By JJ Keegan, Envisioning Strategist and Reality Mentor, JJKeegan+
A guest sees more in an hour than a host sees in a year is a proverb that I certainly recall when secret shopping a golf course.
As homeowners, at this time of the year, we frequently interact with various individuals from lawn care companies, irrigation specialists, arborists, domestic assistants, and with way too many HOA committee members reviewing the multiple requests for home improvements submitted.
As I was heading to the golf course last week, one of these persons sincerely and humbled asked, “My seven-year son wants to learn golf. I have no clue how to introduce him to the sport. It is not something anyone in our family has ever considered. What should I do?”
The hosts for the golf course industry include the 14,613 facilities, all significant trade associations, and over 2,000,000 million employees who are paid over $55.6 billion in wages, myself and you.
Why did we assume that an introduction to the game for a new potential customer was intuitively obvious? Golf has many fabulous entry programs: Drive Chip Putt, First Tee, Get Golf Ready, LPGA-USGA Girls, PGA Junior League, Snag Golf. Are the 310 million US residents who don’t play golf unaware of these programs? Where is the disconnect?
I asked Google, “I want to learn to play golf,” and was provided information about college courses in golf management and many references to golf instructors. Nowhere did I find information on, “If you want to be introduced to golf, start here.”
Are there lessons the ski industry offers to grace the path for those seeking to be introduced to golf?
An introduction to skiing is easy. First, a mountain has areas identified as a beginner (green), intermediate (blue), difficult (black), and expert (double black). Second, eighty percent of day skiers rent equipment that is readily available at many shops at the bottom of the mountain. Third, lessons are available in which the customer is grouped according to their ability.
Some thirty-five years ago, I started on the bunny slopes on Golden Peak in Vail, Colorado. The first time I took the chair lift up and looked back, I was terrified that something bad was about to happen to my body. The thought in gandering at the slopes above, I was sure my path would never cross the moguls carved into steep hillsides only to find several months later I was gingerly skiing down Highline, Lover’s Leap, Riva Ridge and in Vail’s back bowls with patient expert skiers.
In contrast, an introduction to golf comes with many hazards: most regular and championship courses would not be the best place for one’s first round. Nearly all golf courses in the US are too tricky for the beginner, save for short par 3, executive length courses, and courses with slope rating less than 113. Forced carriers, a plethora of bunkers, water hazards – all penalties represent an unfriendly introduction to the sport. Further, frequent golfers look unfavorable to new participants. The dress standards are unclear. Equipment and lessons are expensive.
How can we change that?
There are approximately 725 executive and 450 par three courses of the 16,383 golf courses in the US. Is that where new golfers should start? Surprisingly, probably not. Most likely lack good rental equipment, trained instructors, and programming to serve as the entry door to the game.
Is a national initiative the answer? Likely not as demonstrated by the recently underwhelming National Golf Foundation initiative, “Welcome2Golf.” The 2019 test market program in Denver, a relaunch of a 1990’s NGF initiative was hailed nationwide as a major kick-start to getting non-golfers who are interested in the game actually out playing on a course.
Denver was the wrong test market. The 12 participating golf facilities that were selected late in the Spring for a June 3 launch already had tee sheets nearing capacity, established programs in place, too small of a regional advertising budget, and not effective monitoring programs to measure the effectiveness of the initiative. If one Google’s Welcome2Golf today, the following website appears:
The NGF concept was right; the execution was wrong. Is there a right answer? Two maybe likely.
The NGCOA could license and certify golf courses as “Welcome to Golf Centers” that have the following five essential components, according to Cathy Harbin, LPGA/PGA and owner of Pine Ridge Golf Course and former head of the highly successful Get Golf Ready:
- Excess capacity
- Trained instructors
- Rental Clubs. For a blog on how to earn $25,000 annually from rental clubs, click here.
- A range, short-game area, and nine holes that were “beginner-friendly.”
- Programming to including leagues and social events for individuals grouped by ability.
The marketing exposure to golf by hailing “Welcome2Golf Centers” as the entry door to the game would spread over time and prove effective in growing the game. It would also serve as a revenue source for the NGCOA in certifying golf courses.
A second more dramatic solution is offered by Kevin Norby, ASGCA, which has very positive financial benefits for the golf course owner. For those courses that have more than 18 holes, 1,354 that currently exist in the United States, the following steps were advocated:
- Nine holes require about 60-80 acres. Sell 20-30 acres for commercial or residential development.
- With the proceeds from the sale, retire debt, create a cash reserve and invest $800,000 in the conversion of the former nine-hole course to a “short course” where the opportunities for lost balls are minimal, and fun via interesting green complexes is created. For those that don’t have a driving range, here’s an opportunity to add an amenity that will grow your customer base and improve revenue.
- Create a restaurant/bar in the middle of the short course as a family-friendly entertainment center. People love watching other people.
- Migrate the beginner, once taught, to the regulation length golf course to embed customer loyalty to that facility.
This solution was implemented with great success by Derek Stendahl, PGA at Rush Creek Golf Course in Maple Grove, MN, who built the Mac Nine par-three golf course, designed by Norby, to complement their existing outstanding 18-hole championship golf courses. The junior program at Rush Creek’s Mac Nine has over 1,000 juniors participating.
“The addition of Mac Nine has been fabulous,” Derek Stendahl commented. “It has greatly boosted junior and family pass sales in which these golfers now consider Rush Creek as their ‘home course.” Perhaps what makes Derek most happy is that in the forthcoming high school golf season, a good number of players on the Maple Grove High School team will have started golf through the junior learning programs at Rush Creek. The Mac Nine also serves as the home for the beginner ladies league on Tuesday evenings.
While this solution may take years for most to implement, for now, I am opening the closed door to golf by taking the seven-year-old to Top Golf to hit some balls and have a great lunch.
Have you introduced someone to golf lately? With all the “hosts” that exist for golf, isn’t it time we all invite a guest to play?
James J. Keegan, Envisioning Strategist, and Reality Mentor. His sixth book, “The Winning Playbook for Golf Courses: Shorts-Cuts for Long-Term Financial Success,” was released on June 20, 2020, at jjkeegan.com/product-category/book-store/. Keegan was named one of the Top 10 Golf Consultants and Golf Advisor of the Year in 2017 by Golf, Inc. Keegan has traveled more than 2,984,000 miles on United Airlines, visiting over 250 courses annually and meeting with owners and key management personnel at more than 6,000 courses in 58 countries.