Exploring the future of Golf

Exploring the future of Golf, Golf Clubs, Golf COVID19, Golf Design

Burgos, April 9, 2021.- Arum Group recently held a Webinar with several experts to discuss the future of Golf. Below we reproduce the transcript of said online meeting for its interest to all professionals in this strategic economic sector for many economies:

After a year of complication that we have all gone through, where many golf courses have been closed or reduced staff, is it now a time where we should rethink whether the traditional operating procedures may have become obsolete? Must we think about new operating models?

As a professional in golf courses, what ́s your opinion, golf courses have decided already to make change and if so what changes have been made? Do you think it’s the right time? 

Jeremy Slessor, Managing Director European Golf Design: I think the time has never been more right to make the changes that are necessary. The last 12 months we have experienced something that any of us have ever been through before and that has generated some interest in golf, some of it new and some of it renewed, there are still some issues that we need to resolve. If we look at the last 12 months, some of the takeaways are that the fact that people are working from home allows them to have more time, considering that they don’t need to commute anymore. For some of those people, golf has become much more important. Also, we are desperate for social and personal connection, and clubs can be a way of doing it as we move into the next phase. We are desperate for going outside, because a lot of us haven’t had the opportunity to go outside or play golf for months. And courses were busy last summer, across Europe and around the world. 

You constantly hear people saying “golf is bad”, but golf has had a revival but the issue now is what do we do to keep those new golfers and we keep them engaged. So what do people want now in a golf club or a golf resort? It seems to me that what they want as much as anything is flexibility. They don’t necessarily want to pay for 12 months of golf at the begin of the year. A survey where they asked anybody under the age of 40 shows that 77% of them pay for their golf per round, they don ́t pay a membership. So I think this flexibility is going to be really important. 

In relation with online booking, lots of clubs have established it now, but I hear a lot of people saying that when the lockdowns are over we can go back to the way we used to be. That’s fine for the older generation, but it’s not going to work for the younger generation and the changes that need to be made inevitably are going to be attempted to be blocked by the older members. But what happens when the older members are no longer there? So who is filling the gap in the membership and what does that gap want? It seems to me that milenials want flexibility, as few rules as possible, particularly dress code, they are tired of dress codes, because if they want to play in shorts and a t-shirt, why would you make them change? So, I think the old model is dead and it’s going to have to be a flexible model. 

Javier Reviriego Bóveda, CEO/General Director Real Club Valderrama: Any organisation, if you wanna make changes to your model, specially in the model of working, you have to be really careful and really analytical because you don’t want to make the mistake of making changes that are permanent for temporary problems. I think that eventually the situation with the pandemic is going to be over, but when we analyse our model and the changes that we want to implement, we are giving it a lot of thought, because we want to avoid the mistake of making permanent changes that would be difficult to go back to in the future. Obviously, the travel industry has been hit really hard by the pandemic. Any golf club or golf course that depends on visitors is struggling, but I think as an industry we should focus on the positives, like the increase in rounds, which I think is an excellent sign in golf. If you look at the rounds played, specially in the UK and the US, there has been a spike, as well as in spanish private clubs, so I think it is really important as an industry to transmit the message that golf is very safe, very healthy, it ́s an activity that we play with the family and with friends so we need to take advantage of the current situation to talk about how good golf is in the current environment and how safe it is. For many years we have heard that there is something wrong with golf, that we should make changes and basically that it’s going to disappear. I ́ve never been so pessimistic about the game. I think the problem was laying in society, people were living too fast, with more professional and family commitments, which has reduced our leisure time and this has obviously affected golf. 

Elisa Gaudet, Founder Executive Golf International & Women´s Golf Day: My thought is that golf is going to have to make 9 goals more acceptable, because people when things get back to normal. But about sustainability, we have a number of organisations, like the international sustainable council. I don ́t know if there is anything new necessarily, I think it started years ago, but just looking at the ecological and economical benefits of doing it, there is going to be a very good incentive to do some of these things is that there are going to be saving money. In the US, I think a lot of people just grouped it all together, because we had water issues in Arizona, California… I think water conservation, water quality, energy savings, pollution reduction… For example, where I live, there is a golf course with a facility that has allowed them to save more than 190 million gallons of water. 

