When the next Tiger Woods enters golf, will the industry be ready?

SLRG President Jon Last offers his take on how golf course developers can learn from the past, in the September issue of Golf Business.

by David Gould

When the next Tiger Woods enters golf, will the industry be ready?

His many injuries, surgeries and setbacks prompt doubts that Tiger Woods could ever return to prominence as a player. As a result, his pro career often gets spoken of in the past tense. It’s the same with discussions of the “Tiger Effect” on golf’s popularity. Nowadays, when course owners raise the topic, one hears tinges of regret. The magnetism of this unique athlete inspired waves of potential new players, and the golf industry couldn’t capitalize on it.

While it’s highly unlikely we see another Tiger, it’s still true that interest in sports participation is trend-driven, which means the stars could one day realign for golf. This raises a question: Would things be different if something like the Tiger phenomenon occurred today? The query was put to an array of sources and their basic answer was yes—although it wasn’t clear whether conditions would be different enough.

Jon Last, one of the more seasoned researchers and consultants serving the industry, points to a sense of urgency for business-building that’s baked into current market conditions. This wasn’t the case when Woods came to prominence in the mid-1990s, Last would argue, because times were good and facilities weren’t scrambling. Many recall the full parking lots at Torrey Pines and Bethpage State Park. Golfers bunked in them overnight to ensure a spot on the tee.

“There were new golfers inspired by Tiger who got the cold shoulder when they arrived,” Last explains, “not only from longtime players, but also from people who might benefit financially from a growing user base. There was some logic to that, given that slow play was a problem and the regulars would only complain louder if they saw raw beginners clogging the fairways.”

Last, the founder and president of Sports & Leisure Research Group, recalls that when Woods came along, the public-golf market had already been through its pre-Tiger upswing of the late 1980s, with one result being significant new-course construction. “That sounds like fortunate timing,” Last says, “except the courses being built weren’t suited to newly entering players—they were part of gated communities or else they were high-end semi-privates marketed as country-clubs-for-a-day.”

The CCFD movement revealed a narrow grow-the-game approach within the public-golf sector, one that began and ended with the established regular. This golfer was a moderately prosperous Caucasian male who couldn’t quite break 80 on the average course but dearly wanted to, and was prone to associate high quality with lofty Slope ratings. Growth meant upselling him to a higher green fee at a fancier facility, meanwhile waiting for people like him to take up the game and absorb newly available tee times at the more basic courses.

It was a wrong-product mistake, made by insiders unable to spot the great variety in what entering players might desire. That error wouldn’t be repeated today, according to many industry veterans. Course architect Mike Hurdzan is in his early 70s and thus able to recall that golf long ago had a suitable infrastructure—established more or less by accident—for ushering new players into the game.

“We had short, flat courses with a few shallow bunkers, we had shag-your-own practice fields, we had roadside driving ranges, we had caddies’ day on Mondays,” Hurdzan recalls. “Golf wasn’t so fancy, it didn’t have to be expensive, and you could find a niche where you fit in.”

Even the arrival of easy-swinging graphite shafts and clubheads with big sweet spots doesn’t offset the fact that upscale daily-fee courses became too long and penal, according to Hurdzan.

“The old miss was a skulled grounder that ran pretty straight down a dry fairway,” he notes. “That ball was easy to find and hit again, compared to a booming slice 30 yards into the woods.”

He doesn’t advocate a return to that scraggly set of entry points and acclimation sites. Instead, there needs to be facility designs that vary along a spectrum in a way that nurtures people into their particular sweet spot. Hurdzan Golf is working on one now, a 36-hole complex south of Cleveland called Westfield Group Country Club. Central to it is a vast learning center and central to the learning center is a “Himalayas”-style putting course covering 25,000 square feet. It’s got an “event lawn” right beside it where an audience can socialize and watch competitors on the putting course. “The foundation of what’s being done there is non-intimidation,” Hurdzan says. “You’ll be able to go to this facility knowing that when it’s over you will say, ‘That was fun.’”

If you want to sell green fees to incoming players, you’d be wise to wait for these newbies to get comfortable, and wiser still to give them methods for doing so. It’s encouraging to see the many “sequel” versions of Get Golf Ready, with roman numerals added and other title tweaks that help assure neophyte golfers they’ll be brought along stage by stage.

Steve Mays, acting president of Founders Group International, a 22-course management group in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, agrees that new-player development needs shrewd ways “to postpone the beginner’s opportunity to go out and play an 18-hole round, given the embarrassment and frustration factors involved.”

He sees this happening. “Instructors and golf academies are figuring out how to get the new player into a start-up program, then graduate them to the next program, then move them along to the one after that,” Mays says. “That’s a good way to make entry into this difficult game a manageable process, and it’s something we didn’t understand years ago.”

The immense putting course Hurdzan describes performs the important task of introducing the delights of golf to those who’ve played the game little or not at all. Yet it’s almost stodgy compared to what Arcis Golf recently put in place at Hunt Valley Country Club, north of Baltimore. Hunt Valley’s original 27-hole facility has been repurposed as a “three-in-one course” that establishes separate segments for traditional golf, footgolf and disc golf. Point being, states club general manager Jon Vodehnal, “to appeal to golfers, non-golfers, families and anyone else with an imaginative new concept perfect for celebrations, events and sporting activities of many kinds.”

