"Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening - and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented."
Golf's been called a lot of things: alluring, baffling, gratifying, addictive, wonderful, ridiculous, confounding, fascinating, aggravating. Never has a single pasttime found so many applications for the entries of Mr. Webster's and Mr. Roget's tomes. Regardless of your own personal opinion of the game, there is no denying golf's popularity. Need some facts and stats?
Chew on this: Canada has the most golfers per capita of any country in the world. More than the USA, more than Scotland, more than Ireland or England. Canada - a country whose golf season spans a little over half the calendar year due to our northerly clime.
The National Allied Golf Associations (NAGA) recently commissioned a report to try and determine golf's impact across the country.
The groundbreaking study determined that an estimated six million people in Canada play golf each year with two and a half million Canadians participating as core golfers, playing an average of 28 rounds per year. Based on participation, golf is the number one recreation activity in Canada, played by more Canadians than hockey.
The NAGA study also found that golf courses and stand-alone driving ranges earned gross revenues of $4.7 billion in 2008. Compare that to other sectors: gross revenues at "skiing facilities" were just under $1 billion in 2006 while "fitness and recreational centres" topped out at $1.7 billion.
Golf courses also earned more operating revenues than "promoters of performing arts and sports" ($1.9 billion in 2007) and "spectator sports" ($2.4 billion in 2007), which includes the gross revenues earned by the National Hockey League!
As impressive as all these numbers and stats are however, the golf industry is far from healthy. And it's not any one thing that seems to ail it.
It's another cold, grey day in Whistler and it seems like summer is never going to arrive. Hell, did we even have a spring? It's not exactly the nicest golf weather. It's not exactly the nicest weather for anything outside, quite frankly. On the heels of a long winter, it's been a challenge for golf operators to get their courses ready for our all too short golf season. Near opening day, it was estimated that they were three weeks to a month behind where they normally are in terms of course growth.
The course superintendents work their usual spring magic anyway and get their "babies" ready for the season as best they can for what Mike Zuccolin, general manager at Nicklaus North Golf Course, calls "a sprint."
"The snow melts and the land is just sitting there not having a return on it," he says. "You have to try and open it as quickly as possible."
They throw their available resources to the task despite Mother Nature's fickleness this spring and open on time with surprisingly good conditions. But it's the first sign of a challenging season ahead.
At one o'clock on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in Pemberton, Chris Wallace, general manager at Big Sky Golf & Country Club, looks at the tee sheet. It's empty. Not a normal scenario for the links awarded "Best Public Course in B.C." recently.
"Frickin' Canucks," he mutters under his breath in his PEI accent. Vancouver's hockey team was playing at 5 p.m. and nobody wanted to miss the "big game." Unfortunately for Wallace and his colleagues at Nicklaus North Golf Course, the Fairmont Chateau Golf Club, the Whistler Golf Club - heck, any golf course in B.C. for that matter - the Vancouver Canucks' "big games" hurt the bottom line.
"We just can't get anyone to play during those times," grumbles Wallace. Sometimes you can't win... just ask the Canucks.
BLAME IT ON TIGER
It wasn't so long ago that the golf industry was healthy. Very healthly. Like everything back in the late '90s and early 2000s, it was growing and growing quickly. Exponentially. Golf was on steroids. A large part of it can be blamed on one Eldrick Tont Woods or, as we all know him, "Tiger." Tiger burst onto the golf scene in 1996 and, with his youthful enthusiasm, impressive wins and incredible marketability, he singlehandedly helped change the industry. It's called the "Tiger Effect." During the time that Tiger started winning and breaking records along the way, several things happened: more people were watching golf on TV, prize purses for the touring pros grew dramatically, more people, young and old, were playing the game and more and more golf courses were built. The world was Tiger crazy. The world was golf crazy. It was remarkable boom.
Andrew Smart, director of golf at Nicklaus North, reminisces about those days.
"I remember the days when a group of 20 guys would show up, one of them would plop down his credit card and pay for all of the $200 greens fees and buy a shirt for everyone," he says.
Smart gazes off... Nowadays, in an era of downsizing, he's just happy he is gainfully employed.
So what happened?
Other than Tiger deciding that infidelity was more interesting to him than practicing putting, well, the worldwide economy tanked. The Canadian dollar got a lot stronger against the U.S., and then there's that other economic stuff... supply and demand. Bob Weeks, editor at Score Golf Magazine and one of the country's leading authorities on golf, offers his thoughts.
"In the last five to ten years in Canada we've overbuilt," he says. "There's too many golf courses out there right now."
Golf participation has plateaued, Weeks adds, and that those who are playing are playing less.
"Everyone is trying to get that same dollar and they're going to have to get creative to do that. And those that aren't doing it are cutting corners, cutting costs, which eventually comes back on your product," says Weeks.
During the "Tiger Era," the industry's heyday, golf course developments were planned and built everywhere. Developers were seeing green, and not necessarily the kind you putt on. Saddled with the notion that the two most desirable places to live are on the water and on a golf course, planned communities were popping up all over the place and the centrepiece of their new vision? A flashy golf course designed by a well-known architect. "Fancy flower gardens," as Al Kristmanson, director of golf at the Whistler Golf Club, calls them.
"Golf courses were being built to strictly try and sell real estate. Real estate golf became the norm."
