Even when wearing the rosiest of rose-colored glasses, it would be a stretch to say the golf industry has rebounded from the haymaker thrown its way by the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
Not even the ever-optimistic Pollyanna herself would be able to ignore the carnage that resulted in the closure of golf facilities, bankruptcy of related businesses and the resulting loss of jobs.
However, I believe golf industry professionals have demonstrated an admirable resiliency, rising off the mat and remaining committed to fighting the good fight. I am not smart enough to make any long-term predictions about the sport with great confidence, but I applaud the resolve displayed by those in the industry who refuse to throw in the towel.
It gives me optimism that the strategy to strengthen the industry is not based solely on wishful thinking. In particular, I point to the efforts of a group that might have been affected as much, if not more, than any other group: golf course architects. When new course construction virtually dried up and capital budgets tightened for several years, many outstanding professionals begrudgingly left the industry. There is no reason to cast doubt on their abilities or decisions; sometimes it is just a matter of survival or the desire to pursue a different opportunity.
Other architects chose to remain in the industry, but made changes to their career paths. Some have offered creative financing options to cash-strapped facilities for improvements. Several have leaned on their landscape architecture certifications to expand their work into golf facility master planning, or athletic field design and construction. There are those who have joined management companies or contracted with others to stay in the industry.
Finally, many went “local,” focusing their work so they could become an expert in one small region of the country. As one architect told me, “Golf is too damn great to give up on. We’ll always have golf, and I want to be a part of it.”
This new world for golf course architects has required adjustments. In golf’s heyday, the majority of available work was for new construction. For the larger, more well-known firms, new construction took up as much as 90 percent of their time.
Today, a brand-new golf course is as rare as a double eagle. Ironically, a renovation or redesign is a more difficult project than a new build because there are more people involved, golfers are inconvenienced by a course’s restrictions or temporary closure, and there are limitations based on existing structures.
When the economy went south, architects also faced a new competitor: the staff at the course. Due to a lack of funds, owners and decision-makers turned to superintendents to address pressing issues. Already forced to do more with less, these projects were often limited in scope, done on a bare-bones budget and had to be done while maintaining the regular maintenance programs.
This state of affairs led many observers to opine that “the golden age of architecture” was over.
However, because necessity is the mother of invention, architects responded by rolling up their sleeves. Unlike the marketing lingo that was popular during the days of rapid growth and expansion, there is more discussion today about the golfer’s experience and enjoyment than there is about building “a championship golf course with five sets of tees and undulating greens.”
Superintendents also benefitted when architects began using their positions as a bully pulpit to advocate with ownership for a more maintenance-friendly style that will keep costs down in the long term. Architects are also helping communities by taking unused land and offering options to help with run-off or provide additional green space. In short, the focus today is less on aesthetics and more on return on investment, and that’s a perspective that bodes well for the long-term health of the game.
As one architect told me, “Golf’s strength is that you get to enjoy the beauty of nature. Architects are blessed to work in that environment almost every day. It’s truly an honor. That is why we are so determined to help get the game back on a stronger footing.”