The profile of the typical municipal course golfer isn’t flattering: outfit from Goodwill, handicap (if he has one) well into double figures and frugal to a fault, especially when it comes to green fees.
To use a term made popular by former vice president Joe Biden, conventional wisdom is a “bunch of malarkey” — at least the part that paints the muni golfer willing to play any available goat track as long as it’s cheap.
“Loyal muni golfers will surprise you,” says Derek Johnston, a fellow partner at Global Golf Advisors Partners, who oversaw a research project our firm conducted for the city and county of Los Angeles. “Our research showed that municipal golfers can be not only extremely proud of the courses they play, but also extremely loyal.”
The common thinking among public course administrators and operators is that keeping prices low is the key to golfer satisfaction, loyalty and engagement. However, the GGA Partners study of several thousand L.A.-area municipal course golfers revealed that most are not as price-conscious as their reputation suggests. In fact, most say they would pay a higher green fee if certain important criteria are achieved.
The first of those criteria is course conditioning. Specifically, golfers referenced improved putting surfaces — more consistent roll and green speed — and teeing areas. Whether their home course was one of the premier muni courses within the city and county system or one of the more modest, these golfers cited golf course conditions as a top priority and worthy of a few more bucks.
But what do they consider “higher prices?” Seventy percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay a 5 percent to 15 percent higher green fee for improved course conditions.
“For most of these courses, a 10 percent increase on average in green fee revenue is significant, given the high volume of rounds played,” Johnston says. “Revenue growth of this proportion recommends serious consideration for investing the resources required to produce improved playing surfaces.”
The second surprising finding from GGA Partners’ research in Los Angeles was the importance golfers placed on pace of play in relation to the value they received for their green fee. Fifty-five percent of muni course golfers expressed a willingness to pay more per round for improved pace of play. “Teaming with USGA analysts, who conducted on-site golfer tests, we learned that pace of play and the sense of ‘getting one’s money’s worth’ were closely aligned,” Johnston says.
GGA Partners’ research of L.A.-area muni golf courses identified solutions that are available to administrators and operators of muni courses nationwide. While some of these findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom, they bring focus to several important demographic facts that should be considered when putting together a strategic plan and again during the budgeting process.
- Muni golfers are a mixed socioeconomic bag. Many muni course players are not “belongers” and have little interest in joining a private club. In many cases, they are part of an increasingly mobile workforce and are reluctant to establish roots within a club community because they don’t want financial obligations limiting or influencing their next career move.
- Muni golfers are not necessarily “cheap” and unwilling to pay for an enjoyable round of golf. In fact, many are like most golfers in that they will pay more for aspects of their round that they feel provide value and enjoyment.
- Capacity for more golf rounds exists at many muni courses, which gives avid golfers opportunities to play more rounds in less-congested conditions.
- The fastest growing segments of new golfers – women and kids – have easy access with very little friction, as in no joining fees or monthly dues, when playing at muni golf courses.
The potential for increased revenues when pace of play and course conditions are improved is a business model that deserves careful evaluation in most markets today. We certainly know that golf course superintendents at most municipal facilities could provide improved conditions given an increase in their agronomy and maintenance budgets. But what is the potential in your market for increased participation incremental green fees? The best way to know the answer to that question is to ask your golfers. Their answers might be a pleasant surprise.
Henry DeLozier is a partner at GGA Partners, trusted advisors and thought leaders. He is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors of Audubon International.