The problem with a lot of real estate golf was twofold. On one hand, many courses were built on land that just wasn't suitable to a great golf layout (even though it may have been ideal for a housing development). So you often ended up with a new course that had bunch of decent holes and a few whacky ones crammed in as well. And secondly, developers needed their new green centerpieces to make an impression with the golf media to hopefully parlay that into real estate sales. To create that buzz within the industry, and with the public, the notion was that you had to build a "challenging" course.
"I think it has hurt golf in B.C.," says Kristmanson. "People are getting turned off. Golf's become too hard. Nobody wants to go beat their brains out anywhere."
He adds: "If you build a golf course that only five per cent of the people can play, you're only going to get five per cent of the people playing it."
There are however successful examples of this model and Predator Ridge in the Okanagan certainly comes to mind. But for every Predator Ridge, there are numerous instances of developments suffering not only for these reasons but also because of poor timing with regards to the worldwide economic downturn.
Garibaldi Springs Golf Course in Squamish shut down in 2010 after only six years of operations. And, as tough as things are here in Canada, they're a whole lot worse south of the border.
Too much golf and not enough golfers. Supply and demand.
CHIP IN FOR BIRDIE
Whistler is generally regarded as one of the premier golf destinations in the country and for good reason. Four amazing courses designed by some of the best in the business. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Trent Jones Jr. and Robert Cupp have all carved their impressions into the corridor landscape and have created wonderful and unique layouts. In the past, Golf Digest has ranked Whistler the "#1 Golf Destination in Canada" as well as one of the "Top 20 Golf Resorts in the World."
Bob Weeks spells it out neatly.
"The strength of golf in Whistler is that you have four quality courses in very close proximity to each other and Whistler itself offers so much more than just golf."
It used to be that the golf in Whistler almost marketed itself. Americans came here in droves, buoyed by the cheap Canadian dollar and the great golf. Tee sheets were always full. Everyone was busy and happy.
That was then, this is now.
So how are the resort golf courses here in Whistler dealing with filling their tee sheets in this difficult economy? The Whistler Golf Club, The Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club, Nicklaus North Golf Course and Big Sky Golf & Country Club are all taking a proactive and creative approach when it comes to finding solutions and have, among other things, adjusted their pricing structures and added incentives to lure golfers to Whistler.
Rack rates in Whistler at the four resort courses have all dropped this season in the hopes of being competitive in a tough market. For example, the rates at Nicklaus North are now the same as they were in
1998. They're still not cheap but that's the reality of running a golf course here in a mountain environment. A relatively short season coupled with the expectations that the golf consumer has of resort course conditioning means that maintenance budgets are higher than most. Those costs are reflected in green fees. Alan Kristmanson doesn't apologize though.
"If you take our rates and compare them anywhere else in BC, we're right there," he says.
IN THE ROUGH
Course conditioning is an area that general managers and superintendents of golf courses locally and across North America have been looking at to save money and be more environmentally friendly. The commonly held belief was that high-end golf courses needed to be green and pristine from wall to wall. That's what the consumer expected largely through their exposure to the golf they watched on high definition television from places like Augusta National. There, they've taken course preparations each year for The Masters to ridiculous heights. No blade of grass is out of place.
There are NO weeds. They have heaters and coolers to make sure the azaleas are in bloom at just the right moment for the crowds and television cameras each April. Really.
Augusta, and courses like it, used to represent what golf was about... heavily manicured. Nowadays the approach is more minimalist. The
The Superintendents Association of America is now saying there is nothing wrong with a bit of brown. There is nothing wrong with firm and dry.
"Courses are becoming more efficient with their practices," says Zuccolin at Nicklaus North.
He points out that water is a precious resource in most areas and golf courses have backed off watering everywhere. They are also using less fertilizers and fungicides.
Kristmanson adds: "We understand that sustainability is not only important for the environment but it's good for business too."
Rory McIlroy almost won the Masters this past spring and a few short months later won the U.S. Open in "Tiger" style, leading from start to finish and obliterating the field to win by eight strokes. Perhaps he is the new golf messiah. Perhaps he is a sign that we are entering a new era in the golf world and that truly, things are finally on the upswing. Gregg Lown, director of golf at the Fairmont Chateau Golf Course seems to think so.
He sees some positive signs, saying that 2012 is already looking good.
"The amount of business that is coming this summer to this resort is really positive," says Lown. "July and early August are looking good."
Welcome news for golf operators for sure.
The resort courses in Whistler are leading the charge when it comes to creating new markets. One of the major ways they're doing that is by trying to attract young people to the game. At all the courses, juniors play for free with a paying adult. The Whistler Golf Club has an excellent array of clinics and camps for juniors and up at Big Sky, any student enrolled in school in the Pemberton area can play the Academy Course there for free.
On a national level, Golf Canada has introduced a "National Golf in Schools" program that has been developed for school teachers to provide students the opportunity to learn the benefits of the game.
In the meantime, across B.C., Canada and the U.S., pricing will continue to adjust and kids and others will hopefully be introduced to the game, all in an effort to find a happy balance.
Some sort of contraction though, with regards to the number of courses out there, seems inevitable.
Which courses will close, and where, has yet to be determined. Just don't expect any of the award winning resort courses in Whistler to be among the obituary list.