Focus On Fun
We witnessed enormous growth in golf over the last quarter century with a tremendous amount of courses developed during this time. Golf is the ultimate recreational pursuit enjoyed by millions for not only the challenge the game sets in front of us, but more importantly for the intangible elements it provides such as enjoying the outdoors while spending time with friends, or the exercise we receive. However, over the years many lost sight of this aspect of the game and simply focused on building the next greatest course to sell higher priced memberships or create premium real estate values. This prompted the next course to be even more impressive. With golf’s popularity fueling this race many courses were developed to satisfy the growing business of golf and failed to focus on the one element that had delivered the game to this threshold. Since the Great Recession rocked the world of golf, at least in terms of the day-to-day operations of most courses, there has been a tremendous amount of talk about what is wrong with the game of golf and what needs to be done in order to fix it. But these fixes seem to suggest a simple silver bullet solution is all that is needed to put the game of golf back on track. Conditions have been undeniably tough recently, and I don’t want to minimize the struggles many courses have experienced and might continue to struggle with today. However, this writer’s humble opinion is the “game” of golf, although impacted, is doing just fine and never really derailed, but the “business” of golf most certainly has veered off track. Having fun has always been a fundamental principle of golf, and somewhere along the way the business of golf has strayed from this guiding principle. Focusing on putting fun back into the business is critical to the continued growth of the game. This cannot be achieved through a single concept, rather it will take a multi-layer approach to understanding your course and those who play it.
In the Beginning I was a kid of 8 years of old when my parents introduced me to golf. I was fortunate to be enveloped in the game at a small town country club. This laid back introduction may skew my perspective somewhat, but I remember those years growing up in the game as a carefree time within a relaxed atmosphere. My parents were avid golfers and played regularly, so when my sister and I were old enough we tagged along. My earliest memories of the game are actually hanging off the back of the golf cart as dad raced between shots. Can you imagine this scenario playing out at any golf facility you visited recently! But back then it was a commonplace occurrence. Once I became more interested in the game my parents taught me the rules, etiquette and fundamentals of the golf swing; once equipped with all these skills, I was allowed on the course alone to play with friends. At first, we plodded along, and if we ever found ourselves in the way of older golfers we simply stepped aside as they graciously played through. Once we honed our skills and learn to keep pace with the golfers around us the game became even more exciting. However, it was not simply about conquering the challenge the game offers or hitting longer drives or making more putts, but rather a feeling we belonged and had become part of the golfing experience. I reflect on my past because it was this fun golf experience that, as a kid, hooked me on the game, and I suspect hooked most people back in the simpler days of golf.
Big Business Unfortunately, golf’s simpler days are gone, and the sport has become a business. This shift prompts the following questions: What are golfers purchasing when they come to your facility? Are they simply buying a tee time and access to the course? If your answer to these questions are “I don’t know” and “yes”, then you’ve lost sight of that key ingredient from the simpler days that remains a core element of the game. During my 25 years as a golf architect, I have always stressed the golf experience, and this concept remains at the core of my design philosophy. At first my perspective was largely focused on the course and how its elements affected the experience. Certainly the elements of design have their influences. The experience a golfer has playing a course 500 or 600 yards longer than another will definitely be different, just as the placement of features and hazards around the course will influence the experience. However, over the years I have come to realize the golf experience extends beyond the physical characteristics of the course. A fundamental understanding of why a player is or isn’t coming to your course, as well as the player’s expectations and what they wish to accomplish while playing your course have equal influence in forming their golf experience. And focusing on how to infuse fun into each individual’s purpose for playing will help to bring them back to your course time and time again.
