Golf in the 21st Century: Can the 9-hole Solution Work?
NEW YORK, NY—When Arnold Palmer passed away on September 25 just prior to the start of the Ryder Cup Matches in Minnesota there was much reflection on what “The King” provided golf at the professional level.
Beyond his expansion of golf as a sport on a global basis, Palmer’s most important legacy was opening up the doors to new players — for too long golf had remained an exclusive elite bastion — a shutting out of the broader masses. The emergence of Palmer — in concert with the ascendancy of television — provided the impetus the sport had never experienced.
Public golf options exploded — more and more people, beyond the most affluent, sought out the game for their personal enjoyment.
In the era in which Palmer lived — golf came into public view through his magnetic and charismatic personality. People saw the style that Palmer encapsulated in all elements of his persona and wanted to take up a sport worthy of their time and dedication to play it.
It has been several years since the end of The Great Recession that ended in early ’09 but the shock waves from that time have pushed to the forefront serious issues impacting golf here in America and internationally. The passing of Palmer cloaked what has been obvious for a number of years now.
Golf participation has moved backwards — dependent on an ever-aging baby boomer generation nearing an end of its core support in terms of rounds played, equipment purchased and all other related dollar contributions tied to the game.
Golf is now facing an ever hyper world where speed is prized — the head-scratching five plus hours to play a frustrating game is not resonating with younger audiences looking elsewhere for entertainment and past times better fitted to their respective lifestyles and needs.
The total supply of golf courses in the USA is roughly 15,372 — down from 16,052 prior to the start of The Great Recession. The USA accounts for 45% of the world’s supply (34,011) of golf facilities — with just over 70% of the total number of courses globally are public oriented.
Over the last decade the number of new courses coming on board has been extremely limited — mainly in international locations such as Southeast Asia. In the go-go days of golf development — fueled by the speculative acceleration tied to real estate development in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s the surge of golf course development was unprecedented — exceeding even the growth of courses through the Golden Age period of the 1920’s. There was no concerted planning as to what courses were needed — just keep on adding them as fast as possible.
The Great Recession sent a very loud and clear message — facilities failing to sustain themselves found trends were not cyclical but permanent. Adjusting to that situation set in motion a range of band-aid solutions such as lowering greens fees charged and offering a range of other amenities at bare bones cost. The hope that the slump in the overall fiscal situation would be temporary has not happened. Key golf groups are loathe to admit it but the general supply of existing courses is still well beyond the demand from a consumer side.
Amazingly, it was the National Golf Foundation that boldly stated during the run-up of course development that no less than one course per day opening would be needed to keep up with the touted growth of golfers. That prophecy is still talked about as being disconnected from the key forces that were in their infancy at that time but are now blossoming in a big time way.
Leisure time in the 21st century is moving rapidly in a different direction than what preceded it in the late 20th century. Palmer was a key catalyst in spreading the game to various sectors of the population demographic but those avid players are getting older and playing less than they did just 10 years ago. The much talked about Millennial generation — those born after 1980 — have not come remotely close to replacing the loss of the Baby Boomers who preceded them. Minority groups, which had shown tepid interest in golf with the emergence of Tiger Woods on the world golf stage starting in 1997, have also not joined the ranks in adding players to the game.
GOLF’S UNDERPINNINGS: MORE PAST THAN FUTURE ORIENTED
Time has proven to be the hottest of valuable commodities in determining leisure time activities and golf is now faced in adjusting itself to the speed by which so many people operate their professional and personal lives. Slow play has forced many players to re-evaluate if setting aside 5-6 hours to play 18-holes can work in concert with the myriad of other activities crowding their respective calendars.
For many — that means no longer playing on both Saturday and Sunday — but choosing just one day to play. In other cases — it means abandoning weekend play because of the impact of various other time commitments and moving their golf time to either immediately after work or just heading to the driving range to keep somewhat fresh and active.
For those who want to take up the game there is lack of meaningful teaching prompting new players to be excited about playing. Over the last 25-30 years the average golf handicap index for men and women has lowered less than two strokes — even with a range of technological innovations on the club and ball side to make the game more fun for various playing levels. Quality teaching is certainly available but the cost to access such teachers has proven to be an impediment and for those who are cost-conscious — the wherewithal for such teachers to keep players engaged before mounting frustration takes hold is clearly evident in the manner by which women quickly try the game but exit it at far higher levels than men.
There is also the associated financial costs related to golf. Equipment costs have risen dramatically — new high-tech drivers can cost upwards of $500. Quality golf balls can easily cost anywhere from $35-$50 per dozen. The costs to play are also an issue as many top tier facilities routinely charge triple digit greens fees for prime tee time slots.
THE 9-HOLE OPTION
Even with the aforementioned issues, golf still has several key attributes. The game is played outdoors and while weather — whether too hot or cold can influence the amount of rounds played — players want the benefit that comes from being close to Mother Nature and away from the frantic regular world they daily inhabit.
Golf also provides a social networking dimension no other sport provides. This aspect has kept golf on the high list for those engaged in the private sector relishing networking time with fellow colleagues and clients.
Among the interesting dimensions that could serve as a powerful launching pad for new golfers is the role of 9-hole courses. The number of 9-hole facilities in America is roughly 4,000 of the total number of courses — roughly 25% of the overall total.
The 9-hole facilities provides a connection to the sport itself while not chaining people to a location far beyond the boundaries of what they believe fits their individual recreational time allotment.
