf balls.

"What Community Links is trying to do is change the story around the value of a golf course and change its perception within the community so that it is viewed as something more than just for golfers," Staples said. "More people will use it more and people will have more pride in the facility. And probably more importantly in the short term, it might get some support to invest and improve the facility, because many [municipal golf] facilities are just falling apart."

So far, the Community Links model has worked for Hobbs. While the previous course averaged roughly 17,000 annual rounds played from 2008-2013, rounds nearly doubled after the renovation to around 32,000 in 2015 and 2016. Revenue has significantly increased, as has participation in youth golf programs. And a survey by Staples Golf of non-golfers in Hobbs found that 86 percent described themselves as "extremely happy" with the city's decision to invest in Rockwind Community Links.

On other projects, Staples is expanding the idea of golf course as community amenity even more broadly. He is currently working with a course in California that is considering including a mountain bike events center, a BMX trail course, miniature golf and campsites. Modifications for campsites are even being considered that will convert some of the old fairways and tees to cabin sites and campsite areas.

"What's interesting about that process is that they never considered that before. They thought, 'Well, that's the golf course. Why would we ever think of that?' But campsites actually make a lot of money. Now from a revenue-generation standpoint, it almost becomes a bit of a must to have that in a plan," Staples said.