Ask the Experts: The Connection Between the Golf Industry, the Economy & Consumer Spending

In this edition of our “Ask the Experts” series, we’ll examine the state of the golf industry as well as what recession-era trends reveal about the sport and consumer spending.  We’ll also check-in with some industry experts about how amateur duffers like you and me can save not only strokes, but also money around the greens.

While golf is undoubtedly a leisure-time activity for the vast majority of people who play it, that’s not to say it’s all fun and games.  Golf is actually big business, both on and off the course, with the industry now generating more than $70 billion in annual revenue thanks to increased global popularity.

Interestingly, golf industry economics can also give us valuable insights into the economy at large as well as consumer attitudes, trends in the business community, and useful savings opportunities – each of which we will discuss in further detail below.

Landscape Overview

As you might imagine given the game’s white collar, country club reputation, golf-related spending is highly correlated to the health of the economy, and the sport’s core support comes from affluent consumers.

The U.S. golf industry experienced negative growth from 2008 through early 2010, according to American Express Business Insights, headlined by an 18% decline in spending between Q2 2008 and Q2 2009.  Affluent consumers – people in the top 10% of all spenders – cut their golfing budgets by 13% during that two-year period, while non-affluent consumers cut back even more – spending 18% less.  As of 2011, 41% of golfers were classified as being affluent.

Businesses, both large and small, also bunkered down during the recession.  Small business golf spending fell 25% between 2007 and 2011, while large companies cut back 35%.  In Q2 2009 alone, small businesses spent 18% less on golf than the quarter before and big companies cut expenses in this category by 30%.

Outlook for the Future

These trends are slowly beginning to reverse themselves in accordance with the overall economic recovery.  Projections from the National Golf Foundation indicate that roughly three million more people will play golf in 2020 than in 2010, and the number of rounds played will rise 15% during that 10-year period – an increase of approximately 73 million rounds.

That doesn’t mean everyone who is stepping onto the course can afford it, though.  It just means that consumer optimism about the economy is growing.  After all, economic uncertainty spurred us to actually pay down over $1 billion in credit card debt during 2009, yet we’ve followed that up by adding $7.5 billion to our tab in 2010, $46.7 billion in 2011, and a projected $43.5 billion in 2012 (final numbers are not yet in), according to Card Hub’s debt studies.  In other words, we’ve seen folks basically revert back to pre-recession spending habits as faith in the conditions have improved, but we’re in an even worse position to afford them without the buoy previously provided by the housing bubble.

In light of that, our ultimate goals should be to pay off what we owe and consistently live within our means.  Doing so obviously necessitates cutting back across the board, but especially in major spending categories.  We’ve already examined how you can save on pet care, so let’s see what the experts have to say about cutting back around the greens.

Expert Insights

You can click on each of the following experts’ names to see what types of spending tips they have to share or simply skip right to our Takeaways section for a brief synopsis of our findings.

Meet our experts

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Cole Mize

Director of the University of Idaho’s PGA Golf Management Program

What are the primary factors that drive the cost of golf?

The cost of golf is very dependent on the community you live in and the type of experience you would like to have. Many areas have daily fee and municipal courses that provide a quality golfing experience for an affordable rate (median green fee with cart is around $35 – $40), however golfers can spend several hundred dollars for a round of golf at a high end public or resort facility. A golf course determines the cost of the green fee in terms of their niche in the market, financial goals, and supply and demand.

Do greens fees and such ever fluctuate? If so, based on what?

Green fees, cart fees, membership dues and fees can fluctuate from year to year depending on new strategies in place at the facility. It is not uncommon to see price changes from time to time, and price increases usually coincide with changes/improvements at the facility. Many daily fee facilities will have different prices for different days and times of day. For consumers looking for a value they should ask their local course about twilight or any special rates they have.

What do you recommend for golfers looking to save money?

Many daily fee facilities will have different prices for different days and times of day. For consumers looking to save money they should ask their local course about twilight or any special rates they have. Many facilities will offer a membership or punch card that will reduce the dollar amount paid per round significantly. Another money saving idea could be to sign up to receive emails from a facility. Many of these emails will let you know of important and fun events happening at their facility, and special deals on golf and merchandise.

Is there value to be had in the golf industry?

There is absolutely value to be had in the golf industry. Most golfers have many golfing options and should find the facility that fits their game and other requirements. I also recommend playing in a local league or tournaments, it’s a good way to shake things up a bit and add a little more competition and fun to golf.

