By Zack Hall
For The Bulletin
Central Oregon spent the better part of the 1990s and 2000s opening golf courses like they were Starbucks. This region has 30 golf courses, 21 of which were built after 1988, part of a national building boom in golf.
Of course, the Great Recession ended all that, both here and nationally.
Since, some of the sharpest golf professionals in the local industry have been perpetually pondering ways to attract more golfers. In real terms, that means most courses have been trying to find ways to offer quicker rounds, alternative forms of golf, and less-intimidating ways to learn the game.
“Chris van der Velde (managing partner at Tetherow Golf Club) and I talk every day about the challenge of satisfying the new-age golfer while maintaining the rich traditions of the game,” says Louis Bennett, the head pro at Tetherow in Bend. “It’s not an easy task whatsoever. But that is the battle that we, along with the PGA of America, USGA, R&A (Great Britain’s Royal & Ancient) and all of golf’s governing bodies, have to fight every day.”
That too fits a national pattern in which golf’s governing bodies have fought to reverse slumping participation.
How effective has that fight been? Well, the results have been mixed, with most facilities reporting improvement over the leanest years but still well below the highest times.
“We’re still not back to the days of 10 years ago, but I’m pleased that the golf industry has been working so diligently to generate interest in the game,” says Erik Nielsen, head golf pro at Bend Golf and Country Club. “I’m still optimistic about golf: It is such a pure game that builds so many valuable skills and relationships.”
As the 2015 season tees off, Central Oregon golfers should be getting used to spotting signs that facilities have embraced grow-the-game initiatives.
FootGolf? Courses as diverse as Awbrey Glen Golf Club in Bend, The Greens at Redmond and even Pronghorn Club have made room for the golf-soccer hybrid.
GolfBoards? Aspen Lakes Golf Course in Sisters and Bend’s Tetherow are two of the pioneers that have already adopted a fleet of the golf cart-skateboard hybrids made by a Bend company. And more courses will most certainly follow.
Also, courses everywhere have beefed up more traditional efforts to attract golfers, such as beginning golf clinics aimed at junior golfers and ladies.
“I am still very optimistic about the future of our great game,” says Zach Lampert, the head golf pro at Meadow Lakes Golf Course in Prineville. “Golf courses are working hard to grow the game by coming up with fun initiatives to create new golfers, and I believe that we will continue to do this and reap the rewards of our efforts.”
Still, Lampert and others acknowledge that golf faces serious challenges with a changing culture.
“These things go in cycles, and right now golf is not as popular with the youth in our country as it was 10 years ago,” Lampert says.
Like Lampert, Bennett doubts that the industry will return to the high-flying days before the recession anytime soon.
For one, golf faces an impatient culture in which would-be golfers are often unwilling to spend the ample time it takes to become proficient at such a challenging game, Bennett says.
“We are becoming so acclimated with the get-it-now mentality that I’m genuinely afraid that new players will not be willing to put forth the time and effort it takes to even be an average player,” Bennett says. “Golf professionals and golf courses are trying to be inventive and creative, and I think those efforts have helped us maintain the level at which we currently sit. But in the long run are they sustainable? I guess only time will tell.”
Tetherow has been aggressive in its player-development strategies, and it seems to dream up ambitious ways to interest new golfers each year.
Awbrey Glen Golf Club in Bend has also been aggressive in player development.
Last season, the private club completely overhauled the way it interacted with its membership by simply focusing on making its members better golfers. Awbrey Glen’s professional staff immersed itself in clinics and coaching programs, hosted frequent equipment demo days, and offered tips on the first tee and rounds of golf with its pros. It also structured the clinics to be more social.
The idea is that better players will be more connected to the game — and to Awbrey Glen.
“Excitement is up and we are seeing growth at a faster pace,” says Tim Fraley, Awbrey Glen’s head golf professional and director of player development. “As PGA professionals, it is important that we get out there with the people to play, teach and cultivate fun. As seen from our last-year numbers on retail sales and member satisfaction surveys, our new player development approach is working.”
That alone is reason for optimism, and facilities will continue to try to make golf more enjoyable for those who choose to play the game.
In the end, golf is not going anywhere. But it could use more players.
Central Oregon does have lots of golf courses to fill, after all. And it still has a long way to go.
“Golf courses are still overbuilt in many areas, including Central Oregon,” says Bend Golf and Country Club’s Nielsen. “I’m anxious for the day when our efforts in generating golfers create the demand to make each golf course more profitable.”