An investment of $2.5 million is on the line as this concept unfolds. “We can create all sorts of activities for our customers,” explains Vodehnal. “That could be anything from a tee-shot accuracy contest to speed golf to a dart game station and just about anything you can think of that applies to golfers—the disc golfer and the footgolfer included.”

Something like that can be found at Sedona Golf Resort’s annual Bike & Brew Festival—a mountain bike race along the fairways with lots of celebrating after—and in the award-winning master plan of Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, New Mexico. When Tiger Woods turned pro, you weren’t seeing this kind of inclusiveness effort, in which the golf facility brings in non-golf activities, partly to tap into new revenue sources, but also to show non-golfers a beautiful landscape where golf etiquette is observed but where the 19th hole is a fun gathering spot and, hey, maybe there’s pop music coming from loudspeakers along the practice tee.

Troon Golf’s new president, Tim Schantz, doesn’t fault anyone—from the GM to the head pro to the course marshal and so on—for valuing golf’s formalities and working to keep the game’s behavioral norms intact. He does imagine that the way some people went about adhering to those standards poked additional holes in golf’s so-called “leaky bucket”—the game’s pattern of attracting but not retaining new players.

“You have moments like Tiger playing No. 16 at Augusta in the 2005 Masters,” recalls Schantz, “and his ball with the Nike logo hangs for two seconds before falling into the cup. Tiger gives his impassioned response while pure electricity runs through the gallery.” All good so far, if your goal is new jolts of global interest in the old Scottish game, but in some ways it proved an illusion. “Someone watching this on TV decides they want to be part of the excitement of golf,” says Schantz, “but when they get to the course it’s all about keeping pace and where to stand and what kind of shorts you can wear.”

A diverse set of appropriate entry points for any non-golfer who is inspired by the likes of Jordan Spieth is needed, and Schantz sees that piece of the puzzle being worked on. Topgolf wasn’t around when Tiger Woods was transcending his sport and boosting its visibility dramatically—but it’s here now and growing rapidly. Troon Golf is opening “a Topgolf-like location” in Lubbock, Texas, under the name of 4ORE, which it will manage on behalf of the investors who built it. “This is a market that is probably too small for Topgolf, but it’s got a college and some other advantages,” Schantz notes. “The facility has a lot going for it—it’s the type of entry point that’s bound to help golf’s overall player-development effort.”

Topgolf is set to expand into Myrtle Beach, a development Mays is pleased to see. By coincidence, the morning he was interviewed for this article a staffer asked him if Founders Group had plans for any formal or informal partnering with Topgolf, so as to give its customers a pathway to the green-grass golf experience. “I told him we didn’t as yet, but we need to get working on that,” says Mays.

Ian James, the South Africa-bred CEO of a consulting firm called RetailTribe, has a non-American’s keen eye for pointing out gaps and breakdowns in grow-the-game initiatives. In his view, those surges of interest in golf during the late 1980s and in the Tiger Era were met by an industry that said, ‘Sure, become a golfer, but here’s our strict definition of what a golfer looks like, acts like, and what he or she is motivated by.’ By contrast, James is all about getting inside the heads and hearts of would-be golfers [or about-to-quit golfers], finding out what they want from the game—at any given time—then setting a goal of providing that.

And the “why” element will vary across a spectrum. Personal priorities may include spending quality time with a son or daughter; impressing the boss; rehabbing after orthopedic surgery; finding a new competitive outlet; improving one’s dating life after a breakup; having fun in the daytime if you work nights—the list goes on.

Anyone who can say they loved golf from the time they “first picked up a club” has a big disadvantage in this effort—they don’t get that you can value golf in your lifestyle even if the game has not been a lifelong addiction that started on day one. James sees the non-addict, the guy who didn’t bring his golf clubs to bed on his wedding night, as the incremental player who turns break-even results into profits. “This customer is including golf into their overall life strategy,” James points out. “We need to know what they want from the game and how to give it to them.” Recreational golfers often think of golf skills as a pie to be cut into slices, according to James. “They’ll respond to a three-lesson series that trains them to escape every bunker in one shot—specific skill areas like that,” he says.

One recent winner of the PGA of America’s National Player Development Award, Ralph Landrum, has studied this question carefully over recent years and responded with an encyclopedic matrix of program concepts. Landrum’s sprawling grid of events, activities and programs at his World of Golf facility in Florence, Kentucky, includes a Ladies Golf, Wine and Cheese night, Ladies Lesson Reunions, Perfect Practice clinics, bilingual golf lessons, PeeWee After School Golf, junior development programs (at six “color” levels, like martial arts), Junior, Lady and Senior Day, Get Golf Ready 1, Get Golf Ready 2, a couples outing series, parent/child tournaments, and much more, including something called the BSS Event.

The latter works like this: Show up for BSS with $6 in your hand and pay that amount to play mini-golf, or footgolf, or nine holes of traditional golf, or all-you-can-beat for a set time period on the practice range. Landrum long ago decided that there is no “home run” in player development, only a long season of singles up the middle. His method is to observe newcomers carefully, steal ideas from other venues and marketers, allow for lots of diversity, and keep programming until there’s no would-be golfer left behind.

When Tiger Woods was dominant and continually topping his most recent wondrous achievement, it seemed that every person out there with even a hint of interest in golf could be drawn to the game by this one charismatic player. Years later, we seem to have discovered that even if a similar figure came along to spark enormous interest, the industry would still have to welcome, assess and accommodate the new arrivals one by one.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.