Golf can be a great family outing as well. Many golf courses have times that they are less busy so you and the family will feel less rushed and can enjoy outdoor family fun in a beautiful setting.

What do you teach future golf professionals about pricing? Will hardcore golfers pay up regardless of the price?

PGA Golf Management students at the University of Idaho are Business Majors and complete a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing along with the PGA PGM program. Pricing strategy and tactics is discussed throughout their time at the University and something they are well versed in upon graduation. I believe a golfer will pay up to the amount they perceive is a fair price. We all place a value on the goods and services we purchase and golf is no exception. If the price exceeds the value we are much less likely to make the purchase.
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Charles “Mac” Powell

Professor of psychology at the National University Golf Academy

What are the primary factors that drive the cost of golf?

Generally, these are based primarily upon demand (and we’ve seen courses discount rounds through websites and specials in order to adjust to the nation-wide reduction in rounds played). The past two years have been two of the worst in terms of total number of rounds.

What do you recommend for golfers looking to save money?

The best way for golfers to save money on rounds is to take advantage of these online reservation systems that work with courses to discount their fees.

Is there value to be had in the golf industry?

The best value in golf courses continues to be at the municipal courses. These courses tend to rely upon favorable zoning, permitting, and water costs. And, they tend not to have loans or capitalization issues that have challenged many private courses (which tend to be leveraged with debt tied to housing developments that have typically stalled).

What do you teach future golf professionals about pricing? Will hardcore golfers pay up regardless of the price?

What I would tell future professionals about pricing is that you create value through the experience you provide (and the best way to ensure price stability is to provide excellent customer service, excellent food & beverages, and personal touches like member or frequent customer events to make people feel as though they are invested in the course). Golfers typically played the same number of rounds per year and may have adjusted slightly what they would pay in the past, but over the past two years, rounds are declining as we see customers looking for value. We want to show appreciation for our customers, and great appreciation for our loyal customers. Knowing customers by name, knowing what they like, and being prepared to address their needs before they ask doesn’t cost money (but it takes time and attention).
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Robert Phelps

Director of the PGA Golf Management Program at the University of Central Oklahoma

Where are things heading in the golf industry? Is golf becoming more or less expensive?

I don’t think it’s becoming more expensive, other than possibly just the inflation rate – everything goes up. But, to me, it seems fairly stable really. The high end drivers and stuff like that, they’ve stayed about the same for a while. Putters have gone up [in price]. The cost to play golf, at least in this part of the country, has gone up but not drastically.

How can people save money on golf?

In my personal opinion, whether it’s golf or cars or anything, you can usually save money by buying used and it’s going to be just as good. Without a doubt, you can buy equipment cheaper that’s used that’s just as good. So, if somebody is getting ready to take up the game, I would definitely recommend used clubs. If you’re an experienced player, sometimes you want that newest technology, but you can buy cheaper used. It’s harder to find that used equipment in golf shops. It seems like all the used stuff is bought online nowadays.

Are there any particular manufacturers known for affordable equipment?

That’s one area I’m a little bit out of touch with because I don’t really deal with those reps anymore. As far as the Titleists, the Pings, the TaylorMades, and the Callaways – they’re all about the same really. When I was at a course, it seemed like Adams Golf was pro-line equipment that was a little bit less expensive.

Is it a mistake for amateurs to buy what they see pros using on TV? Top-of-the-line golf balls, which might have more spin, for example?

Well, balls nowadays are all made very similar – they all go long. So, it really depends on what you want. If you want performance around the greens, then you definitely want the [Titleist] Pro-V balls. But if you’re a 100-shooter, then having that performance around the green is not going to help you. So therefore save the money and buy the cheaper ball, for sure.

Can you tell me a bit about the Golf Management Program at Central Oklahoma?

It’s a bachelor degree program in PGA Golf Management. We’re one of only 20 universities in the country accredited by the PGA of America, so [students] all earn a bachelor’s in business administration degree and fulfill all the requirements to become a PGA professional. So, we’re basically training them to be club professionals.

We have our own tournament program. They all have to pass the PGA’s playing ability test, so you have to be an accomplished player. If they haven’t passed the PAT, we do have golf practice a couple days of week. So, we spend a lot of time working on their playing ability and then also teaching the business side. And then they also do internships each summer to get their on-the-job experience.
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David Hueber

CEO of Mind’s Eye Golf Company; formerly vice president of marketing for the PGA Tour, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, and president and CEO of the Ben Hogan Company

What fueled the growth of golf in the U.S. during the ‘80s and ‘90s?

