The 2016 Golfdom Report: Golf on the upswing

By and |  January 25, 2016 2 Comments


In December of 2015 we reached out to our readers and asked them what they thought about the industry going into 2016. We received nearly 500 responses to our survey, revealing opinions on everything from the presidential election and WOTUS to cell phone usage on the golf course.

Thank you to everyone who participated in our survey, and congratulations to Angelo Tozzi, owner of Pearl Lakes GC & Driving in Skaneateles, N.Y., and Michael Sonnek, superintendent at Spring Hill GC in Wayzata, Minn., who were randomly selected and received $100 gift cards for their participation.

Sweet ’16

A few years of moderate growth in golf has given readers high hopes for the new year.

The first neighborhood around The Club at Strawberry Creek in Kenosha, Wis., is developed to capacity… finally.

For Strawberry Creek Superintendent Matt Kregel, this is a good sign of things to come. Strawberry Creek opened 10 years ago, when the housing market was faltering. The golf product was good, says the current president of the Midwest Association of Golf Course Superintendents, but the market was wounded.

“We’re rebounding now. We’re getting into the development phases of some of the land that’s just been lying around for the last five years,” he says. “We’re looking at releasing some new properties, more single-family housing, which in turn should bring new members to the club, because the club is the epicenter of the community we’ve established.”

At Mountain Ridge CC in West Caldwell, N.J., the course is coming off a season in which it hosted the most rounds ever.

“We’re growing at a rate where we need to stop,” says Cliff Moore, superintendent. “We have too much play. We’ve got new members on the horizon, new events on the schedule — I’m extremely excited about 2016.”

Moore says courses in his area, both public and private, are packed.

“They’re not just playing on weekends… they’re playing on weekdays,” he says. “I think the years when golf built all these courses and couldn’t facilitate them, they’ve gone away.”

It seems many of Golfdom’s readers are as enthusiastic as Kregel and Moore. Of survey respondents, 9 percent reported being “very optimistic,” and a whopping 56 percent said they were “slightly optimistic” about the golf economy in 2016. Only 12 percent were negative, while 23 percent were neutral.

Of course the economic outlook for any golf facility depends on the view right outside the clubhouse window to the first tee. Justin May, superintendent at Shangri La Golf Club in Afton, Okla., predicts a flat 2016 because of the low price of oil, which heavily dictates his local economy. Meanwhile Cypress Lakes Golf Course in Muscle Shoals, Ala., finds itself without a superintendent and a head pro, as well as an overall payroll cut of 10 percent across the board, according to the Times Daily. The paper reports the course lost $339,000 in 2013-2014, compared with $188,000 last year.

Still, Cypress Lakes General Manager Scott Arndt remains upbeat, and includes himself among those who think 2016 will be a good year for golf. His hope is the course comes close to break-even in 2015-2016.

“It’s cyclical. There was a boom, then there was a drop-off,” Arndt says. “I see golf growing here. Is it where we want it? No. But it’s trending the right way.

“It’s all about getting the people on the fence,” Arndt continues. “We can do that by having a good, friendly place to play. We’re not selling anything but fun and memories — what can we do to increase that?”

Brian Burke, superintendent at Sycamore Creek CC in Springboro, Ohio, says he is optimistic following three consecutive years of an uptick in business in southwest Ohio.

“We’ve had more members and more involvement,” Burke says. “I hope that we’ll continue to see positive movement forward in 2016.”

Jordan Booth, CGCS at Willows Oaks CC in Richmond, Va., thinks the incremental improvements he’s seen over the last few years will continue. His reason: golf is responding by exposing more people to the game, as well as becoming more laid-back.

“You’ve got guys in shorts and jeans learning the game and having fun, you’ve got speakers in golf carts, people having fun with their buddies,” he says. “That’s what golf is about: interacting with other people.”

Golf prepares for change at the White House

Will a new Commander-in-Chief make a difference in golf’s progress?

When Barack Obama took office in 2008, an avid golfer took control of the White House.

But was that avid golfer an advocate for a game he clearly loves? And what will a new administration mean for the game?

Our survey results were split 50/50 as to whether the results of the election will make a difference for the business of golf. The superintendents we asked were also split.

Rodney Crow, CGCS at Battleground Golf Course in Deer Park, Texas, thinks a change of administration is something that could help golf.

