Tuesday, April 21, 2020

How COVID-19 is good for golf

How can COVID-19 be good for anything?  

It seems like life as we once knew has changed forever, maybe that is true, and maybe some things will be better.  I honestly believe that suffering transforms us more than any other feeling if we do it right.  The COVID-19 situation offers us an opportunity to pause in time and really consider our situation and how current reality has come to be. If you really love golf, read this in a spot where you can let some things marinate for some time, not rushing through it like we do most things, but to take some time to pause when a sentence makes you think.

Historic clubs have established identity, here stands
the second purpose-built clubhouse in the country.
 In the last 15 years I've heard it all...Golf is Dead, Golf is Back, Golf is Dying.  The truth is that golf has been limping along.  The affluent clubs and destinations will always do well,
we can't determine the state of golf by the fact that Pebble Beach is maintaining.  When I speak of golf in this post, I speak to the average...to the masses.

Golf's identity crisis

What is really interesting about the golf industry is the identity crisis at most facilities.  The best facilities are the ones who know what they are and attract their customers solely based on that principle.   The historic clubs that have stood the test of time seem to have made things simple, not more complicated.   The "simpleness" is what conveys their awesomeness.  They seem to have a very simple and elegant definition about themselves which makes them above judgement or scrutiny.

Simple is classic
Knowing what you are allows you to attract and maintain customers right now and that is critical.  If I attempt to attract customers with the promise that I will be the greatest club in the area with some grand mission statement, I am setting everyone up for disappointment.  Attracting customers based on some future self, even if it is loosely defined with some grand mission statement, allows each customer to define what that is on their own, and that is a recipe for failure.

Understanding what you are requires real honesty and a humble nature.  Rules to determining who you are....... Number 1) Entities can't be everything to everybody and  2) Entities can't worry about what some other facility is or isn't when determining who they are.

Golf is a sport.  

Sports have all kinds of cultural and societal impacts which will be considered if a facility wants to be golf-centric.  Golf facilities should be about golf first, otherwise its not a golf facility.  I don't know what exactly it would be, but we have them.....everywhere.  I guess they would be "whatever their focus is- facility" and golf place.  Like...Neighborhood Bar and Grill & Golf Thingamajig.

If a facility is focused on golf I would think that it would focus on one thing.....amateur competition.  It seems like all great golf facilities started there.  When you zero in on the game of golf and amateur competitions, and contemplate what that is, the things that you do well and things you do poorly will appear out of the fog like a lighthouse showing the way to lost ships.

Well run, fair, honest, and open amateur events, will draw more golfers to a place than any fancy buffet or contrived water features could ever.  Open amateur events draw people to the game and demand that such facilities provide people with the opportunity to participate in competition and this gives another layer and focus of what is really important.  Knowing what a facility is allows clarity, purpose, and simplicity.  Golf facilities, that are truly golf facilities, focus on the game.  Focus on what is necessary for the sport and provide just that before moving on to other distractions.

I will note, that there are many social clubs or fraternities that have golf courses as an amenity and that is just fine.....just know what you are and be that.  Prioritize from that high ground that you look out into the world and make sure you are surrounded by the pillars that support that position.  If from that position you decide to make a mission statement, state your focus.....what you are....immediately, so that it is clear to the staff, decision makers, and absolute leaders that "identity" which is theirs to uphold.  Notice it is to uphold, not to become!  That which you say you are is an examination of existence and now, it can be used to prioritize in the moment.  What you state as your mission (some future self) is a foggy quagmire of possibility, subject to the whims of changing absolute leadership, personal agendas, and flimsy fads or trends.

The golf industry should use this time to rid itself of its dysfunctional tendencies.  Lets stop throwing stuff to the wall to see what sticks.  Golf sticks, it is what has stayed.  We need those in absolute leadership to put aside egos, agendas, and personal vendettas.  Golf survives despite the best efforts of these things to derail it.

Modern Architecture has some explaining to do

Taking a hard look

Golf also needs to examine why our 9-hole mom and pops have closed, why we have to pay $60 a round, and must take a cart.  We have to look at the 9-hole facilities that are being built and ask why.....why are we putting forced carries and water features next to greens that are designed for beginners?  Have we lost our minds?  We need a voice of reason.  We need to look at what the over-planting of trees have done to classic architecture and the cost of maintenance.  It is also time to have some serious discussion about modern golf course architecture and what it has done to golf.

If we are to run the golf facility like a business we would determine who our consumer is, deliver what they want, and at a price they are willing to pay.  We can use this time to strip all the unnecessary fromp that puts additional strain on resources.  Golf facilities would be much better off financially with that very simple equation.  If you want to see what the USGA has to say about this, here is a link.

