We Are Golf’s Steve Mona: There’s reason for optimism in the golf industry

Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, gestures during a golf industry news conference at The Players Championship golf tournament Wednesday, May 6, 2015, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Looking on is Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

We Are Golf’s Steve Mona: There’s reason for optimism in the golf industry

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We Are Golf’s Steve Mona: There’s reason for optimism in the golf industry

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Golf has had plenty of problems over the past decade: reduced rounds played, course closures, decreased revenue for many course operators.

But there is good news these days, too, said Steve Mona, executive director of We Are Golf. One such bright point is that golf has a stable base of committed players who are in the game for life. He also said that interest in the game is at an all-time high and that more people than ever are being introduced to hitting golf balls at off-course facilities such as Topgolf and its newer competitor, Drive Shack. There is a lot of potential at work these days, Mona said.

Growing the game is an oft-used phrase for any number of industry initiatives in recent years, and Mona said the key to making it really happen is converting all the interested newcomers at any venue into actual green-grass players. Two of the larger initiatives are Get Golf Ready, in which new players can take group lessons at local clubs and experience the game on the course and which has seen more than 600,000 participants in 10 years, and The First Tee, which has helped introduce more than 15 million juniors to golf and other opportunities over the past 22 years.

Mona certainly has seen the ups and the downs of the golf industry. He has worked for ruling bodies such as the National Golf Foundation, the U.S. Golf Association and several state golf associations since 1980.

Founded in 2009, We Are Golf is a coalition of several of the game’s leading organizations, including the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, the National Golf Course Owners Association, the PGA Tour, the USGA, the U.S. Golf Manufacturers Council and the World Golf Foundation. A large part of We Are Golf’s efforts are aimed at National Golf Day (May 1) in Washington D.C. and to lobbying on behalf of the $84.1 billion golf industry, which We Are Golf says produces nearly 2 million jobs.

Following are excerpts from a conversation with Mona about how the game is doing overall and how the leading organizations are trying to protect and grow their industry.

How would you describe the state of the industry now?

The two words I often use to describe the state of the industry are stable and evolving. When I say stable, what I mean is that if you look at golf participation, there are about 24 million participants, plus or minus. … Of the 24 million, about 20 million of those are what we would call committed to the game. What that means is golf is part of their lifestyle and their finances.

Those 20 million do 95 percent of the spending on golf and play 95 percent of the rounds. Not to diminish the other 4 million who are part of the game, but really it’s those 20 million who are driving the game. And if you look at those numbers of committed golfers year over year, they have stayed quite steady. That gives us a solid base.

That leads to the second term I often use, which is ‘evolving.’ The best way to describe that is that golf used to be 8 a.m. on the first tee with metal spikes, with a collared shirt tucked in, with khaki slacks, playing with your regular foursome that you’ve played with for years and years. And now it could mean 8 p.m. at a Topgolf with cargo shorts on, with an uncollared shirt untucked, flip flops on, with a beer in your hand, as your experience in the game. Now, I’m not at all saying those are equivalent activities, but what I am saying is the people in the latter scenario are experiencing golf.

If you look at golf today in terms of experiencing the game, what you have is 24 million people participating on-course, but you have 21 million participating off-course. Off-course means Topgolf, Drive Shack and other kinds of golf entertainment venues. It also means driving ranges that are exclusively driving ranges, with no course connected with it. And it means simulators. … Of those 21 million, about 8 million experience golf exclusively off-course. That means people now are able to be introduced to the game in a much more accessible way than ever before. … So as a consequence, more people are getting to try the game, and that is creating more interest in participating.

What initiatives are in place to facilitate migration from off-course facilities to traditional courses?

We’re working directly with Topgolf on figuring out – and it’s not that easy, by the way – but figuring out how to do just that. How do you take somebody who is exposed to golf at a Topgolf facility and expresses interest, and have them participate in an on-course experience? That is not something that has been formalized yet. …

But I will tell you that a lot of Topgolf instructors are working with local professionals in respect to introducing students and participants at their Topgolf facilities to the Get Golf Ready program at green-grass facilities. So there are things that are happening in the field to do just what you asked about. …

And on the junior side, Topgolf is working very closely with The First Tee on that same issue, even to the extent that some First Tee chapters are doing some of their programming at Topgolf facilities.

The larger point here is there are some very specific efforts under way to convert. We don’t at all pretend to think that everybody who is exposed to the game at any of these off-course types of facilities will be interested in an on-course experience. But we do know that there will be a certain percentage, and the key obviously will be to facilitate that transition. We are involved in that work.

What all is involved specifically in that work?

The people working at the grass-roots level, working with the guests at these off-course facilities, have to be, No. 1, conversant and, No. 2, to a certain degree be persuasive with those individuals. “Hey, look, it looks like you’re really enjoying this. By the way, there’s a program called Get Golf Ready, and it happens to be offered at a course not too far from here. You might want to think about that, and here’s the information on that particular course.”

The trick here is, if you’re that employee at Topgolf, you’re not in the business of trying to move customers away from your own facility. It’s a bit of a balancing act, and we understand that.