9-hole facilities take up less overall acreage than 18-hole layouts — usually anywhere from 50 to 75 acres. With a lesser area of land to prepare — the associated costs for turf care tied to water and pesticide usage is abundantly clear. Water usage is a critical component and will only be more so in the years ahead as other competing needs will force golf development to higher and higher standards for its usage.
The chief benefit 9-holes courses provides is less time to play. In sum — players can satisfy their golf needs without having to set aside the time commitment 18 holes generally requires.
COURSES MOVING AHEAD
The promise of what golf can be in the 21st century can be seen with two specific facilities that are both 9-hole courses.
Woodstock Golf Club, located in Woodstock, NY, has been a 9-hole course since its inception in the spring of 1929 when it was originally called Woodstock Country Club. There were initial plans to expand the course to 18-holes but because of financial reasons tied to The Great Depression that did not happen.
Woodstock has always been a private club but it’s private status is far removed from the exclusiveness private clubs have engendered in America. Woodstock is located on the main business road that ties itself directly to the community. There is no gated entry or high walls isolating the course.
Membership at Woodstock is not based on lineage or other narrow-banded criteria meant to shut-off outsiders. If you pay the fee you can join the club. The course is neatly routed on terrain that rolls softly and plays just under 5,500 yards to a par of 35. A challenging layout but never overbearing in sheer difficulty.
The spirit of the club is most welcome – conviviality lies at its core with a range of club events that draw members and guests to engage in a range of activities throughout the year. The most notable being the Woodstock Open — an annual event that draws both amateurs and professionals to play. In fact, no less than golf icon Gene Sarazen played twice in the event in the 1960’s — but never winning. Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan was also a club member and relished what the course provided.
The Woodstock community has long been a harbor for the arts and since its earliest days the membership has represented a broad swath of writers and artists. The clubhouse is ideally situated and provides a clear view of the Sawkill Creek which plays a role when playing the course. Unlike grandiose clubhouses found at certain courses throughout America — the one at Woodstock is purely functional in its purpose. Providing a gathering spot for those preparing to play and a welcome respite for those recounting their rounds over food and drink.
Woodstock eschews the garish side of golf seen in too many facilities. The club walks hand-in-hand with the host community and in so many ways is reminiscent of the town clubs you often find in the countryside of the United Kingdom and Ireland. In sum — when you come to Woodstock less is indeed more.
For those who won’t have the wherewithal to join but are looking for a way to play the course you can stay at The Emerson Hotel — just 10-15 minutes away by car in nearby Mount Tremper. The lodging establishment has tee time slots which can be accessed when staying there. The Emerson is well-appointed and recently opened a spa in the main building to provide all of the important elements for those staying there.
Just over 100 miles south from Woodstock is another 9-hole course that’s clearly made an impact with its host community. Skyway Golf Club is located in Hudson County – one of the most densely populated counties in the USA. How dense? Try 660,000+ people crammed into 62 square miles — that’s over 10,000 people per square mile. To give that some reference — NJ overall is the most densely populated State with just over 1,200 people per square mile.
The 65-acre site is located in the Garden State’s second largest community — Jersey City — and was nothing more than an major eye-sore — a wasteland where fires were known to blaze at certain times and where illegal dumping of all types went on with impunity. Years ago the property served as an ill-suited driving range in which the battle to hit non-descript golf balls was only exceeded by the ever-persistent mosquitos which feasted on humans trying vainly to overcome their annoying presence. The six-year project involved a range of groups that joined together to take what was an idea into actual fruition.
Skyway sits at the base of the Pulaski Skyway — opened during the height of The Great Depression in 1932 — the 3.5 mile elevated roadway links Hudson and Essex Counties.
Skyway became the first public course in Hudson County. One million cubic yards of imported fill material was used to serve as a cap to the landfill below. The course has also been designed to reuse water for irrigation from the four irrigation / storm water ponds constructed onsite. The beneficial reuse of the storm water is anticipated to provide more than 74% of the course’s irrigation needs.
The location of Skyway is far from bucolic and tranquil. One of the nation’s busiest roads — Routes 1 & 9, forms the eastern boundary of the property and the constant pounding of truck traffic is never ending. There’s also a huge net erected on the property border to prevent wayward shots from leaving the site.
Nonetheless, Skyway provides a real connection for people who never truly had a meaningful golf connection so nearby. The course is in quality conditioning and the involvement of Kemper Sports in the management role ensures the course will be operated smartly and devoid of the politics that can often plague such public facilities.
Course plants have been designed to be beneficial for the support of the surrounding wetlands and transition areas. Credit the Hudson County Improvement Authority in taking an eye-sore of epic proportions and creating a golf facility which will expose prospective golfers from the immediate area to take up the game.
CAN MOMENTUM BUILD?
The fallout from The Great Recessions still lingers throughout the golf course side of the industry. Underperforming courses will likely be sold for other purposes and even those on the private side will see clear impacts as the former “country club” paradigm is changing rapidly as aging members either stop playing or simply fade away from involvement.
For years the broader golf industry did not confront the realities the game is clearly facing now because it simply believed a new generation of players would easily replace those who had come before it. Whether 9-hole courses can stop the loss of players and spur on those individuals to adopt golf as their main recreational involvement is still unclear. The deeper and most serious issue is whether golf can once again be relevant — to receive the kind of spark that Arnold Palmer’s arrival provided when he entered the scene in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.
Golf will continue to exist but will that framework be one in which broader groups of people will play it or will the game retreat back to the days of deep-pocketed elites? That question remains to be thoroughly answered.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.