Course correction: What golf needs now

Golf must change who it brings to the tee box
Course correction: What golf needs now

Look no further than Blackhawk and Cherokee country clubs to see what’s happened to the viability of golf in the Madison area. Membership fees are down at Blackhawk. The private club earlier this year sought a reduction on its land rental and the village rejected Blackhawk’s request that the village pay for parking lot repairs.

The hot tub in the women’s locker room at Cherokee Country Club on Madison’s north side hasn’t worked in years. The lockers are made of plywood and the amenities are outdated. The club has, for the last decade or so, aged in place, like many of the residents who’ve retired or are retirement-ready and live nearby in the condos that Cherokee’s owner, Larry Tiziani, built along the course.

Blackhawk’s and Cherokee’s stories–and their futures–are part of a larger story of golf, real estate development, changing demographics and the middle class. It’s the story of how a traditional institution steeped in centuries of privilege must fundamentally reinvent itself for a new era. The sport needs to appeal to women if it expects to turn itself around.

Who’s Your Golfer?
The heart of the golf industry is recreational golfers, women and men who play most of their rounds on public courses like Madison’s Yahara Hills, Odana Hills, Monona and Glenway and account for seventy-five percent of all money spent on the game. That’s a big, important hunk. And chances are if you’re a golfer reading this article, you’re a recreational golfer.

You may enjoy a weekly round of league play in the summer followed by a few drinks in the clubhouse. You might have cut a few strokes off your average round since you started, and you can aptly play your way through a golf fundraiser or an after-hours networking event. When the weather’s nice, you’re happy to join your friends or family for a few additional spontaneous rounds each year.

But you’re probably not rabid about improving your game. You don’t invest much in golf lessons or spend much time practicing. As a data point, among women, thirty percent of all recreational golfers have a handicap north of thirty. These golfers, folks who play well enough, are the game’s bread and butter. And many experts agree that if the game of golf is to grow, the number of recreational golfers must grow.

This is critically important in Madison. A few years ago, recreational golfers could be counted on for 100,000 rounds of golf on public courses each year. That generated enough revenue to make improvements and upgrades. Today, recreational golfers are playing 80,000 rounds. Break-even for our municipal courses is 86,000 rounds. The delta determines the difference between keeping up with maintenance and course improvements or falling behind.

The decrease in rounds played at Madison’s golf courses is part of a larger national trend that has been taking root since 2007 and has absolutely nothing to do with the “Tiger effect,” the mythical downturn in golf interest and spending that occurred when Tiger Woods fell from grace, and from the leaderboard.

Instead, golf’s decline has everything to do with good ol’ economics: the proliferation in golf courses (greater supply) and the shrinking middle class (decreased demand).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, you couldn’t swing a driver without hitting a new golf course development in the U.S., and alongside it, a series of “resort homes” that backed up onto fairways and greens. If you’ve ever sliced your tee shot into someone’s backyard, you’ve experienced the club end of the golf course-real estate buildup that took the country by storm.

As the number of holes a golfer could play dramatically increased, competition among courses increased. In Madison, 180 new holes were added in the two decades leading to the recession. This had a competitive effect on all of our municipal courses, and it affected private courses, too. By the time the economy collapsed in 2008, recreational golf had hit its peak. And when the economy shrank, recreational golfers’ wallets did, too.

The 2011 Golf Economy Report (the last year for which data are available) shows that between 2005 and 2011, industry-wide sales of golf equipment and apparel declined seventeen percent, from $6 billion (in 2011 dollars) to $5.1 billion. At the same time, the operations revenue that courses rely on–everything from the sleeve of balls you buy before your round starts to greens fees, cart rentals and adult beverages in the clubhouse–decreased nationally from $31.8 billion (in 2011 dollars) to $29.9 billion, more than six percent.

That’s because most recreational golfers also happen to be “middle class” in the economic sense. They don’t join country clubs like Cherokee or Blackhawk. They don’t invest $25,000 or more in a one-time membership fee. And as the sport’s middle class goes, so goes golf.

