Golf industry looks for new ways to lure players back to the links

When the Canadian Golf & Country Club first experimented with putting larger-than-regulation six-inch cups on the greens at its nine-hole course earlier this summer, it didn’t take long for general manager Mark Seabrook to start hearing the barbs from some longtime members.

What’s next, they joked – windmills?

“What I’ve learned in my life is a lot of people are reluctant to change,” says Mr. Seabrook, who has been in the golf business for nearly four decades. “We think it’s a positive step forward.”

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The 27-hole, semi-private course in Ashton, 40 kilometres west of Ottawa, is one of more than 70 courses within a one-hour drive of the city, making the National Capital Region among the most saturated markets in a nation that has more golf facilities per capita than almost anywhere in the world.

There are about 2,300 courses across the country, according to the Ottawa-based National Golf Course Owners Association Canada, or about one for every 15,000 Canadians. In eastern Ontario, the ratio is even higher.

Few countries are more passionate about the game. The association says about 5.7 million of us have picked up a club at one time or another – 16 per cent of the population. Of those, Statistics Canada says 1.5 million are “engaged” players, meaning they hit the links regularly.

All those duffers on the greens translate into a lot of green for the golf industry, which generates an estimated $14.3 billion of the GDP every year, the most of any sport. When golf’s impact on other sectors such as tourism and real estate is taken into account, industry estimates peg the total figure at $37 billion.

No other sport can touch those numbers. Still, some wonder if the business has found its way into a hazard.

A recent study by the National Allied Golf Associations, or NAGA, found the total number of rounds played on Canadian courses dropped from 70 million in 2009 to 60 million last year. Courses across the country are suffering, and several private clubs have gone into receivership or put themselves on the market this year.

South of the border, Dick’s Sporting Goods laid off more than 500 golf instructors at its stores last month, and the California-based Edwin Watts golf chain has begun the process of liquidation. Almost everyone agrees the situation is better in Canada, but after decades of continuous growth, the upward curve appears to have flattened out.

“The golf industry has weakened a little bit in recent years, yes,” says NAGA chair Jeff Calderwood, who is also CEO of the course owners’ association. “However, the golf industry employs more people than any other sport (about 125,000 nationally). The sky is not falling. Golf is No. 1. How much better than No. 1 is anyone expected to be? Every industry goes through business cycles. You can’t continuously be on a growth curve forever. Golf’s pretty much had a 60-year run of growth, growth, growth until very recent years.”

Others in the industry agree that while golf has hit a bit of a rough patch recently, it still occupies a place in the overall sports business hierarchy other recreational pursuits can only dream of.

“It depends how you look at it,” says Rob Knights, a former golf pro and vice-president of golf operations and business development forTMSI Sports Management, which owns the Thunderbird Sports Centre in Kanata. “If you compare golf now with a few years ago, the participation is down, but we’re still ahead of a lot of other sports.”

Mr. Seabrook says golf has been suffering since the economy hit the skids in 2008, but adds that hardly makes it unique.

“Is it tough?” he asks rhetorically. “Yeah, but what industry today isn’t?”

Locally, Mr. Calderwood says the situation in Ottawa is “fairly typical” of the state of the game across the country. The market is either “fully supplied or slightly oversupplied,” he says, adding a few courses’ days could be numbered if they don’t see a turnaround in declining participation.

Mr. Knights seconds that assessment.

“Obviously, some golf courses are going to be hurting,” he says. “I’m surprised that we already haven’t seen a number of golf courses closing. I think some are just hanging on by a thread. I would be surprised if we don’t have four or five golf courses close in this area in the next year or so.”

Observers pin part of the blame on the economic downturn. The introduction of the HST in Ontario in 2010 didn’t help, Mr. Seabrook adds. Golf also requires a significant investment of time as well as money, another factor often cited in its decline.

“A lot of people just don’t have the time to spend at a traditional golf course where you take four or five hours to play a round of golf,” says Mr. Knights. “I think the difficulty of golf also turns kids away.”

Thunderbird is joining clubs across the country, including the Canadian, in trying to speed up play – not to mention simplify it – by making the cups larger. The nine-hole, par-3 course has introduced “wide-cup Wednesdays,” when the hole widths are nearly doubled from the standard 4.25 inches to eight.

“People love it,” says Mr. Knights. “It’s a lot easier. We’re trying to make golf more enjoyable for people, easier, less intimidating.”

As for the traditionalists who grouse that making such changes to appeal to a wider crowd alters the nature of the sport, he has a ready – and very practical – response.

“Golf is a great game for kids and you can play it all your life,” he says. “Anything we can do to get people out playing, I’m willing to do – short of the windmills.”

At the Canadian Golf & Country Club, Mr. Seabrook says traffic on the nine-hole course is up since the club introduced the six-inch cups; he is even considering widening them to eight inches.

He sees no problem with making the game a little easier on high handicappers if it keeps them coming back.

“We’re not in the golf business,” he declares. “We’re in the entertainment industry. People demand value for their entertainment dollar.”

Courses are trying other strategies to boost their numbers, including slashing green fees and introducing six-, nine- or 12-hole packages. The Canadian recently promoted an online weekend special offering customers unlimited golf with a power cart for just $20 on its nine-hole course.

“Because we had 60 years of continuous growth, it was almost, ‘Build it and they will come,’” says Mr. Calderwood. “You didn’t have to be as innovative … as you do have to be when market conditions change. Now, it’s as competitive as any other industry. You’re going to see much more of that kind of creativity.”

Thunderbird has also begun offering FootGolf, a mix of soccer and golf in which players kick a soccer ball down the fairway with the goal of potting it into a 21-inch hole. An average of about 50 players a week have tried their hand – or foot, as it were– at the game since it was introduced in June, Mr. Knights says.

“It’s easier than golf, really,” he says. “Everybody can kick a soccer ball, but it is difficult to hit a golf ball. We’re hoping next year it’ll really take off.”

Innovations like these can only help the game grow, says Mr. Calderwood, whose organization is also lobbying the federal government to scrap a decades-old provision that bans companies from writing off golf as a business expense. Other forms of entertaining customers such as hockey and football tickets are eligible for deductions of up to 50 per cent, he notes, and he says golf has been unfairly singled out.

“I would argue that golf’s probably the No. 1 vehicle for that kind of client entertainment – more valuable than anything else you can name,” he says.

He points to another cause for optimism. With a wave of baby boomers set to retire over the next few years, he sees plenty of potential new players waiting in the wings.

“In theory, they will have the time, and in theory, they will have more disposable income than any prior generation,” he says. “That sets up well. I think there’s a whole lot of sports – probably every one – that would trade with us if they could have our numbers.”

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