A variety of properties have initiated innovative, ongoing programs to successfully draw in new players from beyond golf’s traditional demographic profiles.
Every year, it seems, another magic elixir designed to cure golf’s participation ills receives the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from one or more of golf’s governing bodies. Whether they be structured programs like Get Golf Ready or the PGA Junior League, or conceptual strategies like Time for Nine, Tee It Forward or the “While We’re Young” ad campaign for speedier pace of play, club and resort properties eventually get out of these efforts what they put into it.
And in some cases, as at Ferncroft Country Club in the Boston area, ideas that have never seen the “inside of the box” are paying even more immediate and gratifying results.
Ferncroft, located in Middleton, Mass., and run by multi-course operator Affinity Management, has come up with three strategies for exposing juniors and adults alike to golf that won’t be found in any industry association’s playbook. Nevertheless, they are paying off for the participants, the club and, eventually, the golf industry itself.
Many private clubs offer a Junior Membership, but those are typically offered to juniors whose parents are already club members, but don’t play golf. Ferncroft’s special Junior Membership category is offered only to golfers under the age of 19 whose parents are not members of the club. The category is capped at 40 juniors, who pay only a $750 initiation fee and approximately $1,500 a year in dues, with no food minimum and full privileges at a 73 percent preferred rate. The program has been sold out for the past five years, with juniors who age out or drop out for some reason immediately replaced from a substantial waiting list.
While the Junior Members or their parents must have the financial wherewithal to pay even the reduced category fees, another Ferncroft initiative targets disadvantaged youngsters who could never even dream of an elite private club membership. Several years ago, the idea took flight with the assistance of the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins and their star goalie, Tuukka Rask, who helped the club put together a dinner and auction to raise funds for free Ferncroft memberships for disadvantaged youth. Other area businesses and Ferncroft members pitched in to provide support; a local livery service, for example, volunteered to transport any youngsters who needed rides to and from the club for their lessons and golf. The club currently has 11 such scholarship youngsters, as well as 15 more generated through the Girls Inc. program. The youngsters pay nothing, but have full club privileges.
For those potential club members who are truly beginners but want to take up golf, Ferncroft offers what it calls an Academy Membership, with a $1,250 initiation fee and just under $1,500 in annual dues. That rate, says Damon DeVito, Affinity’s Managing Director, is 96 percent below full member initiation and 75 percent less than full member dues.
Prospective Academy Members must fill out a questionnaire designed to identify people who are true beginners (and weed out those who may just be hoping to secure cheap admittance to the club). (See the questionnaire here.)
Academy members receive inexpensive pricing for lessons and merchandise, and are assigned a rating of 1 to 18, based on their previous exposure to golf and proficiency. Just as importantly, DeVito says, the Academy members receive peer support and encouragement both at the club and through their own Facebook page, where individual achievements such as first bogey or par, first time breaking a particular score barrier, etc., are posted for sharing with their beginner peers.
“The one-pro-for-many-students model is destined to fail,” DeVito believes. “There’s no real institutionalized way in golf to get beginners together to play. Our programs sustain themselves through camaraderie between [new players], our staff and members.”
“Brushing Up” on Coaching Techniques
Another innovative thinker, PGA professional Rob Bowser at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., has been instrumental in establishing what is called the Member Coaching program at the six championship layouts within the residential and resort community. Reynolds members who sign up for lessons are eligible to participate in a special weekly coaching session, where Bowser’s mantra revolves around teaching students to “brush the turf” correctly, regardless of which club they’re using. His weekly sessions focus on what he calls “bookends”—shots from 50 yards into the green and tee shots. During the club’s busy season in the spring, he has up to 70 members in the program.
“The program is great from a relationship standpoint [between the staff and the members],” Bowser said. “I’ve seen some of these members every week for years, and I don’t know how many other clubs there are where that happens.”
