The Future of Golf is Here
Like a perfect storm, new leaders were chosen in the past year for the three organizations powering golf in our area. We gathered the new management teams of the MGA, the Met PGA, and the WMGA for a roundtable discussion of the future of the game.
Dave Donelson [moderator] What’s the state of golf in Westchester and the Hudson Valley?
Brian Mahoney Westchester County is unique versus the rest of the golf world. It has great golf history architecturally and culturally, so our message is extremely positive about the game both private and public. Thirty percent of our Westchester clubs have wait lists for membership. That’s a very healthy, positive number that speaks volumes about the appetite for the game of golf in the county.
Jeff Voorheis Westchester is as close to bulletproof as you can get when it comes to economics. There will always be that group of clubs here that will have a waiting list until the end of time. But there will also be those other tiers that have to reinvent themselves: They build practice facilities and other amenities. They give the customer what they want.
Michael Sullivan The economy and behavior changes, so rounds played may be down, but participation is up. Our traditional player who now plays 52 rounds a year might have played 70 in the past. Now, they’re going to the club to chip and putt, take a lesson, hit balls on the range over their lunch hour but may not be playing as many rounds. The resources needed to serve that member are the same. Someone has to get their bag from the bag room, put it on a cart, set up the range, give them a lesson, maintain the putting green, and fix their lunch, so they can go back to work.
Brian Crowell On a national level, you hear about the challenges faced by other places, but we are lucky. We are in a special little zone where everyone really appreciates the traditions of golf, and so many clubs are safe here.
Does that mean we’re standing still?
Voorheis Even in this safe haven where we operate, there are a number of clubs that aren’t doing as well as they would like. The challenge is to marry that tradition we revere with what the next generation wants. We may cringe at the idea of music in the golf cart or turning the formal club dining room into a bar and grill with TVs and chicken wings, but if that’s what the next generation is looking for, we better find a way.
Crowell Just as clubs are reinventing themselves, PGA pros have to reinvent themselves. We have to look beyond the traditional methods of entertainment to how many different levels of excitement can be created for families. Golf is just one way. Ultimately, we’re measured as PGA pros by the volume of activity at the club, because all of that leads to a great experience and a healthy club bottom line.
Mahoney Clubs are reevaluating their business plans. You see more openness to junior memberships, to summer memberships, and they’re bringing on membership directors, someone who is proactively trying to engage new generations of golfers. One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t let tradition get in the way of evolution.” There are some members who want it one way and don’t want to change, but the world is changing, and if you don’t change with it, you can be left behind.
For example, the MGA Men’s four-ball championship will be held for the first time in conjunction with our Women’s four-ball this year, just as the USGA held the Men’s and Women’s Open Championships at Pinehurst. The men will play Westchester Country Club’s West Course at the same time the women compete on the South Course.
Crowell It’s got to be less about the score and more about the experience. We have to keep working on nine-hole member guests, or more twilight events, or more family events, six-hole rounds, three holes during lunch. We’ve got to find ways to make golf wider than a narrow 18-hole stroke-play round.
Sullivan Or how about a Saturday member/guest, like I played in last year at Ardsley? What a great idea!
It sounds like there’s a revolution in the works.
Mahoney Engaging new golfers is our biggest issue. Consider the absolute newbie player, for example. He or she has no interest in standing on the first tee and having a bunch of hecklers watch them shank a few shots. They’re much more open to a concept like Top Golf, where they can just hit balls and enjoy golf in a totally different environment. Or consider kids who engage with the game virtually, through a simulator or video games.
Sullivan It’s all about the experience. Everyone is worried about cellphones and jeans taking away from the traditions of the game, but I think the opposite is true. The more people you have in the game, the more that will come to embrace the traditions. If you turn them away at the beginning, you have no chance to build a feeder system.
Voorheis Speaking of technology, look at all the phones around this table. We’ve seen vendors who have come up with some creative apps, where kids can marry golf with social media. The concept is that utilizing an app to create a community could encourage more kids to play and current players to play more.
