Spring in Their Step
The region’s beleaguered golf industry, which has been beset with challenges ranging from the recession to a dwindling number of players, to even stiffer competition in the form of additional courses, caught a break from Mother Nature this spring — several weeks of additional revenue. While working to capitalize on that opportunity, courses, and the industry in general, confront the larger task of creating the next generation of golfers.
That sound you might have heard about a month or so ago — if you were listening carefully enough — was cash registers opening and closing at a few of the region’s public golf courses, especially the smaller, family-owned operations.
A few weeks later, though, it was much easier to pick up that noise, as most area municipal courses also opened their doors and greens to players. And by this past weekend, just about every course in the region was seeing play.
In this business, that’s called an early spring, or — in the case of those that opened several weeks ago or stayed open almost throughout the winter — it was a very early spring. And if any sector of the economy needed a break from Mother Nature, it was the golf industry.
Go HERE for a PDF chart of area Golf Courses
Indeed, this industry has been hit hard by a combination of factors ranging from declining play (and there are several reasons for that) to winters like the one in 2014-15 that have kept courses shuttered, for the most part, until at least mid-April.
How much does the extra month or so help? Kevin Kennedy, the long-time pro at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans, said it doesn’t guarantee a great or even good year — 2011 saw an early start, and everyone knows what happened that summer and fall — but it does create a positive vibe and some momentum.
“An early start is quite valuable, and much better than a late fall,” he told BusinessWest, on March 17, the official opening of the season at Franconia, adding that this sentiment applies to not only play, but equipment and apparel sales as well. “People are really excited to be out and playing.”
He barely finished that thought when, as if on cue, maybe his 10th customer of the season came through the door, joining playing partners already warming up on the first tee. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day … I’m playing golf and having a couple of beers,” he told those in the clubhouse as Kennedy counted out his change. “How good is that?”
No one had to answer him, because the answer was obvious. And there were plenty of people expressing similar thoughts.
“It’s another three weeks of play, another three weeks of generating revenue,” said Chris Tallman, head golf professional at Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown as he talked about the club’s slated March 25 opening. “And after the mild winter, people are psyched to get out and play.”
But while the golf industry is getting a series of breaks from the weather — a first-day-of-spring snowstorm conveniently missed the region, and a misty Good Friday was not a total washout — there is still no shortage of challenges confronting this industry, especially in Western Mass.
For starters, the local sector is usually described with the words ‘saturated’ or ‘oversaturated’ — the latter more than the former — and with good reason. There are four courses the public can play in Agawam, for example, three more in Westfield, and three more in Southwick, where’s there’s also an executive par-3 course.
“There are a lot of courses in this area, and they’re all working hard to attract players,” said E.J. Altobello, head pro at Tekoa Country Club, a semi-private course. “It’s a very competitive situation.”
Meanwhile, the pool of golfers these courses is trying to attract certainly isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, the consensus is that it’s getting smaller, as Baby Boomers retire and move to warmer climes, and young adults continue to struggle with the sport’s cost and time commitment — more the latter than the former.
The challenge, said Altobello, and one that all courses share together, is to create a bigger pool, especially through a hard focus on young people.
And while Kennedy has some doubts about this young generation — “kids today don’t want to hit a shot, go walk after it, wait five minutes, and then hit another shot; they need instant gratification,” he said — Altobello is more optimistic.
“We’ve been making a big push over the past several years with more junior programs, and they’ve generated some real results,” he said. “That’s going to be our base for the future. And as you get more kids to play, you often get their parents out as well, and their usage is going to go up.”
Thus far, Mother Nature has given the industry a reason to be optimistic. For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at how area courses look to seize whatever momentum they’ve been given and make 2016 a year with lots of round numbers.
As he waited for customers on St. Patrick’s Day, Kennedy began the task of filling the racks and shelves in his pro shop, which have been barren since the end of November.
A skilled retailer and keen observer of golfers’ spending habits, he said an early spring doesn’t just help fill the daily sheet of tee times.
“People will buy in the fall, but not as much as in the spring, because they don’t want to buy something and then have to put it in the cellar or garage for four or five months,” he explained. “That’s another way that an early spring helps; if people buy something now, they get a full season’s use out of it.”
Such observations provide insight into how most golfers think and spend. They are creatures of habit, like bargains, and definitely look to get their money’s worth.
Such character traits help delineate the many challenges facing those in the golf industry today. Summing it all up, those we spoke with came back again and again to that word ‘experience’ and the never-ending task of providing one that is meaningful and value-laden.
“You have to take care of people from the minute they arrive to the moment they pull out of the parking lot,” said Tallman, adding that, at Cold Spring, he really means the minute they arrive.
Indeed, visitors to the semi-public course are greeted upon arrival, their clubs are put in a cart, and they’re driven to the pro shop, a perk usually reserved for private courses and expensive resort layouts, although the practice is becoming more common at public facilities, out of sheer necessity.
