Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Golf has Gotta Change

The National Golf Foundation (NGF) just came out with their annual “Openings and Closings Update”.  In all of 2013 only 14 golf courses (18-hole equivalents) opened in all of the United States.  In the meantime, 157.5 golf courses closed; a net loss of 143.5.  Perhaps the most revealing statistic is that of the 157 odd golf courses that closed, only 6 were Private Clubs.  Daily Fee courses accounted for the lion’s share of closures at 144.5 and 7 were municipal facilities.  Without much thought, this tells me two things:

  1. The wealthy can still afford the game, and
  2. There should probably be more municipal golf course closures.

After a little more thought, I concluded that at least in part the U.S. golf industry is a microcosm of what is happening in our country.  Plainly put: the numbers of people that can afford the game is dwindling.

If you’ve been following the saga of golf course supply in the U.S., you know this is no sudden phenomenon.  There has been a steady decline in golf courses since 2005 – with net losses every year since then.  It’s also of no great surprise since it reflects a decline in income for the middle class – the daily fee players – while the “country clubbers” are stable.

18-Hole Equivalents (U.S.) – as of Dec. 31, 2013




Number      % of Total



Number      % of Total



Number      % of Total








Daily Fee





















*NGF January 2014 Newsletter

Putting aside for now the issue of an overbuilt market, the PGA and USGA seem quick to blame the decline of the game on things such as speed of play and people playing from the wrong set of tees.  I have been saying for some time now that they are missing mark and the closure statistics reinforce that.

I have been an avid player for over 50 years and by that I mean I played golf an average of at least once a week during nearly that period.  The only time I didn’t was when my children were young.  I’ve been doing golf design for over 35 years and have had my own golf design firm for about 25 years.  What I have observed is a slow regression back to a game that only the wealthy can afford.  About the time I started playing, the game was attractive to middle class families, even those that had just a single wage earner such as my own.  My Dad paid for season passes to the local municipal golf course for him and my brother and me for several years until we began working at the facility and received golf as a side benefit.  We were middle class – and yet we owned a new car every 3 to 5 years, owned our own home (with the bank of course) and generally we were able to get whatever was needed.  My father was a union maintenance mechanic at John Morrell and my mother a budgeting wizard.  Where can you find this kind of  golf participation in America today?  It’s clear to me that our society has lost a good portion of its middle class – and therefore a large portion of the golfing public.

As you might imagine, golf participation has suffered right along with the decrease in golf course supply.  I don’t have access to the data to prove it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the NGF (and others) have massaged their counting methods to make the decline look as good as possible – just as they probably made the peak years of the late 90’s look better than they were.  Such is the way with business these days – shucks, they probably don’t know the true numbers themselves anymore.

But, I’m wandering a bit.  Getting back to the cost of golf, I have some suggestions:

  1. If you’re a daily fee golf course, leave the fancy restaurants and even fresh food to the Country Clubs.  It’s a well-known fact that the golf course has to support these ancillary services.  Sell beer, maybe liquor, soft drinks and packaged snacks and you’ll make money.
  2. Golf Course Maintenance costs have skyrocketed.  Part of the reason is greens and sometimes even fairways are mowed down to a nubbin which in turn requires more intensive maintenance, but it also has to do with the cost of the maintenance equipment. Today, it’s not unusual for a golf course to use a dozen or more pieces of equipment with its own self-propelling engine.  As a point of reference, when I was working at our municipal golf course in the mid-60’s, we had two or three tractors that could be connected to three or four different pieces of equipment for mowing and spraying pesticides.  When I first started, this was all that was necessary as we mowed greens with walk behind hand mowers.  There’s no doubt that equipment has become more effective and in some cases more efficient, but at what cost?  The average fairway or greens mower today costs well over $40,000 and therefore requires a skilled employee to care for it.  There IS a market today for less expensive, less costly to maintain, multipurpose turf equipment.  If I had the mechanical engineering knowledge and money, I would start a new business with a less expensive, simpler turf equipment line myself.
  3. If the USGA and R & A truly wanted to see golf grow they are among the few organizations that could have that impact.

