Ideas to Make Golf More Popular

August 1, 2013, Department, by Arnie Biondo

Make the game more fun while also making more money.Woe is the golf world. Rounds are down, golfers are disappearing, revenue is sinking. Many marketing and management moves are being used to stop the bleeding. Some are successful; many are not.

So, what to do if your city or district operates a golf course? Do what the smart decisionmakers in the public sector have been doing for decades — turn to the recreation pros.

Take a Recreation Programmer’s Perspective

In nearly all recreational activities, programmers have found innumerable ways to modify the activity. Why? We do it so the activity is more attractive to the player, participant or customer. We lower basketball hoops, shorten base paths, change rules, play 3-on-3, reduce field lengths, limit softball game times, categorize by weight and age, etc. 

This may be a harebrained idea, but what if golf would take on a recreation programmer’s perspective to attract and keep more customers? Golf is an old sport steeped in tradition. Could it be that tradition is what stands in the way of your financially successful public golf course? Changing traditional thinking about golf and golf course uses could save the day. 

First, think about the reasons that people don’t golf often, don’t golf at all or quit. Most likely, they include the following:

• Golf is expensive — greens fees, equipment, etc.

• Golf takes a long time to play (five hours for 18 holes).

• Golf is hard to learn and even harder to master; ergo, it is frustrating.

Those of you running a golf course know you have to get more people playing to operate sustainably. How, then, can you make it easier to learn and play, less expensive and less time-consuming?

The Money Is in the Masses

It’s not uncommon in golf management circles to hear “the golfer” or “the golfers.” This is used in sentences such as, “The golfers want _____” and “The golfer expects _______.” The use of the word “golfer” is used with respect to people who golf. However, it also carries an inherent exclusionary tone. To make money, a golf course will need to pull in those who are not traditional “golfers” — those hackers, duffers, outing-only golfers, learners, fair-weather fans, etc.

Gone is the day when a course could make enough money by just catering to “golfers.” There just aren’t enough of them. Money will come with more participation.

Prime the Idea Pump

Here are some ideas from a recreation programmer’s perspective. They may or may not work for your course. That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to generate new, broader thinking about golf courses. Innovation may save public courses for golfers, nongolfers and future golfers, aka paying customers.

1. Offer some freebies. Golf is notorious for charging for everything, and oftentimes charging high prices (why can’t I buy an $11 shirt at a pro shop?). If the thinking is to get more people to play regularly, try some freebies:

• Include a ball with every greens fee. Really. Anyone can buy golf balls at 42 cents apiece at a retail discount store. If a 42-cent ball gets someone to plunk down $20, $30, or $65, it’s a good trade, no?

• Offer to replace a player’s ball if it’s lost in the water hazard. See above...$0.42!

Are these ideas totally ridiculous? Not if we consider that people who play softball and baseball don’t bring their own ball. Very few volleyball, basketball or football leagues require players to bring their own ball. Why does golf?

2. Charge by the hour, not by the round. Say you have 50 players paying $10 for an hour of golf per week. That’s $500 gross. During a 28-week season, it’s $14,000 more in your bank. Hmmm, $14K vs. $0?

When and how? Experiment. Maybe you offer Golf-by-the-Hour between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.? Or weekend afternoons? Additionally, if a player is paying by the hour, will he or she play faster?

3. Have one fee, regardless of the number of holes played. Make it simple. Does a person playing 18 holes really wear down a course that much more than a person playing nine? What if a player only has energy, interest or time for 12 holes? Each course probably has to look at its numbers and see what would happen. Not sure? Try #2 above.

4. Put a larger cup on each green. This is not an original idea. It is a first cousin to many recreation and sport modifications, such as different size soccer goals. In this case, the cup is six to eight inches in diameter instead of the standard 4.5 inches. If you shave off putts, the game is less frustrating and plays faster. The purists aren’t going to like this, so keep a standard cup on the green, too.