You mentioned stable. We know that rounds were down last year – and some of that was because of weather – and that more courses closed than opened last year. I saw data that 120 courses closed in the U.S. versus 30 opening, so a net loss of 90.  With the number of committed golfers you mentioned remaining stable, is that just a loss in the number of non-committed golfers? Is that who we’re losing, people who have not made it part of their lifestyle?

I have not seen all the data, but directionally, you’re going to be close with the number of courses openings and closings, and that’s where we’ve been the last few years. And that probably will continue. And on the rounds played, that was down around 5 percent last year, and that was almost exclusively because it was a brutal weather year. There were eight states in the Eastern U.S. that had the wettest year on record since 1895. …

Let me get to the essence of the question: What accounts for the churn in golf, and why despite the fact that more people are interested in the game and more people are trying the game, why is the overall number of committed participants stable but not growing? And why are facilities closing, and why are rounds down?

The first thing to understand, every year about 500,000 people leave the game, and not because they want to. It’s either because they die, or they become physically incapable of playing. So we start out every year as an industry down 500,000 players, if you will. Just to get back to zero, you have to increase it net 500,000.

The second thing, there’s a continuum from interest to trial to commitment. We’re blessed because we have a sport with great interest. In 2017 – and I don’t have the data on 2018 yet, but it will be close – almost 15 million people were very interested in playing golf. And that was an all-time high. So in the history of surveying that kind of data, we’ve never been that high. So interest is very high.

That leads to trial, and in 2017, 2.6 million tried golf for the very time. That was a record high.

Here’s the thing: You have record interest, you have record trial, so why is there not an impact of that on the numbers of players or rounds played? Here’s what happens: It’s a long way from trial to commitment, and what happens obviously is a lot of people try the game and they don’t stick with it for a variety of reasons. Some are personal, and you can’t really legislate that, if you will. But most of that is people don’t get to the point where they feel like they should (get to) in the time they’ve been playing the game, based on the amount of time and effort they’ve invested in it. That’s really where the rub is.

How does the industry address the issue of retention? Is that where all the grow-the-game initiatives come in?

It’s not a silver-bullet answer, certainly. But here’s the thing we know: If you get introduced to the game through a formal program, your chances of staying in the game are much, much higher.

There are really two things involved here. One is, the whole way you come into the game. That’s why Get Golf Ready is so effective. The retention rate of Get Golf Ready programs – meaning the players went through five group lessons with on-course experiences – at year one, 80 percent are still playing the game. And after five years it reduces to north of 60 percent, which is still a significant improvement over people who don’t come into the game through a Get Golf Ready program. So our view is, let’s get these people new to the game or returning to the game into a formal program, and they will be much more likely to stay in the game.

The second thing has to do with the experience they have when they get into the game. And I will tell you, the operators and the professionals who work at golf facilities, they are very attuned to the experience. But the experience has to square with what’s being advertised, so to speak. When we talk about why you ought to take up golf – it’s fun, it’s accessible, it’s affordable, all those things – well, when they go try it, it has to square with that. … We’re competing with dollar share and mind share with all other forms of recreation, even all other forms of discretionary spending.

One thing we know a lot of golf operators are doing, they are putting on Get Golf Ready 2.0 programs, or even Get Golf Ready 3.0 programs, where players can come back out to the course and participate in a three-hole scramble or a six-hole scramble on a Friday evening, then have some wine after. Your premise is right, because after five lessons and as good as the curriculum is, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of people are going to be ready for the proverbial 10 a.m. tee time on a Saturday morning.

There has been criticism of the grow-the-game initiatives, that they haven’t done enough. How would you respond to that?

I’ve heard it, so it’s not new. I would say a few things. One, I would maintain that if we had not been as focused as we have been for the last 10 years on many of these initiatives … I am pretty confident in saying that the participation scene wouldn’t look even as good as it does now without those programs.

Two, I would say (many of these) are long-term plays because these are junior golf development programs. The payoff is not one year down the road or even two; it could be 10, 15 years. … Some of these could be kids who leave the game but then come back to the game as adults, so we’re building a long-term base.

And the third point goes back to what I said earlier, and that is we’ve been pretty successful in driving interest and trial in the game, and we all need to take responsibility for the retention issue. Retention can’t be dealt with at what I would call a national promotional level. … There’s the actual learning the game and improving, and there’s also the whole experience. And that’s not just on the national organizations to address. We all have to take responsibility on the retention side.

I would just say this: Across all the different spectrums of the golf industry – whether you’re talking about the professional tours, the major trade associations, equipment manufacturers, the multi-course ownership and management companies, the athlete-representation and event companies, media companies, the leading turf-management companies – there is greater cohesion and focus on the game than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in the golf industry for 39 years. …

There are a lot of reasons for that, and I would say that the leaders of the industry all see that we need to galvanize around a particular set of initiatives and efforts to help ensure the future vitality of the game. … Despite the fact that the numbers haven’t been great over the past decade or so, I do believe that what we’ve done has made a difference for the industry and will for years to come. Gwk

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