Golf Insider: Family friendly is the focus for area courses

Josh Kopka gives golfers instruction on sand play while Will Stupar shows how it’s done for Junior Acorn golfers in the Randall Oaks 6- to 8-year-old instructional program. Randall Oaks has between 20 to 40 players regularly in its Junior Acorn week-long
Josh Kopka gives golfers instruction on sand play while Will Stupar shows how it’s done for Junior Acorn golfers in the Randall Oaks 6- to 8-year-old instructional program. Randall Oaks has between 20 to 40 players regularly in its Junior Acorn week-long

Less than a decade ago, golf course managers or club pros virtually unlocked the gates in the morning and through them poured golfers.

Owning or running a course now requires more marketing and ingenuity than ever.

“That’s any business,” said City of Elgin director of golf Mike Lehman, whose courses have turned a profit the past two years. “Any business has to adapt and change.

“If you’re not doing that, you’re going to be in trouble. We try to adapt the business plan on a yearly basis.”

National Golf Foundations statistics indicate 151 public courses closed in 2013, and overall there are 643 fewer courses in the country than eight years ago. In each of those eight years there have been more courses close than opened. The 462 million rounds played last year were the fewest since 1995.

To avoid becoming victims of the national trend, area course managers and pros are thinking long-term and short-term.

The long-term phase is getting youth involved early.

One big success they’ve found the past two years is the PGA Junior League team concept.

“It’s something I wouldn’t have thought was going to work, but it really has taken off,” said Frank Jemsek, CEO of Jemsek golf courses Cog Hill, St. Andrews and Pine Meadow. “Maybe it’s the uniforms or being on a team that’s appealing.”

The league idea started nationally in 2011, but caught on in this area the past two years. Players up to age 13 compete for course teams against other teams in a nine-hole scramble format that removes some of the pressure of shot making in competition. There is an emphasis on everyone getting playing time. Matches are broken into three three-hole segments, with points awarded for each segment.

Some area pros have compared it to a Little League-style program for golf.

“We’ve done it two years at Naperbrook and two at Springbrook with two teams each last year and this year and it’s been a real success,” said Naperville pro Tim Dunn. “Our junior programs have always been pretty intense with classes, clinics and tournaments. But this one has really taken off.”

The PGA Junior League programs culminates with a final national tournament.

Randall Oaks in West Dundee gets as involved as any course in PGA Junior League with four teams, but also offers a series of Junior Acorn week-long camps for players 6- to 8-years-old.

Another novel approach is St. Andrews’ pay-your-age greens fee to get young golfers on the course daily.

Time commitment away from families is often viewed as a major reason for a decline in golfers’ numbers, so courses aim more at making it a sport for the entire family.

The Naperville courses have a family golf night once a month, usually a Saturday, and include free 10-minute lessons for a mother and their younger golfer or father and younger golfer. St. Andrews has a $10 price for a parent and for each child at its family night promotion.

Another way St. Andrews has attempted to get more family members involved is starting a women’s league this year.

“Really, outings are the lifeblood for all courses now,” Crouse said. “It gets people on the course who don’t play a lot, and fills tee times. We think we’ve remained really competitive here.”

Some things course owners can’t control.

“So much just depends on the weather,” Dunn said. “Overall, like with most courses, we’re probably down in rounds, but if the weather is nice our day-of play tends to be very good. We had a forecast for rain last Sunday and people didn’t book times, but it wound up being nice and we had 275 rounds played — mostly walk-up or day-of bookings.”

Filling available tee times in a down economy will continue to be a daily battle in the short term.

“Strategically to become successful we have to set ourselves up for the future knowing that like in any business it’s cyclical,” Lehman said.

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