2000: Business - Conferences to chart golf’s future

With a greater sense of urgency than ever before, golf’s stakeholders – clubmakers, course owners, architects, maintenance equipment manufacturers, golf media and others – will gather Nov. 17-19 at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., to establish collective goals for growing participation in the game over the next 20 years.

Some 200 attendees at Golf 20/20: Vision for the Future – including a steering committee of industry leaders who met in June and September – are expected not only to help establish goals but to figure out how to achieve them. One idea for the participation goal may be to reach 60 million golfers by 2020, up from a 1999 total of 26.5 million. And one model player-development program to help achieve that goal also will be announced. But a principal strategy likely to result from the meeting will be to commission more research to identify the best ways to lure people into the game and the best opportunities for facilities development.

“Right now there are so many things that are unknown and untested,” said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, chairman of the World Golf Foundation, host of the conference. “We don’t have enough information and enough research.”

Conference chairman Ruffin Beckwith, senior vice president of the foundation, agreed: “We need more information. Why are people leaving the game?”

Almost as many people leave the game every year, nearly 3 million, as begin playing, according to the National Golf Foundation. Meanwhile, U.S. courses are being opened at a record clip of more than 500 a year. If current trends continue, a “demand gap” looms: more supply of courses than demand. In 1999, an NGF study, “A Strategic Perspective on the Future of Golf,” warned that participation growth rates must be increased.

One research project already undertaken in preparation for the conference studied retention at American Golf Corp.’s Nike Golf Learning Centers. Those centers, at about 40 of AGC’s 300 courses, offer beginners a $149 introductory package that includes six hours of lessons, plus instruction on course etiquette and familiarization with other elements of the game that most players take for granted: making tee times, driving golf carts, repairing ball marks. The package also includes five rounds of golf, and instructor compensation in the program is tied to the number of rounds beginners play. It’s expected to be a model for a “Link Up 2 Golf” program that the co-chief executive at American Golf, David Pillsbury, will outline at the Golf 20/20 conference.

Another research project likely to be central to the conference agenda is a market study of the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. One of that study’s goals is to develop a model for predicting demand for rounds using demographic data. Given an ability to predict demand, markets can be studied to determine whether opportunities exist for new courses – or new facilities of other kinds, such as short courses or practice ranges.

“Do we come out of the 20/20 conference and . . . take 25 markets in 2001 and do some research?” Beckwith asked. “If we have good information and there are entrepreneurs out there, maybe we can do a better job of locating courses and what cost structures are.”

In addition to participation goals, player-development programs and facilities development, the conference will consider:

• junior golf programs. “What’s necessary is more communication and exchange of ideas for people who want to start programs, or for others who want to know where they can find a camp or a clinic,” said Beckwith.

• college-level programs. “The steering committee felt strongly that colleges present a very fertile environment for development of players. Golf is an important tool in your career advancement,” he said.

Breakout meetings will seek input on these subjects, and a general session will reconvene to consider new ideas before the steering committee proposes a plan, including funding mechanisms for research, player development and other initiatives.

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