Outside of the belly putter debate and the tracking of the Lindsey Vonn-Tiger Woods relationship, nothing captured more media attention than the health of the golf industry in 2013. Google the subject and you will find the issue sliced and diced more than an onion in a Popeil Veg-O-Matic infomercial (you remember those, they threw in the Ginsu knife, too).

The trend over the past decade has been clear: Rounds played are down and net course closures are up. The reasons have been well documented – overbuilding and a faltering economy zapped the positive momentum of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Surveys tell us that people who don’t play very much, or at all, believe the game is expensive and/or too hard to play. So, does this mean it’s all gloom and doom for the future?

Not necessarily.

A lot of smart people are doing their best to make a difference. Associations and companies are dedicating more resources than ever to strengthening the game. Concepts that weren’t a consideration a few years ago are now being heavily promoted. Still, patience is wearing thin, especially for golf course superintendents who are becoming increasingly frustrated with having to do more with less while dealing with rising expectations for unrealistic conditions.

Facing changes

So, what is one to do? We know that doing things the same way over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Change is the order of the day. But that change can’t be made blindly or without thoughtful consideration. The programs offered by national associations, equipment manufacturers and individuals are worth a look. But that doesn’t mean they are the panacea to golf’s ills.

Golf facilities must face the reality that customer demographics are changing. An improving economy might give us a slight boost in rounds played, but the pipeline will run dry if facilities can’t attract new golfers and retain those who are already in the game.

Choosing to golf

There is growing competition for the entertainment dollar and people’s time. It’s imperative that golf facilities have conversations with their targeted customers. Quite simply, the question must be asked: What will it take for you to regularly use your discretionary income and time on golf?

With that data, facility personnel must make decisions and take action that supports what the customer is telling them. The national statistics are important, but for the vast majority of individual facilities, it’s the local market stats that matter. Look at any of the successful brands and you will find they have a clear understanding of what the customer wants. The oft-uttered theory that “customers will make choices where they see clear value” rarely fails.

Innovation and input

I’m heartened by what some facilities have done. New pricing structures, alternative setups, family nights, leagues, handicapped accessibility, wine tasting events and other tactics are being employed. Getting improved results might require some experimentation and follow-up with the customers to fine-tune the programming. But the chances of success are much greater if the product is shaped with the customer’s input as to what the desirable characteristics of their experience are.

It also means that superintendents can’t just concern themselves with the health of their turf. Those days are long gone. They must be actively involved in the operations of the facility and contribute to its success by being in lockstep with what other departments are doing. Not being at the table not only shortchanges the facility, but you and your staff as well.