Such red-carpet service has helped Cold Spring, which opened in 2012, attract steady levels of play and overcome one additional challenge. Actually, two — location and perception of same. Belchertown is not exactly on the beaten path, said Tallman, but the perception is that it’s much further off that path than it actually is.
“I was at the golf expo a few weeks ago, and a number of people came up to me and said, ‘I like your course a lot; if I were closer by, I’d definitely join,’” he said, adding that roughly 160 people have joined, and there is also a steady volume of public play. That comes in form of many first-timers — the course is still new, as courses go — but especially repeat play.
And generating large amounts of that is every club’s goal, said Altobello, adding that customer service, which hasn’t always been a hallmark of this industry, especially when times were much better, courses were full, and tee times were hard to get, is now of paramount importance.
And it involves every aspect of the experience, he added, from the consistency of the greens to the quality of the food; from the availability of tee times to the temperature of the beer being served.
“You need to show people a good time,” he said, speaking for pros and course owners across the region. “If you do, they’re far more likely to come back to your course. If you don’t … there are plenty of other places for them to go.”
Overall, he said the goal for the industry is to generate more play that the region’s bevy of courses can share. And a good, early spring can certainly help.
“What I’m hoping is that the medium-use golfers, those who don’t play a lot, can use this opportunity to play more,” he said. “If they get off to an early start, get a few rounds in during March, that might spur them to play more during the season. If the industry can get that eight- or nine-time-per-year player up to 15 or 16, that really makes a difference.”
But from the bigger-picture perspective, the challenge of creating more rounds for courses to share involves much more than weather.
That’s why area courses, while keeping one eye on the present and the current legions of players, have the other on the future and the task of generating solid volumes of business for years, even decades, to come.
And here’s where things get a little dicey. In the ’60s, Arnold Palmer and the advent of televised golf combined to give the game a huge boost, one that involved men, women, and children, and as a result, thousands of new courses were built, including dozens in this area. In the late ’90s, Tiger Woods did very much the same thing, inspiring, among other things, the small army of young players from around the world now dominating the tours in the U.S. and Europe — players like Jordan Speith, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Rickie Fowler.
Will those dynamic young players spawn another golf boom and inspire large numbers of young people to take up the game? That’s the $64,000 question.
As he answered it, Kennedy said he’d like to be optimistic, but settled for what he considers realism. He noted that Fowler inspires some clothing and shoe sales — he likes bold colors, and is especially partial to orange, the one worn by his alma matter, Oklahoma State. But, overall, Kennedy noted, today’s young people are not turning to golf like the generations before them.
“They’re into other sports and other activities,” he told BusinessWest. “They don’t want to spend four or five hours playing golf.”
Tallman and Altobello, though, were more upbeat. They acknowledged that golf is competing with many things for the time and attention of young people, but believe it is winning some of those contests. And they and most others in his profession are helping by promoting the game, running youth camps, offering attractive rates for play, and other incentives.
“Our job is to create new golfers,” said Tallman. “We run a lot of junior programs, and they’re packed. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen, but we have to keep working hard at encouraging the young people; this is our future, after all.”
Altobello agreed, and voiced more concern about those in their 20s and 30s, a constituency that wasn’t exactly courted heavily when they were young because the game was booming, thanks largely to Woods, and active recruitment of new players wasn’t a real priority.
“They were somewhat ignored when they were young because the industry was very healthy, and there just wasn’t a push to get more players into the game; the golf business was resting on its laurels,” he said, adding that, as a result, many Millennials didn’t get into golf, and now find it difficult to do so as they attempt to balance already-busy schedules dominated by family and career.
This current generation of young people is getting much more attention, with the expectation that this will pay dividends decades down the road, he went on, citing, as one example, a pilot program set up by the PGA of America called the PGA Junior Golf League, what he called a Little League for this sport.
“We’ve taken that to a good level in our area,” he said, adding that the initiative was launched in 2012. “In our Greater Westfield league, we’re probably going to have 75 kids this year. The goal is to get them turned on to the game and get them comfortable with it.”
As for those retiring Baby Boomers, the ones who stay in this market, well, many of them do have the time and resources for the game, said Altobello, and they have the potential to make an impact on the local market.
“That’s another strong segment — there are a lot of people retiring, and they have the time and money to play,” he said. “But golf is a difficult game to take up late in life, and those who do generally struggle with it. We’ll see what happens with that group.”
Looking ahead, the pros we spoke with said the early start is certainly a blessing and a chance to create some momentum when the industry certainly needs some.
In the larger scheme of things, though, the golf business will need much more than a few additional weeks of revenue to get its game in significantly better shape.
The focus has to be on customer service and, to the greatest extent possible, generating a solid pipeline of customers for the years to come.
Like the game itself, that assignment comes with no shortage of challenge, frustration, or hope.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org