Feature Article - November 2017
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Roll With the Changes

Strategies for Municipal Golf Operations

By Chris Gelbach

Encouraging Newcomers, Satisfying Regulars

While municipal golf facilities conduct their active outreach to non-golfers, it's also important that they do what they can to maintain the course's appeal to loyal patrons.

"Golf, like many other things in life, falls very much into that 80/20 rule where 80 percent of your rounds come from probably 20 percent of your customers," said Hunki Yun, director of partnerships, outreach and education for the Research, Science and Innovation team at the U.S. Golf Association (USGA). "So are you trying to double down and serve your core customers—who are probably not a growing number—or are you trying to expand your base?"

On some occasions, compromise is necessary to preserve quality courses that are of benefit to current enthusiasts while still providing the welcoming environment for new golfers and non-golfers that many municipal facilities desperately need.

"Golfers have been very comfortable in what golf courses have been providing to them," Staples said. "But when you realize that a municipal facility is struggling and needs a change, they're as much obstructionist as anybody."

Facilities that have multiple courses can solve this dilemma by keeping their most-played courses intact for hardcore golfers while being open to trying new things on their lesser-played courses that struggle to fill the tee sheet.

This is an approach that has been successful for Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire, Mich. The resort offers four golf courses, the most played being Arnold Palmer's The Legend and Tom Weiskopf's Cedar River. Both are routinely ranked among Michigan's top courses.

"Since we have four courses, we can easily look at the course that has the least number of rounds played on it," said Chris Hale, vice president of marketing for Shanty Creek Resorts. "And that is the course that we drive beginner-friendly initiatives onto without upsetting the aficionados who want to play on the other end of the spectrum."

The fourth course, Shanty's Summit Golf Course, also features wide fairways and fast greens that make the course ideal for this treatment. The additions include par-3 tees on every hole and large 15-inch cups positioned at the back of every green to complement the traditional cups. The alterations make the course friendlier both for novices and for family members of different ages and skill levels.

"As a dad, I might play from the long tee box, but my 13-year-old son might play every hole from the par 3, which is anywhere from 95 to 125 yards out," Hale said. "So he can play it short, I can play it long, and we can still have the family time together."

Shanty Creek has also added FootGolf to the back nine of the course and makes soccer balls available for play. "The purpose behind that is to just show off the environment of the golf course—the trees and the long fairways and just the prettiness factor of a golf course," Hale said. This enables the course to fill unused tee times, while exposing new patrons to the golf course as a recreation setting in hopes of getting them to try nine holes of golf on the beginner-friendly course later.

Including FootGolf, Shanty Creek's number-four course now has more rounds played on it than before. And according to Hale, the FootGolf, big cups and forward tees collectively required little cost in terms of capital expenses and additional maintenance.

Time Considerations

In addition to approachability, another common barrier to getting people to play more golf is time. "Even for golfers, one of the perceived barriers is that it takes a long time to play—18 holes takes four or five hours," Yun said.

But USGA research has shown that the biggest problem for golfers isn't the length of the round, but the flow of play throughout it. "Especially on busy municipal golf courses, there's a lot of waiting for the fairway and the green to clear, and this waiting is actually what is more detrimental to the experience, and that's what people are responding to," Yun said.

While the USGA's Pace of Play initiative offers golf operators a variety of resources to help courses maximize pace of play, getting started can be as simple as accurately measuring when groups are teeing off and when they return to the clubhouse. If the cycle times increase throughout the day, it means the tee-time intervals are too short.

"What we recommend is trying to optimize your tee time to your cycle time," Yun said. "For most courses, the starting intervals are too short between each other."

But the time to complete an 18-hole round can also be a barrier, even in the best of situations. According to Golfsmith, the average score for an amateur golfer on a standard par-72 course is around 100. For novice golfers, trying to golf 18 holes can seem like an endless enterprise.

It's a challenge that municipal golf operators can overcome by providing options to play nine holes or fewer. A recent renovation of the Arlington Lakes Golf Club in Arlington Heights, Ill., included several measures that address this issue specifically.

The 18-hole course, which opened in July 2016 after a $2.4 million renovation, has been designed to come back to the clubhouse after the third, sixth, ninth and 18th holes. This makes it easy for the park district to offer patrons the opportunity to golf three, six, nine or 18 holes on the same course.

As a result, the time barrier is completely eliminated. Golfers can now even go out and golf three holes at lunch on a workday if they want—at a cost of just $8 for adults and $5 for juniors and seniors. New players have the option of a special lesson that involves golfing three holes with a pro. And by having the option to start players at holes 4, 7 or 10, the club can also reduce overall wear and tear on the early holes.

The new course design by Michael Benkusky makes the course more approachable to beginners and maintains faster play for all golfers by reducing the number of sand bunkers to 37 versus the previous 106. The addition of continuous cart paths further facilitates faster rounds while helping making the course playable after it rains.

Forward tees have also been added to every hole, an option that can boost enjoyment considerably among new golfers. USGA research has shown that 88 percent of golfers who tried its Tee It Forward program thought the forward tees had a positive impact on the enjoyment of their round.

"It all comes back to having fun. Sometimes people take golf up and quit because it's just too tough a game," said Tim Govern, golf operations manager at Arlington Lakes Golf Club. "Our whole mantra has been fun golf at fantastic rates, and the redesign definitely supports that theory."