The game suffers from “perceptions”, which for the most part aren’t necessarily so.  One of the most significant is that the game is too difficult or complicated.  People entering the game are intimidated by the idea of hitting a 1.68 inch ball with a club that isn’t much larger, but they are just as mortified by the archaic and nonsensical rules and etiquette of the game.  Rules officials will tell you that the rules make perfect sense to them and some will offer you a booklet written by Richard Tufts explaining his philosophy behind them.  For me, the idea that you have to read a book to understand the logic of the rules speaks volumes.  While newbies complain about the rules and etiquette of the game, veterans will tell you that they rarely play by the rules – they don’t go back to the place the played their last shot for a lost ball; they play “winter rules”; they give 6” putts; they allow moving a ball from a footprint in a bunker.  What does it tell you when experienced players realize playing by the rules isn’t in their best interest, but those new to the game think they must play by the rules?  The game needs to be simplified and the rules are where it needs to start.  I’m certainly not suggesting that any putts be given to play within the rules, but there have been several suggestions for logical, simple rule changes.

If the USGA and R&A stood up to commercial interests they could have a significant impact on the cost of the game.  The average golfer doesn’t know the difference between how far he or she hits a 7 iron and an 8 iron.  If the USGA reduced the standard set to 8 or 9 clubs, we would see about a 30 percent decrease in the cost of clubs and perhaps even faster play.  It would also make the game more challenging for our better players and increase the importance of shot making and reduce the importance of putting, which is the determining factor in most tournaments.  Similarly, if the USGA froze the current standards for licensing clubs and golf balls, we would see a substantial decrease in the cost of equipment because Research and Development costs (a large part of the cost of doing business) would be nearly eliminated.  This would also protect our current golf courses and the reduce the need for ever larger layouts that require more maintenance.

One last suggestion:

At best, many of our PGA professionals, especially the younger ones, have become merchandisers and tournament organizers.  Must they be relegated to collecting green fees selling shirts and transcribing scores?  In today’s world, these things can be done through technology and with only minor staff involvement.  We need to get our golf pros back on the course and mentoring golfers young and old.  In today’s world, people often take offense when someone suggests they aren’t doing something correctly, but they still respect the authority.  When I tell someone they aren’t letting a group play through the best way, they look at me like I’m blue.  If the golf pro tutored them on this, keeping up a pace of play, repairing ball marks and divots, and countless other nuances of the game everyone would benefit.  When I was a kid our golf pro would play a couple of rounds a week with the “members”.  He encouraged and instructed during those rounds – even if it was only nine holes.  I remember so looking forward to seeing him hit those beautiful shots – that alone inspired me.




  Arthur Little wrote @

This will not surprise you coming from me….
In addition to a number of the things you suggest to reduce the cost of golf, the industry must do a couple of things:
First on the cost side, let people (read new players and particularly families) play the number of holes they can afford. At our course, we started doing this in 2003. It was very popular and got people playing who would not have played otherwise.
Second, provide shorter tees that actually fit more people (read most women, seniors, juniors and beginners) these are the people who are the most likely to give up on the sport. We charge them a lot of money to play a course that beats them up.
No wonder they give up and go away.
At the courses we have worked with who position tees correctly, they have seen significant increases in business and not just by “stealing” players from neighboring course…actually developing new players.
Having said all that, your basic premise that an increasing number of people are being priced out of the game is right on point.
Arthur Little


  roadholeshorts17 wrote @

Hi Arthur, things aren’t getting any easier for us golf business folks are they? Yes, I’m not surprised by your comments and I agree that those things you suggested would help. I’m afraid that the commercial side isn’t going to cooperate much to get this thing turned around. The USGA must be getting kickbacks or something. Probably in the form of “testing fees”. I really would like to see the pros get out and play with their customers more.


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