Management at golf courses and clubs are balancing the needs and wants of current members with the necessity of bringing new members, particularly Millennials, on board, by relaxing dress codes to a degree, allowing music played at a reasonable volume, and even encouraging a “rowdier” atmosphere during tournaments.
Golf may be steeped in tradition, but millennials are forcing a mini-revolution in the way the sport is viewed and played. To accommodate the 18- to 34-year-old generation, some course officials are relaxing dress codes, allowing music during rounds and being flexible in how many holes they play, the Fort Myers, Fla.-based News-Press reported.
Legendary golfer Greg Norman, who’s hosting this week’s Franklin Templeton Shootout at Naples’ Tiburon Golf Club, said change needs to happen. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan endorsed the ideas, saying, “We need to get over what golf is and was.” If not, Whan said golf courses will suffer severe consequences.
“It’s attributable to an aging baby boomer population and millennials watching too much MTV and having an attention span of about 30 seconds,” said Paul Chipok, who specializes in land-use local government work for law firm Gray Robinson, of the decline in golf. “(Millennials) are very tentative. They don’t want to make commitments. They’d rent rather than own, they prefer city dwelling as opposed to suburbs because they don’t want to own cars. This also lends itself to the golf game where you have to commit at least five hours. It’s different than going to the gym for an hour or playing a quick racquetball game.”
“It was not a sweeping comment for every golf club in the world,” Norman said. “My general example is skiing and snowboarding at snow resorts. At first, they wanted no snowboarding because they wore different clothes and tore down the mountain in different ways.
“What happened is the vision of the family where the mother and father ski and their son or daughter snowboard. The ski resorts were shooting themselves in the foot so they allowed snowboarding, got the families and developments coming back. We’re stuck in the same way we play the game of golf.”
For the past 15 years, the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is the rowdiest in pro golf. More than 20,000 fans and 155 skyboxes surround the 162-yard par 3. “It’s a party that happens to have a golf tournament,” Fort Myers pro golfer George McNeill said.
Made up mainly of college students, they’ll boo, chant and roar for players who come through. McNeill said players like Bubba Watson implore fans to get as loud as they can so “it drowns out everyone.” A skybox with 34 badges and 20 tickets goes for more than $47,000. He added players who don’t like it don’t play the event, which draws 120,000, the News-Press reported.
The Alico Family Golf center in Estero, Fla., added a lit, nine-hole course to its facility that includes a driving range and mini golf. Alico owner Kraig Feighery said he’s tried to cater to millennials with Friday Night Lights for $10, the News-Press reported.
“In the morning, we typically get players 45 and up, retirees and avid golfers looking to practice chipping and putting,” said Feighery, 36. “Close to the end of the day, the age drops to 45 and under. Millennials are like 70 percent. Families come out but we have a bunch of younger kids who drink beer and get a little loud. We also have music.”
Feighery said FGCU students in the school’s PGA Golf Management Program Come out and give free lessons. When baby boomers and millennials come at the same time, Feighery gets what he calls rub of the green. The traditionalists cringe seeing players in T-shirts and jeans but he said they need to loosen up. “I’m 36,” he said. “I definitely see a change. There’s a big paradigm shift.”
Some courses haven’t adjusted because they don’t have to. Mark Lye, membership director at Old Collier and an analyst for Sirius Radio, said his club has sold a number of memberships at $285,000 each and has heard courses like Bay Colony and Royal Poinciana also have done well, the News-Press reported.
“I see that as a weak excuse,” Lye said. “I don’t believe golf is dying. I’ve been in it since age 9 and I’m 63. I don’t think we need to change the (experience for) baby boomers to make the kids play it.”
Fort Myers Country Club saw a nearly $500,000 increase in revenue over the past year after completing a $5.8 million renovation. McNeill said he has played music on the course during practice rounds but will turn it off if he senses it’s not welcome. Rich Lamb, the director of golf for the Fort Myers Country Club, said he’s a huge music fan, but he limits it on the course because if people start playing different kinds of music in close proximity, he thought it would cause a mess. He’s also wary of a less strict dress code, sharing Lye’s concern of someone showing up with short shorts, the News-Press reported.
“For every 1 to 5 percent I’d pick up with new people, I’d lose five times that,” Lamb said. “I can imagine people saying, ‘What the hell crap are they playing? I won’t play. I’m out to be quiet. When I’m putting for a 4-footer, I don’t want that crap.’”
At Lehigh’s Copperhead Golf Club, club pro Kelly Little has relaxed things a bit, particularly in the summer when business was slow. “I’m not going to allow tank tops or flip flops when playing, but I will allow cargo shorts,” he said. “I won’t allow T-shirts but if they have like an Under Armour shirt, I’m OK with that. I do allow my playing public to bring Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with speakers as long as you can’t hear it on another tee box.” Little noted when he allowed a person with a tank top to hit a bucket of balls, “The members crawled all over me. ‘We’re not at the pool,’ they said.”
Little also will give players a rain check if they don’t play 18 holes and speeds up play by letting errant shots go as a lateral hazard where they lose the stroke but not the distance. Members have grudgingly played on, Little said, as he points out to them, “The more money I can make, the less I charge.”
When Norman speaks, people listen. The golf Hall of Famer has made more than $225 million as an entrepreneur, which includes golf-course design. One of his ideas is building a 12-hole golf course, the News-Press reported.
“I’m trying to unlock the code,” Norman said. “When you take pockets of a lot of golf courses, they’re asset rich and cash poor. Financially, many are in a desperate state. They want to know how they can get people back in the game. You can reduce time. You can play six holes in an hour-and-a-half, 12 holes in three hours.”
Norman said it’s about evolving, trying to figure out how to attract millennials and growing the base again. “If they want to play in cut-off jeans and a T-shirt at a public facility, let them go,” he said. “If they want to go on the course with a skateboard, let them go. If they want to put an iPod in their ears or play music, let them go. Why not take a look at it? That’s all I ask.”
Across the country, more than 20 Topgolf driving ranges have been put up, including a 65,000-sq. ft. facility in Tampa. TVs, music and concession areas are on all floors. The driving ranges have three tiers. In Tampa, the first tier has a lounge area with couches, billiards, shuffleboard and Xbox. The second tier has banquet rooms for social or corporate events along with a main bar. The third floor, the roof top, has fire pits, giant Jenga boards and cornhole. There are DJs on weekends. For those interested in competition, imagine giant dart boards on the ground where golfers can aim their shots, the News-Press reported.
“That thing is awesome, I love the concept,” said former Community of School of Naples golfer Ryan Celano, who’s at the University of Florida. “I got with friends who have never touched a club before. It gets people out. It’s fun to go with families. You’re not playing holes.”
Former Canterbury School star Michelle Shin, a Symetra Tour player, attended one in Atlanta. “There’s a bar and a lot of music,” she said. “It’s not just a range, there’s little games you can play through your computer. Anyone can play at any level. It’s definitely more fun than mini golf.”