Searching for a silver lining to a pandemic is mostly a fool’s errand. But many golf courses fortunate enough to stay open during the last five months have found something for which to be thankful: Thousands of golfers and would-be golfers are discovering (and rediscovering) a love for the game.
In many places, their affection is being stoked by short-game practice areas that are introducing new players to golf and giving more experienced players a place to hone their games, all the while boosting incremental revenues.
Bradley Klein, a veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist and Golf Course Industry columnist, observes that the role of short-game practice areas is evolving. “Time constraints were the initial impetus, but that’s changed of late.” He says the trend is toward “more fun, family-friendly” areas that also provide practice opportunities for serious golfers. “They also constitute efficient use of land.”
What’s more, in this era of social distancing, short game areas are a safe space for youngsters to learn the game while socializing and exercising, according to Jan Bel Jan, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. She believes the trend will continue to gain momentum. “Short game improvement areas provide benefits to seasoned golfers, promote a welcoming introduction to golf for adult beginners and help courses remain competitive with other area facilities,” she says.
Pinehurst Resort injected new credibility for areas dedicated to the short game and demonstrated its revenue potential when it opened The Cradle — nine holes, all par threes, measuring 789 yards and covering 10 acres — in September 2017. In the last three years, The Cradle has hosted more than 100,000 rounds while becoming one of Pinehurst’s most popular courses.
If you’re thinking about adding or enhancing a practice area at your course, here are some things to keep in mind.
Know your customer. New practice, training and game-improvement facilities require planning, which starts with understanding the type of player you want to attract. What skill levels will you prioritize? What will be the hours of operation? How will you price access? Member surveys and information exchange sessions with golfers will help you better understand your target audience’s needs and expectations.
Don’t get sloppy. “Serious design, with interesting greens contours and variety of tee shots” are keys to effective planning, Klein says. “It has to be run like a real golf course and not like a sloppy afterthought.”
Make it fun. Jim Wyffels, director of operations at Spirit Hollow Golf Club in Burlington, Iowa, is an innovative thinker when it comes to making golf fun. Spirit Hollow’s Shankopotamus Golf Academy, which features TopTracer technologies, was designed with two goals in mind, Wyffels says. “The first was to create an additional amenity for our stay-and-play guests in the evening and during inclement weather. The second was to create a new revenue stream in the evening and during winter months that would target our local market. Our plan was to create a fun, game-like family atmosphere where all age groups and skill levels, including non-golfers, could be entertained.”
Keep your superintendent in the loop. How will the golf course superintendent maintain the short-game area? Engage the superintendent to ensure design characteristics that can be efficiently and cost-effectively maintained. Concerns such as adequate turning radii, slopes that can be consistently cut and safely navigated by staff, and shapes that match existing terrain on the adjacent golf course are planning priorities. Bel Jan advises planners to be mindful of optimizing drainage, building putting surfaces to established standards and minimizing shade impacts to enable turf recovery.
COVID-19 really has no upside; it has wreaked havoc in unprecedented ways. But if a crisis of its proportions has encouraged more people to take to the course, and prompted golf managers and leaders to think more innovatively about amenities like short courses and practice areas, then it has left something of value in its wake.