In an age of 320-yard drives, launch monitors, hand-held GPS devices and anguish about declining player participation, whoever thought that a nine-hole municipal golf course shoe-horned into a tree-lined residential area and only 2,480 yards long could point the way to the game’s healthy future?
That’s one of many takeaways from a week spent at the PGA Merchandise Show at Orlando’ Florida’s Orange County Convention Center. This is my 27th such gathering in a row, the 66th overall for the industry. It’s the kind of place where you learn to bring comfortable shoes and plenty of business cards because you’ll spend hours prowling what add up to 10 miles of aisles. That's what it takes to wend through nearly 1,000 trade exhibits and spread under one roof covering 20 acres of the industry. These merchandisers run the gamut from Titleist, Callaway, Bushnell and Club Car to ECCO shoes, Donald Ross Sportswear, Under Armour and JBA Awards (golf accessories), as well as dozens of inventive little gadgets and a slew of cannabidiol purveyors like Mulligan CBD, LLC.
Along the way you’ll stumble onto dozens if not hundreds of people you know – or whose names you have forgotten, in which case those seemingly antiquated business cards suddenly became useful again. The key is to put down your cellphone for a while and just take it all in.
Newcomers are overwhelmed at first. Five hours later they’ve left exhausted and stunned, as well, at the scope of the industry.
Besides all the alluring gear there’s also a serious conversation running through the place regarding the state of the game. And each year, as I take the pulse of industry leaders and insider analysts and consultants, I come away convinced that there’s no such thing as a unified picture of the industry. It’s something I’ve learned from decades of hanging around golf courses, including the entire range of facilities – from elite private clubs resorts to mom-and-pop daily fees and municipal facilities. There’s no single model of golf that works for all.
Appropriate, too, for a sport whose ball field is the least specified of all. The only rule governing what constitutes a golf course is that the hole you’re playing to is four and one-quarter inches in diameter. Everything else varies according to local conditions – length, width, playing texture, elevation, topography, and target audience.
Of course there are a few principles of analysis that help. Think of supply, demand and capacity. That should be the starting point for anyone interested in a sober, realistic analysis as opposed to glassy-eyed cheerleading and wishful thinking. For sixteen years now, industry analysts Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp. and Stuart Lindsay of Edgehill Golf Advisors have collaborated on a data-packed geek fest that crams three hours of overly complicated PowerPoint slides into 75 minutes of non-stop lecturing. Among the many lessons learned is that there are too many golf courses chasing too few clients. Or, to rephrase it quantitatively, the nation’s golf course supply in 2018 could accommodate 788 million rounds but only booked 427 million, for a utilization rate of 54 percent. The average U.S. golf course, measured in terms of 18-hole equivalents (to adjust for the 25 percent of facilities that are nine-hole layouts) registered about 31,000 rounds, down from a peak nearly two decades ago of 37,000. In other words, it’s easier than ever to get a tee time. That's great for consumers but not so good for course operators.
By every metric – number of golfers, percentage of the population that plays, average rounds at courses – we’re seeing marginally less golf each year in the U.S. Not that the game is going away. But it is going through a steady slide of about 1-2 percent annually. A number of obvious factors conspire – cost of play, difficulty of the game, the hours required. But there’s a deeper worry than these aspects of play. It has to do with the cultural fit of the game in modern society.
If you were to design a game that was out of whack with where contemporary culture is headed, it would look exactly like golf – taking up lots of time and land, with a reward structure that is notoriously unreliable. It’s not the kind of stuff that appeals to youth. There are endless consumer studies of Millennials and Gen-Xers attesting to this. Add to the mix the virtual disappearance of caddie yards as an entry portal to the game, plus the tendency of aging baby boomers who play extensively until they reach their mid-70 , and you have a formula for concern.
Which brings to that little nine-hole golf course we started the week with, the Winter Park Nine. There on Tuesday, about 100 folks gathered for a celebration of the game, organized under the auspices of Seamus Golf, an Oregon-based brand specializing in boutique head covers, ball markers and putter covers. The gathering included representatives from new media outlets, including podcasters and anyone who appreciates simple, old-fashioned golf. Folks formed eightsomes and 10-somes and played a makeshift alternate shot event that perfectly showcased the layout's charms. Architects Keith Rebb and Riley Johns, who rebuilt the Winter Park Nine two years ago, were on hand to talk about the community park atmosphere of the place. Our host was our very own Matt Ginella, who is a town resident and an effusive advocate of all that the golf course entails.
It’s a treasure of a municipal layout that books 37,00 rounds annually, with greens fees set at $15 for town residents and $21 for those from outside Winter Park.
Simple golf, engaging greens, an intimate relationship with the neighborhood and a place for dogs, prams, power walkers and anyone looking to hang out. The 'WP9' is as simple and as pleasant as golf can get.
A model for the future? Well, at the very least, one of many plausible possibilities.