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Illinois Section Examines the State of the Game

July 25th, 2017

Author: Ed Sherman, IPGA Columnist
Patrick Lynch is well aware golf has some issues attracting young players in their 20s and 30s. The head professional and his associates at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton came up with a marketing approach to entice them out to the course.

Cantigny has a Young Executive program. It enables players 39-and-under to play for reduced rates on Monday through Thursday and Saturday and Sunday in the afternoon, along with other features.

The cost to become a member: Nothing.

“All we ask them to do is show us a driver’s license verifying their age when they sign up,” Lynch said.

Lynch has been heartened by more than 500 young executives registering for the program.

“We’re starting to see a lot more of the younger people out here,” Lynch said. “With the millennials, you run the risk of losing them altogether. If they come out of college, and golf is too expensive for their budgets, and they have other things to do, they might not play for 10-15 years. If that happens, the chances of them picking up the game again are remote. You have to do something to get them in here.”

Lynch and Cantigny are among the golf professionals and facilities that are being proactive in trying to keep the tee sheets full during changing and challenging times for the game. It is essential where one of the challenges involves dealing with the Chicago weather.

If only May was as good as February, is a common refrain from area professionals in 2017. The good news: February and even parts of March were unseasonably balmy, allowing courses like Pine Meadows in Mundelein to do more than 600 rounds. The bad news: May conditions were mostly terrible, especially on weekends when cold and rain left courses mostly empty.

“It’s fortunate for us that we got some rounds in February, because May was a bloodbath,” said Pine Meadow Golf Club’s Dennis Johnsen. “When you lose weekends in May, it’s tough to overcome.”

However, with summer firmly settling in, Johnsen said, “If it’s nice, we have players.”

Yet it isn’t business as usual for golf courses and professionals. In fact, it hasn’t been that way for a long time. The days of simply opening the doors and opening the cash registers are long gone.

Johnsen and others contend golf is going through an extended period of “market re-adjustment” following the course building boom in the 90s. In many cases, supply isn’t meeting demand. Furthermore, the habits of consumers have changed, with more entertainment options for prospective players who don’t necessarily have 4-5 hours to spend on playing 18 holes.

Ed Stevenson, the director of golf operations for DuPage Golf, says the evolving economic climate has forced course operators “to think about how to re-invent your product.”

Johnsen and Pine Meadows have reacted by building one of the most robust junior programs in the area. He is straight-forward with his assessment.

“If you’re innovative and trying new things with your business model, you’ll be fine,” Johnsen said. “If you’re doing the same old, same old, you’re in trouble.”

Carrie Williams, the executive director of the Illinois PGA, actively is following what courses are doing. She advocates for thinking beyond golf with a marketing approach.

“Something I’ve noticed are the pairing—no pun intended—of craft beer and wine tasting events following a round of golf,” Williams said. “Try to make an effort to get people to come out for more than just playing golf.”

Mark Krizic, the head professional at Ridge Country Club in Chicago, won the 2016 Player Development Award, by generating 150 new members in the last two years. Krizic said the club offered existing members incentives to help bring in new members. It also expanded women and junior programs.

“Women’s and junior golf were non-existent here,” Krizic said. “We’re very family oriented. If we don’t have women’s programs, if we don’t have junior programs, we’re not going to get that family.”

Of course, there still is the attraction of the golf course. Or in DuPage Golf’s case, a new and improved course.
Stevenson has overseen the $17 million renovation of Oak Meadows in Addison. It now will be called The Preserve at Oak Meadows when it debuts in a few weeks.

A large part of the project focused on storm water management in Salt Creek, and enhanced habitat for fish and other aquatic species. Stevenson, though, is counting on golfers coming out to check out the new track. He believes keeping courses fresh and updated, along with being in good condition, is essential these days.

“The public is willing to engage and reward courses if you’re willing to make improvements and invest in your property,” Stevenson said. “Any time, you’re doing a major project, they’re going to be interested. The trick is to be able to provide them with an experience where they want to come back again and again.”

Indeed, Williams says it is incumbent on courses to leave customers with memorable experiences that will turn new players into regular golfers and casual players into avid golfers. That is why she lauds programs like Cantigny’s Young Executives.

“Once they come out of college, those individuals tend to go by the wayside when it comes to golf,” Williams said. “You have to find ways to keep individuals of that age engaged. You need to get them playing more for the future of the game.”

Stevenson remains bullish on golf in the entertainment marketplace. “When you look at the price of Cubs tickets, golf is a good value,” he said.

The bottom line for golf in 2017: Business is there if you’re willing to make the extra effort.

“You have to go the extra mile to keep people involved,” said Cantigny’s Lynch. “You have to make golfers think that this is their course.”