“Look back at the last eight years: The EPA has become more stringent; this whole ‘Waters of the U.S.’ is off-the-charts stringent; we’re seeing everything being constricted in terms of new products being approved; old products that have been in use for years are being ratcheted down,” he says. “If we continue the agenda the current administration has, it’s going to greatly impact the golf market.”

Other readers told us that golf will continue its current trend regardless of the 2016 election results.

“I don’t think (the election) will have any effect at all,” says Jimmy Alston, superintendent at Eagle Creek G&CC in Naples, Fla. He says the area where he lives is extremely conservative, and despite the difference in politics of his area and the White House, golf is thriving. “The Naples market is booming like it was in the early 2000s.”

“I don’t think the upcoming election will effect us one way or another,” says Woody Moriarty, superintendent at Blue Hills CC in Kansas City, Mo. “I think the golf industry is pretty strong right now, and we are coming out of the recession.”

Jordan Booth, CGCS at Willow Oaks CC in Richmond, Va., mostly worries about the perception of golf when it comes to the environment.

“I do think there is a more pro-golf party, just in terms of environmental regulations. I think people in golf are very proud of how environmentally friendly we are,” he says. “We need to keep communicating what we’re doing now, and not be targeted as the bad guys. When people have an environmentally minded agenda without all their facts, that’s dangerous.”

Booth mentions the Chesapeake Bay, which was named a national treasure in 2009.

“It’s awesome. It’s important to keep that bay clean and protect the wildlife,” he says. “We just need to be sure to do our research and know where the problems are coming from, and not target golf as part of that problem.”

For the sake of golf, Crow hopes to see a major change in Washington.

“If we have our choices of either side of the coin, it’s prudent for us to try to push to the conservative,” he says. “If we continue the route we’re on now, golf is going to have its wrists handcuffed.”

Worried about WOTUS?

Our survey found readers split, but our sources consider its threat as real.

Huge. Enormous.

Those were the first two words Jimmy Alston used in describing how big a concern Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) is for him.

The superintendent at Eagle Creek G&CC in Naples, Fla., Alston says he has been following WOTUS closely — maybe even obsessively — since 2006. Back then, he says, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection kept a website with regular updates. He could read the memos between the different state and federal departments. “It was a back and forth, you could see these conversations… some of them were almost arguments,” he says.

In 2012, the website disappeared. Alston called to see where the page went but got nowhere. He feels similarly lost today and believes he’s not alone.

“I think we as superintendents don’t have a clue as to what (WOTUS) really is,” he says. “Our course abuts a federal estuarine preserve, so I’ve got DEP and EPA guys in all the time, and they can’t explain to me what (WOTUS) is. I ask them all and they literally have this puzzled look. And these guys are supposed to be telling us?”

Shangri La GC in Afton, Okla., sits on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. They have an island green. And now they also have an independent contractor who monitors WOTUS for them.

“It’ll be a huge deal — our entire water source comes from Grand Lake, and of course everything drains into Grand Lake. Our whole course is in that area, the 100-year floodplain and 4,000 feet from the lake,” says Superintendent Justin May. “It’s going to be a huge part of our club, depending on how far it goes. It’s another hoop we’ll have to jump through. It’ll probably be for the good somewhere, but it’s going to make our lives difficult for a while.”

Rodney Crow, CGCS at the Battleground GC, Deer Park, Texas, is a part of the GCSAA’s Grassroots Ambassador Program. He says the group is trying to educate the general public that WOTUS isn’t just bad for golf courses, but for municipalities and the general public as well.

“It’s going to affect not only what we do, but how we do it and the costs associated with it,” Crow says. “It’ll drastically change our fertilization practices, even the way we mow. And the rancher or the homeowner, if they have a pond on their property, it’s going to impact them directly as well.”

Alston is still seeking out education on the topic anywhere he can find it. He relies on GCSAA as well as Golfdom, and was thankful to see the topic on a recent cover of the magazine.

“Superintendents need more education about what it is and what it is not,” Alston says. “I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Designs on getting more golfers

Readers weigh in on what they think can help get more golfers on the course

Chris Zugel, CGCS at The Straits Course at Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wis., likes to golf with his wife, but she doesn’t always like to play with him. Not because her husband is apt to chuck his 3-iron into Lake Michigan like John Daly at last year’s PGA Championship, but because she gets nervous.

“The whole experience needs to be less intimidating,” says Zugel. “My wife doesn’t always like to go because she feels like she won’t play well, and that people are going to judge her.”

