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.
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.
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."
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.
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