We knew that the golf courses being built were adversely affected by the downturn in the economy, and it kept getting worse and worse. Everybody had the notion that golf had very little headroom for growth, that it was a dying industry. So, we did this research. … We saw that there was a correlation between the percentage of people who played golf and the number of golf courses per capita.

As it turned out – and this was surprising to me – golf is essentially a Northern game that has kind of trickled down to the South – more so in those areas that have a lot of tourism. Generally speaking, along the U.S.-Canadian border, we have participation rates that are pretty high – 15 to 20% in some cases. And then you get down to places like Mississippi, Louisiana, and it’s less than 3%. The highest [rate of participation] is in the Northeast, and you have pockets of strength in Northern California, the Northwest – that sort of thing.

But the backdrop for all of this is that we’ve kind of thought that where there were golf courses, we had a higher participation rate. In the 1990’s we did build a course a day. A little over 40% of those golf courses were tied to real estate development, part of a planned community. It made sense.

How did the growing real estate market in the 1990s impact the golf industry?

The conventional wisdom among the developers was that if you build a golf course that’s famous for its difficulty and has a big-name architect, then you can in turn sell real estate at a premium price. … They built these golf courses that cost too much to play, cost too much to maintain and were longer and more difficult, so they ended up not being much fun for the average golfer to play. … Existing courses lengthened their courses and made them more difficult as did golf courses that didn’t have a real estate tie because they felt they were competing with these new real estate development golf courses. So it kind of snowballed.

In the mid-1990’s and later on, it became clear that golf courses as they were built weren’t profitable enterprises. That became very clear after the year 2000. … Around 2006, we saw the real estate market development turn for these golf courses, and it turned pretty sharply.

Why is the trend toward longer, harder golf courses so problematic?

It’s OK to have these great golf courses – the Augusta Nationals and that sort of thing. But to have that be our standard of excellence? It happens to be something that people don’t want to play. I mean, you’d love to go play the TPC once or twice, but a steady diet of it is not something that people want because it’s too expensive, the golf course is too hard.

The golf courses that were built in the ‘60s and the ‘20s were less costly, less difficult, and took less time to play. So, we created a monster in the 1990s that was pretty much at cross purposes with what we needed to have. And the reason was, principally, that the golf courses that were built in the 1990s were intended to serve real estate. This certainly has played some role in the decline in golf participation and the number of rounds played.

These golf courses are kind of sized for the pros. They don’t pay to play. The people who pay to play are still hitting the ball about as far as they’ve ever hit it. They can’t optimize the launch angle and spin rate and everything else. They’re just hoping to hit the ball solidly on the clubface, and when they do they’re hitting it a couple hundred yards if it’s a good poke. The Tee It Forward program with the USGA and PGA is a wonderful idea because we have to get away from this notion that you have to play the hybrid tees, or the back tees, and everything else. The fact is it’s not very fun to do that.

What can we do to foster cheaper, more playable courses moving forward?

What can we do about it? Well, we can try to foster the development of sustainable golf courses. Sustainable golf courses use less water, fertilizers, chemicals; they’re maintained differently; they’re a little bit more friendly – you don’t have the roughs cut so high, you don’t throw so much water out there. [When] you don’t throw so much water out there, you don’t have to cut them quite as often, you don’t use as much fertilizer and chemicals – actually you have a heartier plant, generally speaking. You can get your ball out of the rough. Right now, it has almost forced golf into becoming a power game. Aside from the advances in technology that have encouraged that, the fact of the matter is it’s a slugfest out there on the PGA Tour.

The footprint of these golf courses, they’re much bigger. They demand a lot of resources. The bottom line is that golf is not very green politically. That’s a problem because society is changing. I think as of this year more than 51% of the world’s population is going to be living in water-stressed areas. Here we are with gated communities, throwing water out there; it doesn’t make a lot of sense. We still have that elitist image, although the game has largely been democratized. In the 1920s, about 80% of the golf courses were private clubs. Today, 28% are private clubs. Eighty percent of the rounds played are played at public courses. It’s a game of the middle class. There’s been an evolution and change in the game, but that image is one that isn’t helpful in terms of what the reality is. The fact of the matter is that most golf courses are very responsible with what they do because it costs money to water and fertilize and that sort of thing.

So, would it be fair to say that your overall conclusion is that golf will become more amateur-friendly moving forward?

