We Need 1,000 More Golf Courses. - No! I'm Not Nuts!
The picture above was taken by me at Village Links of Glen Ellyn, a municipal golf course near Chicago. The 27-hole facility contributes to the entire area's golf economy by starting hundreds of people at the game every season.
If I suggested, there was room for a thousand more golf courses in the USA you'd think I was nuts - given the economic state of the industry in 2017. It's because I believe the golf business - run by golfers - has gone so highbrow it has forgotten an entire segment of society. It's a group of Americans aged twenty-five to seventy-five who have not yet played golf. Most will never take up the game because there is no place for them to start. I believe golf needs hundreds more low cost, player friendly courses if the industry wants a healthy economic future. This is where municipally owned golf facilities can make a contribution to their citizens and the game.
We do need 1,000 more golf courses in the USA to save many of the other 15,500 courses from going broke. We need 'threshold' recreation courses people can learn to play and enjoy. The kinds of courses we need are the ones that caused the boom in golf participation in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. We're talking golf courses people can afford to play. Golf courses they can walk. We need push-up greens, push-up tee boxes, and centerline irrigation systems. None need to be longer than 6,300 yards. We need greens with speeds at eight feet, fairways that roll, shallow sand traps (some can putt from). We need golf courses where people who can't and never will break ninety can play and enjoy - why can't a round of golf just be plain fun? The type of golf courses I’m referring to will feed and rescue the industry. Here's why.
I believe there are millions of Americans who don't play, and never have played golf, but would try the game if it was easier to get involved. There are millions of families that could afford to take an interest in golf but have no way to get started. I don't believe golf associations like National Golf Foundation, USGA, PGA, or local associations pay enough attention to the millions of Americans in the twenty-five to seventy-five year age bracket who have yet to try the game. These potential golf participants need a starter golf course - much like novice slopes at ski hills.
I’m qualified to address this issue because I started in golf when a walking round of golf was $1.25 (in the 1950's). A season membership to the course I worked at was $65.00 a year. Our golf course was a dusty, 5,400 yard, par-70 layout that was packed with golfers every day. Our tee sheet time slots were set at only six minutes. We had over 100 sets of rentals clubs that often went out twice a day. On a given day approximately one rental set in ten was to a person playing their first game of golf. I know because I was the pro shop clerk. I cleaned and stacked all 100 sets every day all summer long (Toronto, Ontario).
The rent-a-set-of-clubs era is long gone. We need it back!
Today, if you're thirty-eight years old, make $75 thousand a year, and have never played golf you won't have much of a chance to give it a try. You won't because people who play golf are not going to invite you to the golf course. At age thirty-eight, if a person has never played golf, the game is like a closed society because no golfer wants to play golf with a person who's going to score 135! Most club professionals don't want to teach beginners (because they hate teaching beginners). Meanwhile, every golf instruction advertisement says, "Improve your game." They never say, "Come out and Learn to Play Golf!"
So, why add 1,000 golf courses to the USA when the business of golf is in trouble? I believe properly planned recreational golf courses can serve both the community and the golf course industry. In many cases, already existing nine hole courses can fill part of the gap. It’s an area where I believe municipally owned golf course can contribute to the industry rather than compete with it.
I believe municipalities can plan, build, and operate their 'recreational’ or ‘threshold' golf courses in a manner that will compliment the community and the golf industry’s general economy because they would introduce thousands of citizens to golf. They can build golf courses on redundant land, or on capped landfills. They should be designed to walk or ride. A much lower construction budget will afford lower green fees and member fees – pushup greens, etc. Each facility needs a proper teaching, and practice area, including a full-length practice range. They need to operate under a continual and ongoing program to teach and encourage people to try and enjoy playing golf. They must offer daily rental sets of clubs, rental pull carts, etc. Recreational golf courses need forward tees for women, seniors, and junior golfers. If land space allows, adding a nine-hole par-3 golf course can open doors to golf for seniors, young children, and even handicapped persons.
I suggest using eight-inch putting cups instead of the four ¼ inch sized cups. Green speeds should be no faster than nine feet. Fairway mowing heights should be high enough, so the ball sits up. Rough heights should still be easily playable. Eliminate forced carries. Don’t guard greens with deep bunkers. No recreational golf course needs to be longer than 6,000-yards. Build par-70 courses, not par-72. A par-70 golf course means more players will break 100.
The recreational type golf course I recommend needs only a small clubhouse with a pro shop and a simple grillroom (not more than 4,000 square feet in size). It is important to plan the clubhouse to be functional, easy to operate, and easy to manage with open sightlines. The entire project shouldn't cost the community a dime, as community bonds can initially finance it, and then it can be leased to a golf course operator for an amount that is more than debt coverage. Of course, to protect the community's interest, the business would need to be operated in an 'acceptable' manner.
I have discussed this type of threshold golf course plan to several architects, golf construction companies, and financial sources. There are thousands of acres available for a recreational type of golf course project. If well thought out and planned, recreational golf courses could be created and up-and-running for less than $3 million. The finished product can include a golf course, a practice area, practice range, clubhouse, a maintenance building and parking.
We need threshold golf courses because golf courses in 2017 don't bring in enough new golf players to replace players lost by way of natural attrition (evidenced by National Golf Foundation Studies, ngf.org). Golf courses today are too long, too penal, and too expensive. The 30,000 square foot clubhouses are causing many golf courses to sink under the burden of overhead.
For golf to get back to good health - a seller’s market - the game simply needs more adult golf players. In my (60-years) experience in golf, I learned that new middle-aged golfers will influence others like them to take up the game. They'll encourage family members, workplace associates, and their friends to take up golf.
I know! I watched it. I was part of it. I grew it.
In my career, I brought thousands of new golfers into the game over a period of twenty-five years (1963 - 1988) by operating an annual learn-to-play-golf program for raw beginners. The single qualifier to be eligible to join our learn-to-play-golf classes: STUDENTS MUST NEVER HAVE PLAYED GOLF! I supplied everything - all the clubs, balls, tees, teaching, etc. I later followed up by organizing a beginner league for the year's recruits that lasted the rest of their starting golf season.
In many occasions I watched mom, dad, or an employee from a local business take up golf in our learn-to-play-golf classes who then influenced others to take up golf. Next thing they're bringing out more people to learn and play. The golf community around me grew strength because many new golfers out of my ‘camp’ graduated to become members of the higher priced country clubs.
All that I described above happened regularly back in the fifties through the eighties. Real efforts to grow golf are not happening now. I believe it's not going to happen like it did 30-years ago as long as golfers are running the business. Golfers make decisions to suit themselves. Meanwhile, over the last 25-years, they built over 3,000 new courses, most over 7,000-yards long - putting them are out of reach for 99% of all golfers.
In my opinion, golf will get back to positive economic health in one of two ways:
1 - Abandon 3,000 current golf courses, but continue to implode down to levels in the 1930s, or
2 - Build the game the way they did in the fifties, sixties, and seventies with affordable, player-friendly threshold golf courses.
That's where I believe municipally owned golf courses can serve their immediate communities and contribute to the overall health of the golf course industry.
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