If golf is going to continue to bounce back, people like Mrs. Zugel are going to have to play more rounds in 2016. Zugel adds that he is interested in simulators and Topgolf because they can help people become more comfortable on a golf course.

“There’s a lot of self-consciousness that occurs in golf when you’re out there doing a skill for four hours, and things like (simulators, Topgolf) get people interested in the game,” Zugel says.

Superintendent Rod Johnson, CGCS at Pine Hills CC in Sheboygan, Wis., thinks that once novice golfers are on the course it’s imperative that they have at least some success while playing.

“We need more people to experience that ‘shot euphoria’ when they come to the course,” Johnson says. “That doesn’t mean making golf courses more difficult. Sometimes we might be maintaining and designing for the wrong people.”

Kasey Kauff, director of grounds at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, agrees with Johnson that it’s not the players’ mentality that needs to change, but how golf courses are designed.

“The No.1 thing is making golf courses easier to play because golf shouldn’t be hard, and people come back to the game if they play well,” he says.

Kauff adds that making golf courses easier could also help the bottom line, because a course with fewer bunkers and less-maintained rough would be cheaper to maintain.

That concept is being translated to Kauff’s course. The currently under-construction Trinity Forest GC is being fitted with no maintained rough. The outlying areas have been seeded with Blackland Prairie, a native-blend turf that is the most endangered ecosystem in North America, according to Kauff.

“With that outlying area we are restoring prairie but we’re not maintaining it. There’s no irrigation or fertilizer,” says Kauff. “It’s very sustainable, and that’s what we are looking for.”

Just for kicks

Alternative forms of golf are out there, but readers seem doubtful of their usefulness.

Alternative forms of golf to get consumers on the golf course — like FootGolf and oversized cups — have been popping up in recent years as a way to “save” golf.

Some courses have seen numbers increase while others have not tried the new ideas. But do superintendents think they can help the game?

According to our survey, only 15 percent of Golfdom readers believe that these spin-offs of golf will help grow the game.

Brian Burke, superintendent at Sycamore Creek CC, Springboro, Ohio, thinks that FootGolf and oversized cups can help grow the game, because getting a person on the property is never a bad thing.

“We can’t be closed-minded, and we have to look outside of the box,” says Burke. “That is why FootGolf and 15-inch cups are out there as an option for golf courses. It’s about getting people excited to come to the property.”

Topgolf is on Burke’s mind too, because one of the newest locations will be opening this summer about 30 minutes away from Sycamore Creek CC in West Chester, Ohio. He’s excited to see people experience the game outside of a golf course and hopes it can take away the stigma of how stuffy the game can be.

“More people with a golf club in their hand cannot be a bad thing, and I think it’s going to take off when it comes to my area,” Burke says.

Mike Bremmer, superintendent at Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Club, says that attention should be paid to these new forms of the game.

“I think these alternate forms are bringing in more golfers to the game. To the game’s traditionalists they are bizzare, but who cares if more people are playing,” Bremmer says. “I’m also wondering if the National Golf Foundation is tracking rounds from these people who are coming into the game because of FootGolf and oversized cups. The only way we will ever know is if you can track and analyze it.”

Jim Campbell, superintendent at Prairie Dunes CC, Hutchinson, Kan., says that he is with the 52 percent of professionals who are unsure if they can help. He brings up the golf introductory program being implemented in schools across Kansas called Starting New At Golf (SNAG). In partnership with the Kansas Golf Foundation, a golf unit can be added to a physical education program at no cost to a Kansas school. It’s a program that he believes will be good for the game.

As of fall 2015, more than 150,000 students in the state are learning golf in physical education class in grades K-12, according to the Kansas Golf Association.

“That program is reaching thousands of kids in Kansas that might have never touched a golf club before,” Campbell says. “That has to be huge for the future of golf.”

Ready for take-off

We asked survey respondents what it would take for golf to take off again. Here are some of their answers:

“We need to find a way to make the game move faster. The younger generation has less time to devote to golf.”

“Keep building junior programs, reach out to women and minority golfers.”

“We must support small courses where the growth of the game is most likely to occur. Each large, private, successful facility could adopt a feeder course to get the growth of the game going again.”

“We need to accept that lifestyles will never be what they were when golf was booming. We need to modify our thinking and accept different people and their needs.”

“A miracle.”


About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at

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