Feature Article - November 2017
Find a printable version here

Roll With the Changes

Strategies for Municipal Golf Operations

By Chris Gelbach

Attracting New Demographics

Offering nine-hole courses can also be a great way to attract new players. A recent USGA report found that 24 percent of total rounds were nine-hole rounds. But 38 percent of rounds by golfers under 40, 35 percent of rounds by casual golfers, and 35 percent of rounds by women were nine holes, demonstrating the format's greater popularity among the demographics needed to grow the sport.

Nine-hole offerings can also be part of a more comprehensive, more welcoming onboarding process that includes affordable instruction and plenty of practice spaces to help boost new players' proficiency in the sport more quickly. "Investments in improving and upgrading your practice amenities is an investment that will come back to you," Singer said. "You want to learn golf from the green and the hole out."

Other courses are trying new approaches that use technology to both liven up the game and speed up pace of play. At Shanty Creek's third-most-popular course, the resort has purchased four GolfBoards, a kind of motorized scooter/skateboard hybrid for individual users that also carry the player's clubs. The idea was to provide golfers another reason to try out the course. But it also speeds up play since each player has their own GolfBoard and they're no longer going from ball to ball in a shared cart.

Similarly, the manufacturer of The Golf Bike—a sort of cargo bike that can fit a set of clubs and a cooler bag on the back—claims that use of the product can cut time for a round of golf to three hours for 18 holes and 1.5 hours for nine.

Offerings like these can also help golf courses attract a younger demographic. According to research from the National Golf Foundation, millennials are more likely than older groups to view golf as elitist, stuffy, as an old man's sport, and as dull or boring.

Shanty Creek has definitely seen success in attracting younger patrons through its embrace of unconventional initiatives. Hale notes that most of the golfers using the GolfBoards tend to be under 35, and that the FootGolf course is regularly used for team-building by local high school soccer teams.

"As a blanket statement, I would say that we've learned to keep an open mind to some of these ideas that might sound outrageous because they're out of left field in so many ways," Hale said. "But I think they make your public relations worthwhile, because they help you get exposure. And you also start to add a few of those things together and you see that it's actually generating some new business and new bodies on the property."

These approaches help overcome negative millennial perceptions about the sport. To overcome the idea that golf is boring, more courses are also bringing music, drinks and technology into the mix to gamify their driving ranges into TopGolf-like attractions.

These kinds of opportunities can be part of a larger programming approach that transforms the golf environment from staid and unwelcoming to one that's highly social and abuzz with activity.

"You want to get people conditioned to know that there's always something going on at your local municipal golf course," said Singer. "If they come on a Tuesday afternoon, there will be a wine and nine social event for women. On a Wednesday afternoon, a young people's social event and nine holes of golf. On Thursday night, there's going to be corporate leagues. Things like that. That's really the tried-and-true way to do it."

While Yun notes that golf only serves 10 or 15 percent of the population even with these sorts of initiatives, he agrees with Staples that broadening the course's appeal can enable it to reach a far wider demographic as part of the overall parks plan. "To be more successful, we'd encourage exploring more areas to try to get more non-golfers to come to the facility—to think of it more as a park, or a gathering place, than as just a golf course," Yun said.