“Here’s what we know from one hundred years of data about golf: The only real metric that matters in determining participation in the game is household income,” says Rand Jerris, the United States Golf Association’s senior managing director for public services.

It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for golf in recent years–a giant swell in the number of courses followed by the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Or if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, maybe the recession made golf’s future clearer sooner. Because everyone seems to agree: Golf must become more accessible to more people or it will continue to sputter. Golf is at an inflection point, where women could set a new course.

More Than Pink Balls
Spend time on any golf course, flip through the pages of Golf Digest or watch golf on TV and you’ll notice that golf is a game dominated by men. Mostly white men. But even white men can’t save golf. Charlie Romines, Madison’s park operations manager, is crystal clear on this point. “The growth in golf is not in getting more white guys to play,” he says. “It’s coming from getting more women involved in the game.”Course correction: What golf needs now

Ryan Brinza, Madison Parks’ head golf professional, agrees and admits that the city of Madison’s efforts to develop more women golfers have been inadequate, in part because the city courses’ teaching staff is entirely male. “Many studies show that no matter how well intentioned we [male teaching professionals] are, there are a lot of things we don’t understand as men teaching women,” says Brinza. He and Romines are sincere. For years, they’ve been trying to find a female golf pro to help the city reach more women and broaden their base. This year, their wish may have been granted.

Sue Shapcott is a teaching pro and former British touring pro who relocated to Madison when her wife, Carrie Sperling, joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School faculty in 2013. This year, Shapcott will join Romines and Brinza to grow the game in Madison. The city’s getting a lot more than a great teaching pro. Shapcott is one of the world’s leading researchers on how to effectively market to, and teach, women the game of golf. Her research has been published in Golf Digest and she serves as a consultant to the British PGA, where twice as many women are golf pros as in the U.S.

Shapcott’s unique credentials as a touring pro, teaching pro and serious academic (master’s in educational pyschology, currently a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Bath) are well-suited to Madison, where she can apply her research and demonstrate outcomes that will have a positive impact on the city’s courses. In her polite British way, Shapcott is hell-bent on making golf more accessible to more people–women, kids, anyone who might fancy the game. And she’s tired of the “diversity” discussion filled with empty rhetoric. Stricker may be Madison’s most famous golf pro, but Shapcott may have a more lasting impact on the future of the game here. Romines is optimistic.

“As I’ve told Sue, we will measure success by how many people we bring to the game,” he says. “Are we offering lessons to more people? Are they coming back to play on their home course?”

Shapcott argues that you’re not going to attract more women to the game by offering pink golf balls or low-cal salads in the clubhouse. While many of the loudest voices about how to attract more players to the game focus on making golf more “fun,” Shapcott’s research shows that, to women at least, they want exercise, something useful for business, to spend time with family and to meet new people.

“Women are very specific about the utility value that golf can provide. We should be leveraging all those things to get women into golf,” she insists.

Cynthia Sweet agrees. Sweet’s day job is at the UW Office of Corporate Relations, making connections. Course correction: What golf needs now

When she started playing golf several years ago, Sweet admits she had to overcome the game’s reputation for stuffiness and snootiness. “The secret is, I’m a terrible golfer,” Sweet says, “but every day [on the course] might be a first date,” an opportunity to meet an important new contact.

Sweet immediately saw golf for what it can be: an opportunity for women to be outside, exercise and connect socially and professionally. She tells the story of one spontaneous outing last summer when two foursomes gathered after work. At the end of the night, Liz Eversoll from local tech firm SOLOMO learned about a $100,000 startup competition footed by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL. Eversoll’s team went on to win the contest, something that wouldn’t have happened if golf hadn’t created that chance encounter.

Sweet wants women to feel “confident, comfortable and professional” on the course, and last year, she launched to do just that. And she’s brimming with ideas to make golf more accessible to women and new players: How about four (or more) tee boxes and more water fountains and restrooms along the course? Like many new players, Sweet favors golf apps that track her score, calculate her handicap and use GPS to show her the distance to the next hole. If Sweet is the future of golf, it’s paperless.