An Equitable Experience is the Key
I truly believe all golfers want to experience challenges throughout a course; however, the course must challenge their abilities in a playable and equitable fashion for the experience to be enjoyable for everyone. The greatest aspect of golf is its varied playing fields, and having an innate understanding of your facility is a first critical piece to creating a fun golf experience. Distance is a big part of this equation, and it’s important to pay attention to overall course yardage, and yardage as it relates to location of hazards when evaluating your facility. Over the years I have found clubhead swing speed to be the most dependable component to predict distance for the majority of players, and I have spent the last few years focused on better understanding this component as it relates to carry and roll out distances. We’re all amazed how far the elite level player hits the ball, but the disparity between the longest hitters and the everyday player is astonishing. The drop off in distance is quite dramatic. As a result of this technologically fueled distance variance, considerate increasing staggered distances in your teeing grounds. With every opportunity, I encourage clubs to shift tees forward and create yardages that are more compatible with the array of golfers playing their course. This shift creates staggered landing zones aimed at providing similar playing experiences for all levels of golfers. For instances, a hole playing 420 yards from the back tee typically will require a player with a swing speed of 100 mph who hits a solid drive to have an eight iron for the approach. In order to provide a similar experience and shot value for a player with a swing speed of 75 mph the distance should be roughly 250 yards. This is quite a difference, but provides a similar experience for the shorter hitter which is far more playable. At a good number of courses it’s most likely this golfer is playing the hole at 300 yards or more, which requires a hybrid approach, so the experience is vastly different. As a player with slower swing speeds if you’re experiencing this throughout the majority of the course you’re probably not having a whole lot of fun. Distance is not the only factor and it’s important to create consistent playing characteristics when designing hazards as well. With this approach a golf hole can be designed with harmonious shot values, which equates to increase playability and enjoyment for everyone. Because no two golf courses are alike, it is unrealistic to expect golfers to experience any course in the same way. This is particularly true when it comes to pace of play. Understanding and establishing a proper pace of play time for your course allows you to not “overload” the course, and can help golfers understand the expectations of playing in a timely manner. Is a course 6,500 yards long compared to 7,000 yards, or a course with 40 bunkers compared to 120 going to have the same pace of play time? The answer is no, and trying to fit players into unrealistic playing times is detrimental to creating a fun golf experience. Additionally, pace of play has different meaning to every player. Mr. Brown might enjoy a sub-four hour round as a great pace, even if this meant waiting to play some shots, while Mr. Smith might enjoy a near five-hour round if it meant no waiting or holding up the group behind. Knowing this and steering each player toward a tee time during the day that fits their needs can help insure a fun experience for not only them, but for all golfers around them. Getting to know your visitors and having the knowledge of what they wish to accomplish while visiting your course can be a powerful tool. Whether a new course under development or an existing course looking to retain or grow their player roster, understanding your customers, their motivation to play and their abilities are vital to forming a fun golf experience. Across the spectrum of players, everyone has differing motivations for playing the game. There are those who take the game very seriously and those who are purely social golfers. There are beginners of all ages who are looking to improve and beginners who merely enjoy being on the course with no real improvement goals in mind. Identifying each player’s motivation and creating an experience tailored to them is a big first step to fostering a fun golf experience.Educating your golfers in order to help them better understand the game, and more specifically their abilities, can be a key ingredient in a multi-faceted strategy. A program to consider as you develop your approach for creating a fun golf experience is Tee It Forward. A recent study by the USGA of golfer indexes reveals 87% of male golfers have a USGA index of 7 or higher, and 37% of these player have an index above 16. For women golfers, 89% have an index of 16 or above, and 38 % of these players are above 31. What this tells us is not many golfers who play your course regularly are going to be playing the Tour anytime soon, or even a major amateur event for that matter. With your new forward tees in place and encouraging all your golfers to move forward will allow them to play the golf course the way it was designed to be played. A realistic tee choice is vital to enjoying any course and having fun.
Technology has had a big influence on the enjoyment of the game. Across all abilities, golfers have increased distance in every facet of the game. But in some cases these gains might have had an inverse effect when it comes to playability of many courses. For instances, bunkers that were once only reachable by low index golfers no longer might be a threat to this player, and are now directly in the target zone of the average mid to high index player. Re-establishing the original design intent can, in some instances, improve the fun factor of a course for everyone. Keeping in mind the index levels that are probably playing your course daily, new or re-positioned tees, not only adjust distances, but can create new angles of play and transform a course from one perceived too hard to a fun and playable experience. Possibly removing bunkers is a necessary step to providing the experience your customers are seeking. There are a myriad of design options that can be considered which will help put fun back into your course. Course set-up and conditioning has a tremendous influence on the experience. Ranging from infrastructure items such as landing zone width, height of fairway cut, height of rough cut, location of tall native grasses and green speeds; to simple items that can be adjusted quickly like tee alignment and daily hole locations. All contribute to the type of golf experience you want to establish for your course.
Education for Staff & Golfers
Finally, and maybe most importantly, is educating your staff and your golfers to better understand the game and each other. Establishing outreach programs to educate new golfer about the game, your facility and the atmosphere they should expect to encounter will help fashion a fun atmosphere. Recruiting your established customers into this education process can create a mentor for new players, and will ultimately make the experience fun for the established group. Studies show new golfers feel uncomfortable when first introduced to the game. This is because they don’t understand the protocols of navigating the environment. This ranges from understanding how to make and check in for tee times, to understanding the vocabulary of golf. Educate your staff on creating an inclusive atmosphere, so that new players to the game feel comfortable coming to your course, understand how to navigate the environment and want to return. Also, create fun and exciting programs to stir interest and give cause for coming out to the course. This can range from themed adult only events, to programs that encourage everyone in the family to come out and have fun! These suggestions are just a few of many options available to focus on fun at your course, and restoring a key ingredient to keep the game great!