Jeremy Slessor: In my view, golf has got the greatest ressources it has ever had in terms of measuring sustainability and that is the golf environment organisation and through the 2 programs, one for existing courses and one for new courses, so through the GGO programs, for the first time, we have the ability to define, measure and demonstrate sustainability. There is an economic argument, there is an environmental argument, there is a social argument and there is a cultural argument, and through the programs that GGO runs for the first time we can demonstrate what golf is doing in terms of progressing, because we have to be able to show that golf is good. Golf doesn’t have the best PR in the world and we all have got a responsibility to tell the story of this industry and there is a tremendous story to be told. Brendan Been asks Jeremy Slessor: Why does golf does not have a good PR? 

Jeremy Slessor: Well, because it is popular to say golf is bad for the environment and, as an industry, we haven’t been able to respond to that with data, but we now have the ability to respond. Every project that we go through, we have to deal with the same tired arguments about “golf is going to be bad for this land”. And those arguments have got no basis in fact. Now for sure, what happened thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years ago in the development world is not as good as best practising today. As an industry, we have learned and I think we are infinitely better at doing the right thing. In the end, sustainability is the right thing. So, if you get the environmental, social and cultural aspects of it right, there will be an economic benefit, so this is not a cost. 

Javier Reviriego Bóveda: I agree with Jeremy, I think a lot of it has to do with PR in the golf industry, I think for some reason we haven’t been able to communicate properly how conscious we are with the environment and with sustainability. I have attended conferences where I have discussed this issue with environmentalists and I always think data wins any arguments, and proving how advanced we are as an industry and applying environmental methods always wins an argument. If we compare ourselves with agriculture, for example, we are so far advanced in irrigation practises compared to agriculture, there is not even a debate. In our particular case in Valderrama, I think we were the first european course to update it at the beginning of the 90s, which shows, many years ago, as a golf course, which is a reference in Europe, we were already thinking about the right environmental practises for the golf course, and the right practises to save water, energy cost, fuel…And all the work we are doing currently at Valderrama is directed at looking for ways of saving water, working with the administration to use recycled water, and this is a constant work, we are constantly questioning ourselves if we can implement better practises more sustainable for the environment. I think the key of this matter is that, as an industry, we are able to communicate this. There should be an action plan with the main organisations and institutions of golf to avoid this constant thought of golf as an unsustainable sport for the elite. I think this are old arguments, they are tired, they are easy to debate. And I think we need an action from the institutions to actually establish the right messages and establish and action plan. It is the only way we can turn around the negative PR we receive as an industry. 

Jeremy Slessor: If we talk about some of the big names, I would say absolutely, it works every time. As a company, we have done about a hundred projects of which 40 have been with a signature designer and the answer is, it works in some locations and it doesn’t work in other locations and it very much depends on the situation. So, it depends on location, it depends on the target market that you are going for, the budget of the project, and it depends on who the competition is for that market and that will change everywhere you go. It can work in an existing golf market in terms of differentiation. If you have 10 courses, and you need something that is going to differentiate from those others, then putting a brand on 

the course can work. It can work in an emerging market if the target golfers are from an existing golf market, so they understand golf. Where it doesn’t work is in emerging markets where there isn’t a golf population. Respect to the second part of the question, the cost in plans don ́t mean success, it depends on the circumstances, it can happen, but there is no guarantee that the cost of signature design is going to get you a better golf course or a worse golf course than going with a competent non-branding signature. 