I think out of necessity it will be – if it’s going to grow. Prices are going down. I don’t think it’s anything that we can affect; we just have to be able to be agile in our adjustment to it and let golf as a whole get a soft landing as opposed to a crash landing.

[Note: For more, you can check out the dissertation Hueber wrote while getting his doctorate from Clemson University's College of Architecture, Arts & Humanities in 2012: The Changing Face of the Game And Golf's Built Environment
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TJ Tomasi

Senior Professor and Director of Research at Keiser University – College of Golf, Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher in America, and Program Director of GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers in America

What impact did the recession have on the market for golf instruction?

Lessons are discretionary spending so at the middle income levels there was a drop in lessons – however high profile teachers such as Golf Magazines Top 100 were as busy as ever – their average price per hour is $200 whereas the average rate is between $80-120 depending on location.

Are we beginning to see changes with the economic recovery?

There are about 26,000,000 golfers and historically only about10-15% are regular lesson takers which is one reason why the average handicap hasn’t changed that much in 20 years. Golf is counter-intuitive (i.e. it has to be taught to be learned correctly) because left on its own, the brains solution to hitting a ball that’s on the ground while standing to its side is seldom correct – enter the teacher. The vast majority [95%+] of PGA Tour players had instruction before the age of 12 – this is not true for the general public.

What are the best ways for people to cost-effectively pursue instruction?

It depends of course on the financial profile—if you can afford it, hire the top brain surgeon, the best corporate lawyer, the best cosmologist [$400 haircut] and the best golf instructor. If not you can receive some good instruction at very low prices using the PGA of Americas ‘Get Golf Ready’ program.

Are you seeing any discernible trends in the overall cost of golf (i.e. is it becoming more or less affordable)? If so, what’s the cause?

To protect the game a concerted effort is necessary and that involves the rules makers [USGA and R&A] as well as the architects and the facility owners. The golf courses are too hard, maintenance costs too high, the rules too complicated [now they want to outlaw anchoring which takes away a tool for putting—it takes longer to 3 putt] and it takes far too long to play. The PGA can’t do this on their own– the other groups are tone deaf and must come to their senses if golf is too proper.

Are there any trends in terms of the affordability of golf that you think are worth mentioning?

The PGA’s major focus is growing the game using a strategy made simple and clear by subtraction – instead of adding complicated and difficult golf courses, new rules and higher prices, cleaver marketing and high pressure sales – simply focus on making golf fun and accessible.

This program is in super-growth phase fueled by the new president of the PGA Ted Bishop and a new CEO Peter Bevacqua. I sit on the PGA’s Teaching and Coaching national committee and our number one priority is to grow the game of golf – a charge that comes directly from the top.

Takeaways

  • There are a number of ways in which golfers can save money on expenses ranging from greens fees to instruction:
    • Greens Fees:
      • Play municipal courses:  Local public courses tend to be the least expensive.
      • Tee off later in the day:  Twilight rates are significantly marked down from what you’d pay earlier in the day given that you’re racing against impending darkness.
      • Use websites that offer discount greens fees:  Courses use sites like GolfNow.com to unload unclaimed tee times, which you can often purchase at significant discounts.
    • Equipment:
      • Buy used:  Manufacturers release new generations of their products each year, and equipment is much more affordable when purchased a year or two after it’s introduced.
      • Cater to your skill level:  You don’t necessarily need all the absolute top-of-the line equipment if you’re a high handicapper.  In fact, buying above your skill level can actually end up hurting your game because that equipment is designed for a different type of player.
    • Instruction:
      • Take a group lesson:  One-on-one instruction is inherently more costly than group lessons, and if you’re a beginning golfer you’ll be able to get what you need from the latter.
      • Opt for an assistant pro:  The head golf pro at any given course will charge more for lessons than his or her assistants.  An assistant pro will be plenty knowledgeable and may even have more incentive to work hard and help you improve in order to make a name for him or herself.
  • The popularity of golf is highly correlated to the state of the economy and consumer affluence.
  • The numbers of people who play golf and the rounds they play are expected to rise through 2020.
  • The appeal of golf courses as a real estate amenity caused the number of courses in the U.S. to skyrocket in the 80’s and 90’s.
  • The lengthening and increased difficulty of the golf courses that host professional tournaments – caused by advances in equipment technology – had a trickle-down effect on courses meant for amateurs.  This in turn increased maintenance costs and turned many players off from the game.
  • Moving forward, golf courses will emphasize sustainable maintenance and designs intended for amateur play.
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