Growing the Game of Golf: Creative Ideas for the Next Generation

January 1, 2016, Department, by Bill Clevenger, Kurt “Turtle” Rogers, Lisa Gillen

Due to popular demand, the Veterans and Friends League will continue in the wintertime at the Decatur Park District.A declining population, aging community and low average household income present ongoing challenges for Illinois’ Decatur Park District (DPD) golf system. Five thriving public courses in the 1980s and 1990s were based on an average population of almost 90,000 people. Since that time, Decatur’s population has dropped 20 percent and several major employers have left the community, affecting the local economy. Furthermore, 111 golf courses, all doing their best to entice a dwindling number of players, lie within a two-hour radius. While these statistics paint a difficult local operational picture, golf participation and frequency of play at the national level have also declined significantly. According to the National Golf Foundation, golf course closings in 2014 outpaced openings for the ninth consecutive year. In fact, nine public courses closed in Illinois in 2014 and zero new courses opened.

For the past decade, DPD has attempted to proactively respond to our ever-evolving golf market. In an effort to right-size the system and attract new golfers, DPD reduced golf staff from 27 employees to 12, decreased pro shop inventory 87 percent, cut chemical costs by 13 percent and reduced the number of holes by closing a languishing 18-hole course (Nelson Park) and converting a small, nine-hole course (Wildwood) to a prairie-style signature course – Red Tail Run Golf Club by Raymond Floyd – which has attracted 26,000 rounds per year since its opening in 2006. With three public courses in operation today, DPD continues to feel the strain of local and national shifts in sporting interests, available free time and disposable income. Over the years, however, an enormous investment has been made to create and maintain high-quality, attractive facilities. DPD’s three golf hubs, Hickory Point, Scovill and Red Tail Run, are award-winning courses that have attracted several national and state tournaments.  

To make the most of these facilities, DPD realized a need to modify the traditions of the game to fit today’s demographic, establishing at each golf course a more comprehensive entertainment venue. In 2015, creative offerings to encourage play included a short course, hack golf and fling golf at Scovill Golf Course, all promoted as the “Scovill Shake Up.”  The nine-hole, par three short course was designed for beginners, juniors, seniors — anyone looking for shorter distances and faster play. The course was developed within the existing 18-hole golf course, with all holes between 90 and 185 yards. A reasonable $9 fee appealed to even the most frugal individuals. Hack Golf, with 15-inch holes and relaxed rules, was installed seamlessly and at little expense. Fling golf, a combination of lacrosse and golf, created a uniquely athletic experience on the golf course. Finally, to boost participation among young professionals, “Nine after 5” was also developed, with advertising containing a bit of “swag.” “If you don’t know the first thing about golf, if you’re not that good, or you haven’t played in years,” the commercial says, “come hang out at Scovill on Thursday nights…and play just a little bit of golf.” For just $20, participants golfed nine holes with cart and enjoyed appetizers, tips from the pros and a coupon for an adult beverage. Weekly drawings were held for rounds of golf, pro shop goodies and full beginner sets of clubs. Over the six-week promotion, DPD secured the interest of 125 new golfers, some of whom had never set foot on a golf course. 

Another unique addition at Scovill was the Veterans and Friends League for veterans and their volunteer partners/helpers. An average of 24 participants each week enjoyed fresh air, golf and camaraderie. Devised by Dale Jones, an avid golfer whose brother suffered a stroke some years ago but recovered physically and emotionally by returning to the golf course, the Veterans and Friends League allowed players with and without disabilities to stay active. Doug Reed, an Army veteran, looked forward to the weekly trip to the course. “It meant a lot to me to have one day a week to get out with the guys,” he said. “And there are so many other veterans who could benefit. We’re not Tiger Woods, of course. We’re just out to have fun, learn new things and set new goals for ourselves.” Several participants play with just one arm or are still recovering from open heart surgery or back surgery. Clubs and a SoloRider adaptive golf cart are available if needed. Due to popular demand, the league will continue this winter at DPD’s Indoor Golf Center on the campus of Millikin University.

To gauge the community’s interest in FootGolf, a free nine-hole course was added on the junior golf course at Hickory Point in late 2014. DPD’s MidState Soccer Club members, in particular, made the most of this exciting new sport that merges golf and soccer into one. The following spring, the U.S. FootGolf Association (USFGA) designed and certified an 18-hole course at Hickory Point, with par three, par four and par five holes, along with recreational and competition tees. A tournament including soccer players from across central Illinois will be scheduled in 2016.   

Initiatives designed to attract non-golfers to the courses included jazz concerts and a karaoke night at the Hickory Point Golf Club pavilion, IHSA Cross Country Sectionals at Hickory Point and holiday runs in collaboration with the Decatur Running Club. A casual, 3- or 6-mile Thanksgiving run at Red Tail Run Golf Club by Raymond Floyd attracted more than 50 individuals, who enjoyed the winding cart path and beautiful scenery prior to their holiday celebrations. These initiatives have helped boost existing efforts, such as online tee times, a golf app and golf specials shared as “Turtle’s Tweets” during non-peak hours.   

So far, DPD is attracting seniors to the short course, recreational golfers to hack golf, youth to FootGolf and young professionals to Nine after 5. We know that times change, people change and preferred sports and activities change. However, the Decatur Park District is leaving no stone unturned in its quest to find a formula that brings newcomers to the courses, generates excitement and translates into a revitalization of golf in our community.

Bill Clevenger is the Executive Director of Decatur Park District. Kurt “Turtle” Rogers is the Golf Manager for Decatur Park District. Lisa Gillen is the Director of Marketing at Decatur Park District.