Those of you who’ve heard me speechify about the state of the industry may recall that I often describe the golf market as a big red toy balloon.
The red balloon got waaaaay overinflated in the 1990s to the point where we had 16,200 or so facilities in 2001. Frankly, it’s amazing our balloon didn’t just pop the way other boom industries have over the years. But, in 2001, the balloon was so tight and shiny that the banks and the giant real estate developers figured out that the jig was up. We’d built way too many “anchor” courses, resorts and upscale daily fees. New course openings quickly scaled down and the golf recession began.
So, the balloon slowly deflated. About 100 to 200 courses have closed annually since that high-water mark at the turn of the millennium. In all, we’ve shut down about 1,200 more courses than we’ve opened over the past 17 years and we’re now at about 14,950 courses. If you’re a math person, you’ll recognize that means we’ve reduced our supply over time by about 7.5 percent.
And, I have no reason to believe that trend won’t continue. The balloon will get slightly smaller every year for at least the next five – maybe 10 – years until we reach a sustainable supply that roughly matches rounds and available revenues. An educated guestimate might be that we’ll have 13,500 courses in 2025.
So, we’re seeing all sort of changes in the market as supply and demand both continue to evolve. Let’s examine a few …
First, we have become a business of “haves and have nots.” The “haves” are generally well-funded, command a strong customer/member base and have the resources to invest in the future. The “haves” are currently leading the robust remodeling and renovation boom because they recognize they need to offer a better, fresher product to attract and retain a gradually shrinking group of customers. And, frankly, they’re in that position because they’ve had decades of solid financial management and leadership that understands investment isn’t optional if you want to be around 50 or 100 years from now.
The “have nots” either don’t have the resources or don’t recognize that they, too, need to offer a better product. Instead, they are “waiting for the market to come back.” Newsflash: The old boom market never really existed and it ain’t coming back.
Second, within the “haves” are a thousand or so 800-pound gorilla clubs. These are historically high-level facilities who are not just investing and surviving, they are thriving. By all accounts, America’s elite private golf clubs have never been more profitable. They got smart about marketing, attracted the biggest weddings, the most important galas and the best corporate outings and events … and they are making serious bucks. Don’t believe me? Check out Guidestar.org, a site that tracks revenues, salaries and lots of financial stuff about non-profit organizations like private clubs and even national associations like GCSAA.
Third, within the “have nots” are facilities that are flatly doomed (wrong location, terrible management, too much debt, legal/zoning issues, etc.), those that are just sitting around hoping for a buyer, and those that are trying hard despite the limitations. I wrote something about this topic recently and I admittedly dissed small-budget courses and a few of y’all lit me up for doing so. Sorry! There are tremendously innovative small-budget courses out there with superintendents and managers who are working their asses off trying to defy the odds. Frankly, we can learn a lot from them because necessity is the mother of invention. (Look for us to do more coverage of small-budget solutions next year.)
Finally, and most importantly, we’re all being forced to get smarter. The golf recession taught us to look at other businesses (and MCO operations) and see what they do well. It pushed us to address sometimes awful customer service issues. It made us realize that marketing wasn’t a dirty word. And, to no small extent, it made facilities – particularly the “haves” – recognize they can’t win without a great golf course superintendent.
So, here we are clinging to a slightly saggy but shockingly resilient red balloon. Yes, it’s getting a little smaller every year and it’s sad to see courses close and people lose jobs. But, every time that happens the rest of the industry gets a little breathing room and can focus a little more time, attention and resources on securing a better future.