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Opinion – Golf’s next challenge: retaining new golfers

Superintendents can play a key role here


December 9, 2020
By Mike Jiggens


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Golf season has come to an end in most of Canada, and 2020 will long be remembered as the year that began in doubt and ended on the highest of notes. While the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on most other sports – and not in a good way – it actually catapulted golf to another level.

Courses throughout Canada reported record numbers of rounds played, increases in memberships and months of full tee sheets upon shutting their doors in October and November. Simply put, the game was tailor-made for COVID-19. It was really the only sport in which physical distancing could be guaranteed and where there was no need for any of its participants to touch any type of common item.

Golf hadn’t experienced such numbers since the latter part of the 1990s when Tiger Woods was largely credited for propelling the game forward. The so-called “Tiger effect” resulted in massive new course construction throughout North America, significant renovations made to existing courses and a new enthusiasm for the game.

But the bubble burst within a handful of years. It wasn’t long before supply outweighed demand, and many of these new golf courses were half empty. The Tiger effect, it seemed, was no more than just a flash in the pan, and the game went into a period of decline – until 2020.

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The difference between 2020 and the latter part of the 1990s is that golf had little competition this year while 20 to 25 years ago there were many other things one could pursue.

Does this mean 2021 will be a repeat of 2020 in terms of golfer participation? Maybe, if the pandemic continues to drag on into next year and there are still few COVID-friendly options available. At the very least, a seed has been planted in which those who took up the game for the first time this year and enjoyed themselves will likely want more of the same when courses reopen in the spring.

Depending on the status of the pandemic as the 2021 golf season nears, the challenge for golf courses will be to retain these new golfers and those who stepped up their playing frequency, especially if the door swings wide open again for other activities to take place. Now that these new golfers have tried the game and like how it tastes, the objective is to keep them.

So how can golf superintendents play a role in making this happen? For one, they can instruct their maintenance staff to avoid difficult pin placements. Three-putting is one of the biggest turnoffs in golf and is a good way to alienate new golfers. Do what’s needed to keep the game simple. Reserve the tougher pin placements for club championships and high-end tournaments.

Don’t get too carried away with roughs. Don’t penalize these new golfers any more than is necessary. They’ll want to be able to play their next stroke from a reasonable lie following an errant tee shot and not have to spend all day looking for a lost ball.

Perhaps leave bunkers alone. Although rakes are universally outlawed at all golf courses under COVID-19 protocols, some clubs continue to groom their bunkers while others don’t. At courses where bunkers are maintained, golfers are expected to play their next shot “as it lies” and then use their foot to “rake” the sand as smooth as possible when leaving. Other courses have chosen to leave their bunkers alone and have instructed golfers to simply take relief at point of entry without penalty.

The latter option is certainly more golfer-friendly, especially for newbies, and allows beginning golfers to reap more enjoyment from the game without having to experience the frustration associated with sand play. Once they’ve had a season or two under their belt, then perhaps it’s time to introduce them to bunker play.

Temporarily taking bunkers out of play also frees up valuable time for maintenance staff to focus on other tasks.

Eventually, golf will return to the way it was meant to be played, complete with the optional removal of the flagstick when putting, being able to rake up afterwards when finding a bunker, and having ball washers available again. But golf needs to capitalize on the “gift” it’s been given this year and keep that momentum going.

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