In this year’s annual issue of the St. Louis Post Dispatch Golf Guide Dan O’Neill’s lead article details how the downturn in the economy has echoed through the local golf community. The operative theme is “down.” Participation is down. Rounds are down. Revenues are down. The picture in St. Louis mirrors that of the nation, where every aspect of the golf industry is vulnerable to concerns about discretionary spending on a leisure activity.
With no facts to back it up, I have my doubts about the core community of golf exiting or ebbing in the game. I am reminded of a joke the late Johnny Carson used to tell about a panhandler in Las Vegas. As Carson told it, the beggar approached a tourist on the street and said he hadn’t had a meal in days, and asked for $10 so he could buy something to eat. The tourist answered he didn’t trust that if he gave him the ten he wouldn’t turn around and gamble it away. To which the panhandler replied, “Oh no, I have gambling money.” Even today I think golfers have “golf money.”
I suspect the losses in golf have first shown up with the nouveau golfers – the players who took to the game for the show, not the passion. The crowd who showed up at the higher end courses with the latest equipment to impress, more than play. As O’Neill’s article suggests, in St. Louis and the country, the game was victim to a golf “bubble” that lost its air like so many other artificially inflated elements in our society.
There is, though, a half full glass to go with O’Neill’s half empty industry. At the moment our overbuilt course community has no place to go. At the start of the deflation of the bubble, courses in this area were plowed under for new real estate developments. People around the area are now living on holes we all once played. But that party came to end abruptly as well.
You may remember the ongoing struggles to preserve Normandy Golf Course from a developer with ambitions to turn the land into yet another new neighborhood. The Friends of Normandy waged war against It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mr. Potter. You don’t here so much about that new housing project these days. Normandy is no safer than before. It’s just the Mr. Potters of the world don’t seem to need so many new neighborhoods.
A new strategy is needed for those adventurous enough or trapped enough in the business. For every New Melle Lakes becoming more and more overgrown, there are Quail Creeks trying to reinvent themselves. And for those golfers who have stayed with the game, the shift in the market has been to their benefit. For the more upscale in the group, the membership roles at the mid range private clubs have vacancy signs hanging out. There may still be a waiting list at St. Louis CC and Bellerive, but the family clubs are willing to talk.
Take that equation to the daily fee operations and the seller’s market is now distinctly tilted to the buyer. Golfers can now play their own version of let’s make a deal. Look at the ads. Read the rate packages. It wasn’t that long ago that weekend tee times could be marketed with golf’s version of PSL’s. Not so much these days. At one of the busiest public operations in the area, the Golf Courses at Forest Park, Jeff Raffelson will admit that regulars have become irregulars. People are willing to shop their golf weekends. The groups may be the same. The games might be the same. The venues are a little more mobile.
A while back respected golf writer, Jaime Diaz, wrote a column about the Tigerization of the game. Diaz speculated that the buzz that Woods had brought to golf was not entirely healthy because it wasn’t entirely golf based. There was Tiger and there was golf and they weren’t necessarily the same. At end of his article he offered the thought that maybe the ebbing of Tiger’s influence in the game would be, in the long run, good, because the game’s attraction, diminished though it may be, would be built on a more legitimate foundation.
I suppose it is easy to say to the owners and operators who are struggling to stay afloat and don’t have the real estate off ramp of a few years ago, that surviving this downturn is a necessary and eventually healthy rebalancing of where the game needs to be. Golf will always be a niche sport, but because it can be played for a lifetime it can always be a stable sport. People in the business love to use the term, “Grow the Game.” Next week let’s visit that concept and consider what seeds to buy, what fertilizer to use and what land to plow.