Coaching Matters
Of course, introducing more women to the game won’t be enough. Each year, more than half the women who start to play golf drop out. There are many reasons for this, but Shapcott believes a large part is inadequate instruction. When she was a teaching pro with Hank Haney, most famous for coaching Tiger Woods, in Dallas, a woman who was newly divorced came in for instructions from a male pro. She wanted to learn golf, she said, to meet new people. At the end of the lesson, the pro told the woman to divert the money she planned to invest in golf and get breast implants instead. It would increase her odds of meeting new men far more than golf instruction. Her golf game, he implied, was hopeless.

And that message of being an outsider is what many women get, knowingly or not, from male instructors. Shapcott’s research shows that even well-intentioned male instructors tend to think that women’s golf skills are fixed while men’s are pliable and can be improved. Shapcott believes that everyone’s game can improve with instruction and practice, another truth her experience bears out. And Shapcott’s coaching methods are a living laboratory.

Last summer, my friend Stephen invited me to a group golf lesson where Shapcott was the teaching pro. To me, the lesson was a precursor to something far more important–the beer I was planning to enjoy with my friends afterward. I have no real interest in becoming a better golfer, a point I made repeatedly to Shapcott. She was undeterred. She gave me specific pointers, videotaped my swing and followed up the next day with an email including the slow-motion video of my swing, step-by-step instructions on how to improve and another teaching video showing the correct technique. And always, a prompt to “keep practicing.”

I’ve been a recreational golfer for fifteen years. I’ve taken lessons from several pros. But no one had ever videotaped my swing, let alone sent me a follow-up note to reinforce the main points from my golf lesson. Shapcott’s approach was original and digital, the right approach for a new generation of golfers. And now she’s innovating even further. Like many teaching pros, Shapcott regularly confronts two myths about golf: that it is expensive and inaccessible. So she launched Golf Revolution. For $100, you join her club and get discounts on lessons and play-alongs, a brilliant teaching tool where Shapcott plays a few holes with you and your group, offering instruction as you play.

But you don’t have to join her club to get instructions. This summer, in partnership with the city of Madison, Shapcott will teach members and nonmembers at all four municipal courses, Yahara Hills, Odana Hills, Glenway and Monona. She posts her locations online so golfers can join the lesson most convenient to them. It’s an affordable and accessible way for beginners to learn the game of golf, and for hacks like me to get a little more serious and consistent. Shapcott describes Golf Revolution as the “yoga model”–you join a club and drop in for as much or as little training as you want in a pay-as-you-go way. It’s more flexible, with less guilt.

Private clubs like Cherokee and Bishops Bay may not be willing or able to adopt innovative player outreach approaches like Shapcott’s. Their members prefer a more exclusive, clubbier feel. But they’re still facing the same competitive pressures that Romines and his team are, and they have to find the means to keep up or fall further behind. Right now, the odds seem long. Public and private courses are being closed each year. In 2013, five public courses closed in Wisconsin, as the supply and demand dynamic tries to find its own new normal.

Romines remains optimistic. “Golf is a game that’s been around for hundreds of years,” he says. “People will continue to golf. Golf is going to be fine. It just needs a little course correction.”

How Madison funds its courses
Many Madisonians believe that their tax dollars support the city’s golf courses. And they’d be wrong. Sort of. Madison’s four public golf courses are funded by an “enterprise fund,” a unique public fund that falls within the city’s budget and has to be approved by the City Council, but which is intended to be completely self-sufficient. For Madison’s public courses to be self-sufficient, though, they need to generate enough operating income (from greens fees, etc.) to break even or turn a profit. And during the build up in local course competition and the economic recession, breaking even has become more difficult. Like a private-sector company trying to stay afloat, the Golf Enterprise has taken measures to keep its balance sheet in the black. In 2009, it enacted austerity measures after several quarters of teetering on cash-flow shortages. And in 2013, it did not renew contracts for four pros who worked at each of the four public courses and in effect were outsourced contractors to the Golf Fund. Currently, all operations are managed internally, by parks personnel.

The fab four of Madison Golf

Rebecca Ryan is an amateur golfer and a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

Click here to read a letter to the editor in response to this story.