At the height of Tiger Woods’ dominance, in the early 2000s, the game of golf was at its peak of popularity in this country.
Parents were out with their young kids at golf courses throughout the suburban Chicago area, hoping their child would turn out to be the next prodigy. Woods sparked the interest of the casual fan, and more people began picking up a nine-iron and heading out to their local course.
But since that time, Woods’ career has been derailed by scandal and injuries, not to mention the economy tanking with a great recession. Like Woods and the country itself, golf is still trying to bounce back.
Mid- to lower-priced private clubs took a hard hit because their members are the ones who saw more financial loss in the recession than those at the higher-end clubs, according to the PGA.
On the national level, affordable public courses, those owned and operated by park districts and municipalities, are staying on the decline, said Paul Metzler, senior director of research and industry relations for the PGA.
“Those (who tend to use public courses) are still struggling to get back from the recession,” he said.
The average fee for playing 18 holes is $28.42, according to the PGA.
But, Metzler said, the Midwest and the Chicago-area in particular are known for very affordable, quality golf courses.
Some of those can be found in Naperville and Aurora and run by the local park districts. Naperville Park District runs two courses, Springbrook and Naperbrook, and the Fox Valley Park District operates Orchard Valley in Aurora. The city of Aurora operates a 18-hole course at Phillips Park.
“We’re an affordable option, and our courses are beautiful and well-maintained. We hear that time and again from our guests,” said Ed Provow, director of golf for the Naperville Park District. “We’re also making some changes to our clubhouses that will make them more welcoming.”
Pressed for time
The PGA defines the avid golfer as someone who gets in 25 or more rounds a year. Since 2005, there are reportedly 4.7 million fewer people who consider themselves golfers, according to the National Golf foundation.
So how does the golf industry get more people back in the game and attract new players?
The golf business as a whole needs to do a better job of marketing itself, making the game more accessible and offer more flexible options, Metzler said.
The average golfer has less than three hours total to get in a round of golf in any given week, according to the PGA. More courses need to encourage nine-hole packages instead of the full 18-holes, golf insiders say.
“It is not so much the price but the time people are willing to commit,” Metzler said.
The time factor is at the heart of the three key demographic groups the PGA says the industry needs to woo to thrive: women, youths and millennials, and Hispanics.
Women commit to a wider variety of leisure activities than men, and women with kids, especially, have less time to get in a round of golf.
Millennials are different from their parents in how they use their free time. The days of dad going off for a Saturday golf game with the guys is fading. Those with young children are devoting more of their leisure time to family time, and much of that time is tied to youth sports.
Golf is competing against a boom in soccer leagues, youth hockey as well as the tried-and-true baseball and softball.
The key is reaching kids between the ages of 6 and 8, when their interest in sports really begins to develop.
“If kids start soccer at age 4 or 5 and learn the other sports available, there’s no reason not to put a club in their hands and teach them the sport of golf,” Provow said.
Both Naperville courses are in their second year of offering the PGA Junior League, a little league-type atmosphere for kids ages 13 and younger.
“It’s a great opportunity for kids with all levels of experience to meet other youth golfers and compete, but in a fun and friendly atmosphere,” said Mike Lyzun, Springbrook’s head golf pro.
The golf industry has to do a better job of talking about the cost benefits of golf for families, according to Metzler.
“When you go head-to-head with the costs of other sports (especially traveling leagues) it is a better value proposition,” he said.
The First Tee of Aurora and Fox River Valley funds scholarships that provide golfing opportunities and life skills through the game of golf for young people.
During the last two decades, the Fox Valley Park Foundation has helped raise more than $500,000 to fund scholarship programs that are offered in almost 50 local schools. More than 3,000 local youth have benefitted from these scholarships, including a record 246 students in 2013, according to the FVPD.
“Our mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing learning facilities and educational programs that promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf,” said Dan Abella, First Tee program director.
The suburban Chicago area, like the rest of the country, has undergone dramatic demographic changes during the past 25 years with an explosion in the nonwhite populations. The PGA is looking for ways to respond to those changing demographics.
Hispanics, for example, tend to be very family-focused in their leisure activities, so public courses should look at more opportunities to rent clubs on site to make it a more family-friendly outing, Metzler said.
Golf Digest agrees, as stated in a January 2013 article: “All of (golf’s challenges) can be addressed by … the four Fs that golf needs to market itself around — fitness, family, fast and fun. Let’s advocate walking and caddie programs, promote families playing together, make pace-of-play a priority and keep the emphasis on fun by relaxing dress codes, promoting nine-hole leagues and focusing on the social aspect of the game.”
The following programs are kid friendly and family approved:
Naperville Park District
Family golf night (Adult with up to three kids)
Children’s lessons (ages 5 and older)
SNAG (Starting New at Golf, ages 3 to 4)
Junior summer camps (ages 5-6, 7-10 and 11-15)
PGA Junior League (ages 13 and younger)
Fox Valley Park District
Junior Golf Seminar (ages 8-13)
Kids in Golf — Level 1 (ages 8-11)
Kids in Golf — Level 2 (ages 12-17)
Get Golf Ready (ages 18 and older)
Tough weather year for golfers
The weather was a huge factor for golf courses during the past year. Last season had the fewest days open for courses since 2006. Average days open was 220, which was anywhere between 25 and 48 days fewer than the period of 2010-12, said Paul Metzler, senior director of research and industry relations for the PGA.
On those days when the courses were open, however, they averaged 96 rounds played in 2013 and that was the highest level since 2009.
“So what that shows is there is a pent-up demand. When the weather is good, people will take advantage of that,” Metzler said,
That demand starts to grow in the early spring, Metzler said.
“People see the Master’s (Championship in early April), and they get the sense they want to get out there.”