In the Sacramento area, El Macero (Calif.) Country Club and one of its instructors, LPGA Apprentice Gwen Hare, have come up with a unique way to ease the transition into golf for female newcomers to the game. Beginning female members can play with Hare on Wednesday evenings until they get comfortable enough to progress into a Get Golf Ready program and, hopefully, become fully involved in golf.
El Macero’s head pro, Bruce Summerhays, Jr. (of the Summerhays PGA Tour player family), provides individualized clinics for members for just $20 for an hour’s lesson. The club also offers five-hole outings for couples, 9 & Dine events (where the club’s F&B staff brings specially conceived cocktails out to the players), and other social/golf events that have proved to be very popular and have generated increased spending at the club, as well as more committed family involvement. And speaking of PGA Tour associations, the club provided an honorary membership to Sacramento State University’s Women’s Golf Coach, David Sutherland (the brother of Tour player Kevin), and David now gives free clinics to members.
At the Troon Golf-managed Brynwood Country Club in Armonk, N.Y., General Manager Josh Lowney reports that his club not only holds complimentary clinics for all members, including juniors, ladies and beginners, but offers a wide range of events combining golf, social and fitness elements. Twice a year at the beginning and middle of the season, the club features the Troon Privé Golf Academy, which combines all of those activities. Another popular event is the Troon Challenge, where members play against the pro in a speed-golf contest; each time this is staged, Lowney says, it draws around 30 members. The club is clearly effective in involving the whole family, including juniors—Lowney reports that the 250-member club has 180 sets of clubs for juniors in its bag room.
A League of Their Own
While many of these programs or events are somewhat unique to the clubs offering them, industry-wide initiatives such as the PGA Junior League are also becoming increasingly popular with clubs. Chris Knobloch, Director of Instruction for a four-club cluster of former Canongate clubs now owned by ClubCorp in the Peachtree City, Ga., area, reports that the group now has over 120 kids in PGA Junior League programs during the summer. The clubs each run their own similar programs in the fall for another 80 to 90 youngsters, and are considering adding a 16-and-under league.
ClubCorp’s Performance Center, a member-benefit in structional program that includes discounts on lessons and children’s summer camps, now includes over 340 enrollees within the four clubs, Knobloch reports. “ClubCorp’s motto is ‘Building Relationships and Enriching Lives,’” he notes, “and when I heard that, I thought, ‘That’s a golf lesson—that’s what it’s all about.’”
Many resorts that offer golf are taking new steps to take advantage of the summer high season with special offers. Wintergreen (Va.) Resort offered a variety of programs in July, including a free clinic, a “Try 3” experience featuring a 30-minute lesson and three holes of golf, and the “Mom, Dad & Me” one-hour lesson program for kids 15-and-under and (if they like) their parents, priced at $75 per child and $49 for parents who also participate in the lesson.
The resort also features an Advanced Junior School, as well as a golf academy for all skill levels, reports Head Professional Geoff Redgrave. Additional offerings include a Family Fun 9 on the Devils Knob course, one of resort’s two championship layouts.
All of these types of programs are being spawned by long-time golf professionals who have found it imperative to look at their sport, and how it now fits into today’s overall club and recreational scene, in a different light and from new angles. “The way people measure their [club] membership experience is, ‘Did I have fun?’” says Affinity’s DeVito. “Our job is not just golf, food and other amenities—it’s to enrich people’s lives. When it comes to golf, in most cases they won’t achieve golf competence without camaraderie and shared experiences, and we have to help them find those.”
Adds Reynolds Plantation’s Bowser: “There are traditionally two entries to golf, either through a caddie program or by being a member of a golfing family. Obviously, there are very few major caddie programs around today, so it’s even more important that we keep the players we have and keep families active in golf. When you lose someone in that 30-to-45 age bracket, it’s like you’re losing two golfers, not just one.”
The good news, as these managers and others have discovered, is that in today’s golf environment, virtually any new idea is worth a try—and many are yielding surprisingly pleasant results.