Javier Reviriego Bóveda: Well, I would say yes, Robert Trent Jones is one of the best of our time, it is obvious that he did a great job at Valderrama. In general terms, the design is still modern, still attractive for people to play. So, yes, in the Valderrama case I would say yes, but I fully agree with Jeremy. Many times, the model that you are going to choose for your project depends very much on location, and in some circumstances, having a top designer, with a higher cost, is probably not the right solution. It is a good start to have a signature on the golf course, obviously, there is a brand component that is obvious, especially among expert golfersy. But, I have also seen, in the past, especially in the 90s, huge mistakes with choosing designers for certain models of clubs. If you have a golf club where the average age is very high, and you bring in a golf designer that builds a championship golf course, I think it is nonsense. So, it is important to evaluate what your model is going to be based on, what you are looking for as a club before making the decision of bringing a signature into the project. And having said that, the signature does not guarantee the best rooting. In some cases, I have seen some of the top designers build golf courses that are virtually impossible or unsustainable to maintain. So, I think expert advice is always the best solution when you are working especially on a new golf project and a good expert should be able to tell you if it is necessary to go for a top architect or not. 

Patrick Rahme, Co-Founder/CEO All Square: No, Robert Trent Jones Jr started as a friendly relationship, we used to meet in the same places by coincidence and we became, well, I don’t know if I can say friends, because I consider him like my grandfather, so I have learned a lot from him and I think what impressed me the most is his passion for the game and telling stories to people, I think he is a great ambassador of golf around the world. His philosophy has changed throughout the years, and it is interesting to see how an architect evolves with the game. He travels all the time and he is always trying to challenge himself, looking for interesting pieces not only in the short term, but also in the long term. So it has been really interesting for me the last 2 years to learn about golf course design and I think having a big name will definitely bring some value, whether it is through the construction project, making the right decisions… So, if you understand what you want to achieve, I think you can then decide whether a big name will be worth it and from the users ́ point of view, whenever they visit a place, they want to play the courses that are well-known.  

Elisa Gaudet: There hasn’t been a lot of new design, I think redesign and sustainability. As many of the gentlemen here have said, every golf course is unique and is based on the needs of a specific population. I absolutely think that having a signature designer is going to help for sales, and that is the business model. In my experience, I sold a Greg Noman design in Mexico, and I dont think a lot of people realised how Mexico even developed, which is way well-known as a tourist destination. And they have used that model in multiple locations. 

Jeremy Slessor: Well, the exposure is the main thing. There are different reasons why people are investing in tournament golf. This may not be very popular in Spain, but Turkey did a great job 15 years ago of establishing a new market by creating some really impressive golf with hotels and starting to put some professional tournaments on it. And I think it is important to establish accessible courses, because the courses for the elite are not going to be successful. Tournament golf will help with exposure nationally, regionally, locally…what I don ́t think is very good at is growing the game. 

Javier Reviriego Bóveda: I do, I think the key is that all of the stakeholders involved in an event, there is a win-win for all. In the case of a golf club like Valderrama, obviously it has been very beneficial. The benefits are that we have more green free sales, we create more interest from people to become a member, we have the opportunity during a week every year to show our product to the world live, and there is no doubt that this provides visibility and increases your reputation as a golf club and your prestige. There are a lot of examples of famous golf courses because of the fact of holding major golf tournaments. 

Top questions asked by the professionals listening to this Webinar

  • A global project that unites clubs and society. What solution exists for young people from 15 to 25 who disappear in golf? Is there a club or federation project that solves this problem? What happens to boys and girls who start playing at 13 or 14 years old? where do they play? What motivation do they have?
  • Have you any experience of even offering play of  3 – or 6 holes  as for example after-work options? Sort of «pay per hole» options?
  • I agree with Elisa about the necessity of offering and promotiong 9 hole rounds, even for tournament events.
  • My question is related to sponsorship, we saw during the last years the companies have dramatically reduced their sponsorship and as a consequence professional golf is suffering for organizing high level tournaments…. do you feel that the will soon come back?  The same for amateur competitions.
  • What is the average design cost of a extra 9 holes course?
  • Where can i find literature to document my project that golf is better for the environment then agriculture ?

More information in:

Web Green Mowers Spain