How will golf respond to the pace of change?
Matthew Pitt, founder of Social Golf Australia and Bushranger Golf, gives an industry insider’s perspective on current trends in the game and future directions for golf participation in Australia.
Australian golf is in the process of a paradigm shift in the way amateur golfers are engaging with the game. Club memberships and overall participation are declining and, as the versatile adapt and the inflexible are left behind, courses and clubs are closing and new participation options are emerging in the market.
One of the keys to understanding the current changes and predicting future trends is observing the way our society, communities and technologies are developing apace around the game. If we consider trends in and around golf between 1900, 1950, 2000 and 2012, the obvious questions for golf become what is the shape of the game now and where is the game heading in the future? Let’s briefly consider some examples on this timeline of the evolution of golf in Australia.
1900: Golf is a game for society’s elite. Players used gutta-percha balls with a textured surface to improve aerodynamics. Clubs heads were cast iron with no grooves on the clubface and were custom-fitted to hickory shafts. The only mechanism for participation was through private golf clubs.
1900 – 1950: Coburn Haskell’s rubber-cored multi-layered ball was released in 1899 and slowly replaced the ‘gutty’ in the first decade of the 20th century. Far cheaper to produce with improved performance, it made the game more accessible. The dimpled golf ball and grooved clubfaces were both first introduced in 1908. Around 1910 the first mass-produced wooden-headed golf clubs emerged. Steel shafts were introduced around 1925 and became standard by the mid 1930s. They were stronger than hickory shafts and could be mass-produced reliably with uniform feel in matched sets. As the game became more affordable, more public access golf courses emerged to meet the growing demand and participation in the game.
1950 – 2000: In the 1950s & 60s, television, Palmer and Nicklaus combined to explode the popularity of the game. Club and ball technology continued to advance and entry costs continued to fall. In the 1970s, graphite shafts and steel-headed ‘woods’ arrived closely followed by the greatest catalyst for growth in Australian golf – the Greg Norman phenomenon. The popularity of the game exploded, the industry flourished and private clubs, public-access courses and golf retailers experienced continued growth.
2000 – 2012: Since 2000, we have experienced:
- The decline of Norman as a force in tournament golf
- The aligning of men’s and women’s golf in Australia
- The explosion of the internet & information technology
- The growing popularity and pending decline of long putters
- All new golf courses are financed by real estate developments
- Improved club and ball technology precipitating longer golf courses
- More people are time poor as housing and living costs increase and more families require two incomes to maintain their lifestyle
- Decreases in club membership, overall participation, green fee revenues, membership waiting lists and club joining fees
- Increased internet sales and changes in buying patterns of golf consumers
- The advent of golf GPS and lasers
- The advent of online tee-time bookings
- The continuing spectre of pace of play issues
- Increasing sales and closures of golf clubs and courses
- Problems attracting new golfers to the game and an aging demographic
- Group buying discounts of green fees (Groupon, Scoopon, etc)
- Discount wars and the devaluation and confusion around golf course green fee values
- Increased insurance costs for clubs and courses
- More competition from other sports and leisure activities
And the list goes on. The world is changing more quickly all the time and the challenge for the game of golf is to adapt to meet these developments to remain viable in the future. If change around and in the game is moving at such rapid pace now, what shape will golf need to be in 2025 or 2050 to remain viable and relevant?
In the capital centres, some of the decreases in club membership can be attributed to contracting time and decreasing value proposition in a club membership. If a golfer has less time to play regular rounds, the cost per round of a club membership increases. Eventually some golfers reach the point where they explore other alternatives.
Our response at Social Golf Australia (SGA) has been to accept that the needs and options of many golfers are changing and to explore alternative participation models that anticipate the consequences of the current trends in the game. Our project became to investigate developing a handicap and event model that meets the current needs and golfing lifestyle of Australians.
The challenge was to incorporate the best elements of the traditional club golf competition model, the social golf club model and the professional golf tours to create a new paradigm for golf participation. As price point and value perception have taken a higher priority in an information-rich commercial environment, we believe that a pay as you play competition event model is the way forward to provide an affordable golfing alternative.
We envisage a participation model where golfers can access a handicap (that includes personal golf insurance) for a small annual fee and then pay as they play in the official competition rounds. This offers golfers the opportunity to compete in an event series based on the format of the professional golf tours. If events are scheduled every two or three weeks then golfers can simply choose which events they wish to enter when it suits them.
This allows amateur golfers to play a variety of courses in an official competition event series on their own Tour, just like the pros. Players can be required to hold official handicaps to compete for prizes and competition results can be entered on GOLF Link. Because golfers only pay for the events they enter, unlike the traditional club membership model where all the rounds are paid for upfront in membership fees, the value proposition is unchanged no matter how many rounds a golfer plays.
After incorporating this analysis, our response was to establish The SGA Tour for amateur golfers in each of the mainland capital centres where players compete for Order of Merit points and a range of annual trophy events. The shape of the event series can be seen in detail at www.sgatour.com.au.
The SGA Tour is growing strongly because, in an industry that is contracting, more Australian golfers are exploring their options for participating in competition golf on their own terms. We have been able to respond to developments in the golfing landscape and meet the needs of the golfers in our target demographic.
It is the type of flexibility that golf as a whole needs to embrace as technology and society change at breakneck speed around the game. There will be new technologies and opportunities in five and ten years that we cannot foresee now. How our thought leaders and administrators respond today will have a significant bearing on the success and prosperity of our game as we progress, at speed, into the 21st century.