Golf wants to do what its always (actually recently) done, because well.....its just how we've been doing it.  Golf and in some cases pseudo-golfers, recently adopted the stereotypical country club.
The "Bushwood C.C." from the movie "CaddyShack."  Golf was more about silly amenities and entitlement than about the spirit of the game.  We ran with the idea of excess and novelty, and haven't questioned if they were really needed, if they were good for the game, or if we were just trying to keep up with the Jones'.   I say recently, because Old Tom Morris would not run his course(s) like we do.  Golf was run for golf, by golfers.  Old Tom Morris served in all capacities, all focused on the game of golf.  The primary purpose was the game for the sport.  We should put more effort into running quality competitions than on stacking pyramids of balls on maniac hill.

Old Tom Morris at the beverage cart
We ran astray when the facility became about ancillary activities, these activities began assuming the focus and consuming a lions share of resources.  I am not suggesting that all clubs or golf facilities are this way, so save your hate mail.  Clearly some clubs can afford lavish clubhouses and services, and if they are golf facilities, then those amenities were born out of golf.....not created aside from golf.  I am speaking to the clubs that are in the game of financial paycheck to paycheck.  The reality is that there are "golf" facilities who are still trying to figure out how to get more people to come and eat at the golf course instead of figuring out how to satisfy, in a cost effective way, the hunger of those who frequent the property for sport.  

The answer to how the current identity crisis happened is simple.  We built big buildings thinking they would pay for themselves.  Then we hired people to try and sell things in the big building to try and pay for it.  Then we made the person in charge of selling things in the building in charge of the entire facility.  We basically took a baseball team, built a giant hotdog stand, hired a hotdog salesman, and before we were really good at selling hotdogs, we gave him the keys to the whole damn franchise.....Sound nuts?  Think about it.

So, with all that, what can golf do?

Golf facilities should start with asking questions, like.....

Are we committed, first and foremost, to the game of golf, or something else?  What is our commitment to?  (Man cannot serve two masters, priorities will be born out of, not aside from)

If we committed first and foremost to golf, what would that look like?  How would we break the financials out to reflect that?

Golf should look at the parking lot and notice who is there and why.  Do you really have golfers, or men with sticks? (see next question)

What is the quality of our competitions? Why?  Does the quality of our competitors match the quality of our competitions?  (I bet they correlate exactly!!)

How do we encourage the beginner to play?

Is your curbside food service kicking it, how, what?  To whom?  What does this teach us about our offerings?

Why do we need all the ropes and stakes?  Is your facility walkable?  Why not?

Do golf carts/outings/functions bring our facility added value and revenue?

Do golf carts/outings/functions turn our facility into a drunken bonanza?

Do we plant things (flowers, trees, markers, walls) in the earth that we can't afford to take care of?  Hint:  if you took money away from the golf course in the past and the money hasn't returned, but you are considering adding any thing, you probably can't afford it.

An honest time

It is time to have some honest conversations.  These conversations can be entertaining as well.  It has always been amazing the types of conversations that come from golf course facilities.
For example...

Our bent grass fairways have always started about 24 feet from the front of the Tee, how can we reduce the maintenance budget?

We have always had ball washers, what purpose do they really serve?  How do we reduce the maintenance budget?

Members take a stand on the tree issue
We spend how much labor money picking up sticks from trees that we don't have enough money to trim properly?

We are going to spend how much in the fall picking up leaves from said trees?

Said trees require how much more in labor $ to grow decent grass?

We have always had water coolers, how can we increase beverage revenue?

I like flower beds next to the par three tees, why are the bunkers so bad?  How do we reduce the maintenance budget?

We pride ourselves in having any food item possible and service anytime everyday.  How can we create more food and beverage revenue?  (Notice the revenue vs. expense conversation)

I am sure you have some to add, I wish I had the venue for all to participate with some zingers.....

Simple and essential

Golfers stopped managing Golf facilities.  When that happens, golf becomes the ancillary activity and the course, competitions, the sport all suffer.  Ten dollar popcorn and five dollar sodas work at movie theaters, because they were born out of, not aside from the main focus of the theatre.

"Golf" a smart man I know quoted, "has survived two world wars, a couple of depressions, 9-11, and disco....it will survive this."  We have an opportunity in front of us, we can look at our operations and decide what is absolutely necessary.  When we go back to golfing, do we go back to what was absolutely essential for the game, or do we go back to doing what we imagined was absolutely essential?

The simple is maybe how we reach the next generation, life seems cyclical, and COVID-19 may be the catalyst that makes us reassess what essential really means.  In a world full of paradox, maybe golf is that balance, the minimal and simple escape that means so much to the human soul.  Perhaps that is why golf has struggled, we strapped it with all the clutter of our day to day lives and the game no longer offered any escape.  Golf became saddled with our messiness.  Instead of keeping to its core values we have actually suggested changing the rules to fit us and our lifestyles, probably because we had gotten so far away from the roots of the game, that we didn't recognize what it was anymore.  It didn't offer the simple beauty that is the essence of golf.

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication"
                              -Leonardo da Vinci


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