5. Build larger greens and place multiple cups on the green. The average Joe or Jane gets the greatest thrill from getting on the green in two or three shots. So, enlarge the green. Once they’re on the green, let them pick which hole to putt to. Refer to #4 and make one or two of the holes a large cup. What do you care as long as your customers are having fun and paying to play there?

6. Provide decent loaner clubs at no charge. Assume that a decent, durable set of clubs will cost no more than $200. Keep 10 or 20 sets on hand, for an initial outlay of $2,000 to $4,000. Tie this minor investment to a well-executed promotional campaign to invite nongolfers and new golfers to the game without forcing them to fork out the money to buy clubs. 

7. Partner with the local fitness club. Scratch each other’s backs. Allow the fitness club to host morning jogs on the course before it opens. Have the fitness trainers conduct conditioning classes at the golf course for players. Cooperatively launch a “fast golf” program (jogging the course and using only a 5-iron and putter). Promote each other in your ads, communications, websites, etc. 

There are millions of baby boomers who aren’t golfing but are looking for ways to get more exercise. Hello! Walking a golf course has all but disappeared. Perhaps the fitness experts can promote wellness through golf.

8. Like fitness clubs, offer personal (golf) trainers. Why not have someone I can hire to walk a few holes with me and give me tips along the way? People shell out good dough for personal fitness trainers. Why? They like the personal attention and customized instruction.

9. Adopt a liberal interpretation of the rules, or write your own house rules. Another un-original idea.

• Scoring is optional.

• Gym shoes are OK.

• Moving the ball to a better lie is OK.

• Pulling the ball out of a trap is permitted.

Change the rules to remove frustration, lower the expense and reduce the time.

10. Remove some sand traps. To the average player, these things are a pain in the backside. Duffers know they are ball magnets. It can be frustrating and embarrassing to get out of one. A sand trap as big as a circus tent is intimidating and aggravating. Nobody wants to pay to be aggravated. Bye, bye money.

11. Build a par-3 within your regulation course. Talk about a no-brainer. This just involves building 14 or so new tee boxes within three strokes of the hole. Let the players go all the way to the “Par-3 Tee Box” or just put up some markers around 100 to 150 yards out and call it the par-3 start.

12. Promote 9-hole outings. Golf course managers have noted that outings have been dropping off. Business and charitable outings often last all day long. So, how about promoting half-day outings with one meal? Players can get back to work, or go to work in the morning and still enjoy the day. For fundraising outings, the course managers may have to create methods for hosts to raise adequate sums. Be the leaders.

13. GolfCross or Goalf. From the Bloomberg Report, December 2007:

“… This game is called GolfCross, or Goalf… the game has two distinct differences from the kind that Tiger Woods plays: the egg-shaped ball, slightly heavier than a normal round one, and the 12-foot-tall goals in lieu of the usual 4 1/4-inch holes in the ground.” 

The odd, oval ball has a unique feature. It is said that it’s impossible to hit hooks or slices. So, go buy some balls, special tees and goals, and invite some of your favorite folks to try it out. Likely, the local TV station and newspaper will cover it. Video it for YouTube, too.  If you don’t want to buy the goals at first, let players putt when they reach the green. Really, what do you care if a hacker is playing with an egg-shaped ball as long as he or she is happy and paying you to be there? 

Some readers may be ready to blow a blood vessel because the “golfers” won’t go for some of this baloney. And that’s correct. The beauty is that they don’t have to. There is nothing suggested here that prevents the “golfer” from playing his or her game just like always. Don’t like the 8-inch cup? No problem. Putt to the regulation cup. Don’t like the oval ball? Don’t use it. The free ball is not your favorite? Donate it to the junior golfers.

The goal is not to produce golfers who dream of being the next PGA tournament champion — the first goal of the golf business is to make money. Money will be made by getting more people to play, to come more often and to play for the fun of it. Think like a “reccie” and start ringing the cash register!

Arnie Biondo is the Director of the Carol Stream, Illinois, Park District and a 40-year veteran of recreation programming.