Mahoney We are committed financially and philosophically to some technology initiatives that will come out in the short term. I had an interesting experience at the USGA Junior Girls Championship at Nassau Country Club last year. I came into the lunchroom, and every single girl was on her phone, checking what the outcome of that round did to their AJGA rankings. The MGA will continue to invest in mobile social technology as a means to attract and connect with golfers.
Crowell The club that doesn’t let you take a cellphone on the golf course today — they’re gone. Being rude is one thing, but let the phones get out there. Let the kids have fun. Let the grownups have fun!
What are your organizations doing to grow the game?
Crowell We have over 1,300 kids in our Junior Tour programs. We are constantly looking for ways to run more tournaments to accommodate them. It’s a great problem to have. Now you also have PGA Junior League and Drive, Chip & Putt. Those two programs have been home runs. The PGA Junior League, with the jerseys and the scramble format, is getting a whole different level of excitement into golf.
Sullivan The Golfworks program is something we’re really proud of. It provides meaningful employment, in a friendly environment, for underprivileged and minority youth. We had 277 participants last year at 70 clubs. Program hours for the number of kids working was up 33 percent since 2014, to 62,700 hours. When you add the caddy scholarship programs and the First Tee, it all adds up to bringing more kids to the game.
Voorheis We’re excited about a couple of things we’re going to do this year. I’m bullish on them not being all about competitions. We do so much for competitive players, but it’s important for us to have leaderboards about things other than what score they shot. It can be: “How many times did you play?” or “How many putts did you hit?” To kids, especially in a game as difficult as golf, it’s easy to get turned off.
Crowell We have to find other ways to reward them. I’m not a fan of participation ribbons, but if you celebrate closest-to-the-pins on the leaderboards, that helps recognize more players. If there’s a scramble format, a kid can make a putt and feel like a hero without shooting 72.
Sullivan If you posted on your leaderboards not just the scores but the kids who just shot the best round they’ve ever had, you’ll be flooded with social-media pictures.
Mahoney There’s a right group for that, and then there’s another group with an insatiable appetite for competition, and those people need different things. If we’re going to get growth, we have to do something for all
How can you increase participation by adults?
Mahoney Participation in our tournaments is very strong. We’re at the breaking point in terms of growth, so our focus is going to be on more collaboration and perhaps retiring some competitions that don’t make as much sense in the culture today. Consider qualifiers. Let’s say the Westchester Golf Association is holding their qualifier for their amateur championship, and the MGA is holding one for ours. If they’re both not at capacity, we could hold one qualifier together.
To enlarge our audience, we’re going to roll out some public golf leagues as a beta test this year. We have access to the USGA software that was built to manage those, so we are trying to find five public courses we will roll these out to. There is such an insatiable appetite for competition here, we can facilitate that at all levels. Many of them will be tested as nine-hole leagues that will capture more people.
Sullivan We focus on programs like “playing it forward” and pace of play, so we are making the game more enjoyable. That will raise participation. Even with all the technology, though, the activity that still matters is going outside and swinging the club, walking the course, raking a bunker and playing with your friends and family. It’s still a physical activity, and we need to keep that in mind.
Women’s Golf Looks Good
What’s the state of women’s golf?
Sarah Relyea It’s an exciting time for women. You’re seeing highly competitive, skilled golfers, and more women are playing at all levels.
Cheryl Brayman We put out 1,200 women for five team matches over two and a half weeks every spring. That’s absolutely phenomenal.
How is the WMGA changing?
Brayman We are trying to encourage our B players to participate more in our tournaments, so we’ve instituted a B player of the year award. We get a tremendous amount of interest in our team matches in the early spring but participation wanes somewhat after that.
Relyea The association is changing with the times. Girls To the Tee is held at Westchester Country Club twice in the season. We get about 125 girls ages 6 to 18 raring to go. They’re all skill levels from first timers who may not even have a set of clubs to juniors who take lessons twice a week from the finest professionals in the area.
What’s on the horizon?
Relyea The Curtis Cup will be at Quaker Ridge in 2018. Our past president, Beth Post, is one of the co-chairs. It will be exciting for the WMGA to be involved.
Brayman The WMGA has been a private club association, but we are considering opening our membership to independent members so they can play in our tournaments.