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Retooling Its Swing, Golf Looks for Fun

1 Jun, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Pitching the Traditional Version of the Sport to a New Generation Means Emphasizing Enjoyment, Relaxation

There’s a movement out there to put the fun back in golf, and those behind that movement say it can help build up travel to golf events like never before.

Although foot golf and disc golf have both been promoted as the hacks intended to bring people back into the sport, the tourism world is taking a different path, promoting the traditional version.

The new Four Seasons being planned as part of the new Costa Palmas development in Los Cabos, Mexico is one example; officials are promoting its 18-hole Robert Trent Jones II course as part of a new generation of the sport, according to an article in Travel Weekly.

Chris Fair, the president of Resonance Consultancy, which is working with Four Seasons and developer Irongate Capital to envision, position and brand Costa Palmas as a destination, says the planned course follows a trend of “kinder, gentler golf,” which is part of the resort industry’s response to the continued decline in U.S. golfer numbers.

“The difference between today’s courses and those in resorts built before the downturn is that they’re more playable and enjoyable now than they were a decade ago,” Fair said. “People play less often at home, and they don’t have an appetite to play difficult, ‘Tiger-proof’ courses on vacation,” a reference to Tiger Woods, a 14-time major tournament winner.

The latest numbers from the National Golf Foundation show participation levels have dropped from 30 million in 2003 to 24 million in 2015. There were various theories as to why this was so, but in many cases, they came down what was seen as a lack of relevance on the part of the sport. Some theorized it was because the sport put too much of an emphasis on the professional game, and because the sport seemed elitist, and of not being welcoming to beginners and those whose shots, well, weren’t great.

So what is an industry to do? Make the sport more accessible. Equipment manufacturer Golfsmith is playing right along with a series of ads designed to celebrate bad shots – not just the picture-perfect versions rarely made by weekend duffers. In one shot, a player named Steve berates himself after a bad shot. The voiceover says, "Go easy on Steve, Steve. That was the club's fault." Golfsmith then encourages golfers to pick up new clubs or gear because "every shot is an opportunity for your next one."

But despite its drop, several surveys show golf remains a top interest among travelers of all ages.

The Travel Weekly article noted,

A recent Resonance survey of wealthy travelers, or the “Top One Percent,” showed that 67% ranked golf as the top preferred activity. It beat out tennis at 56%, cycling at 64%, jogging at 61% and skiing and snowboarding at 60%. Even U.S. millennial travelers prefer golf over extreme sports, 49% to 47%.

A recent report from Spafinder Wellness 365 also found younger travelers remain interested in golf. In a survey that asked 200 North American and European travel agents to rate, on a scale of one to 10, the importance of 16 different wellness components and programs to their clients, respondents gave traditional activities like golf and tennis a 7.3 for Gen Xers and millennials. That compared to the 7.2 ranking they gave that category for boomers and older travelers.

While few new courses are being built in the U.S., Fair said the development of new, more relaxed resort courses is evidence of golf’s continued popularity with American travelers. Among them, he said, are Dreams Los Cabos Suites Golf Resort & Spa and Secrets Puerto Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort, both of which opened in late 2015. Fair also pointed to a new course being developed in Belize by legendary golfer Greg Norman, as well as the Irie Fields Golf Course being developed in St. Kitts by former Masters champion Ian Woosnam.

While there will always be enthusiasts who seek out the most challenging courses, the travel and hospitality industry is recognizing the need for more user-friendly facilities, particularly if the sport is to be encouraged to grow. Many conventions and meetings include golf tournaments, and local tournaments will also continue to draw in casual players. User-friendly courses can be key to attracting players to destinations – without making them feel intimidated about their game.

 “As the pendulum now swings, developers and designers must bring people back to the sport by creating friendly, fun courses that can be enjoyed on vacation,” Fair said. “After all, fun and friendly is what the game was always about in the beginning.”

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