2016 is going to be a big year for golf. The sport will take the Olympic stage once again after more than a century. The United States Golf Association (USGA), the sport’s national governing body, reports a membership of more than 650,000. What’s more, “Golf Around the World 2015,” a recent study sponsored by the R&A, Great Britain’s governing body, reveals that North America is home to 53 percent of the world’s golf courses. The U.S. alone is home to 15,372 golf courses.
All of this raises the question: with that many golf courses to choose from, how do event owners find the perfect fit? Those in the industry say it’s a matter of balancing several important factors.
Golf’s Next Generation
Many events host a younger demographic of golfers. For example, the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), a nonprofit organization, helps develop young golfers who aspire to earn college golf scholarships.
“Last year, we had a record-high membership and have for the last several years,” says Jason Ross, vice president of business development, AJGA. “We’ve definitely seen the impact of the industry’s many ‘grow the game’ initiatives.”
The USGA leads a number of those initiatives, including Play 9, designed to promote a shorter game that allows players to fit golf into their busy lifestyle.
“Play 9 is among the USGA’s top initiatives to encourage participation in the game,” said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA. “It has been our goal to affirm the merits of playing golf when time does not permit an 18-hole round, and we are seeing results. Awareness of the initiative grew nearly 18% from the first year of the program, while the number of nine-hole rounds posted to our GHIN system has seen a steady uptick.”
The Player Experience
Ross also says that while various tournaments have certain basic requirements, such as course length (the average length of course in the 2014 PGA tour was 7,001 yards), one of the most important criteria for selecting venues is player experience.
“First you have to think: what is the experience going to be like for the competitor and the parents?” he explains. “Different venues have different story lines. Signature holes or a history of hosting PGA events, these things all tie back in to that story.”
For players, the story matters, he says. Walking in the steps of the heroes can be a big motivator for players, young and experienced. Other factors like a high-quality course, a strong food and beverage service and access to practice areas and clubhouses are all critical to putting together a successful event.
The Landscape of Golf
When looking for the right golf venue, landscape often plays a key role, providing a unique experience for the players and spectators alike. Longboat Key Club in Sarasota, Florida, is one example.
“The difference there is that the course is right on the Gulf,” says Robert Wells, director of sports, Visit Sarasota County. “That coastal golf experience in Florida is something a lot of people seek.”
Links on Longboat is a 6,792-yard, 18-hole course that features water-related hazards in each of its 18 holes. The Harbourside Course presents three nine-hole courses along the Gulf, all designed by Willard Byrd, architect of many of the Southeast’s most prestigious courses.
With 251 days of sunshine and comfortable temps year-round, Sarasota attracts golfers and golf event owners readily, and the destination has numerous courses with extensive event hosting experience as a result. The Palm Aire Country Club, with its two 18-hole courses, welcomed the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) ISPS Handa Cup in 2015.
The Big Names Matter
When 1971 Master’s champion Charles Coody created Diamondback Golf Club in Abilene, Texas, he explained that his goal was to create a championship course that could provide exciting and challenging play to golfers at every level. To that end, the course offers a par 71 course that plays 7,000 yards from championship tees; 6,525 from regular tees; 6,025 yards from legends tees; and 5,025 from forward tees.
“People often want to play Diamondback just because it’s Charles Coody’s course,” says Debi Schultz, director of sales, Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Abilene is also home to the private Abilene Country Club. “If you’re looking for country club atmosphere and facilities, this is a beautiful club,” says Shultz. “Having two courses means they can be more accommodating than many other private clubs. We’re very grateful for their partnership. It’s good for us and for the community. ”
The second-longest-running event in AJGA history—the Bob Estes Abilene Junior Tournament—takes place there. In 2015, the event brought 96 boys and 36 girls ages 12 to 18 to Abilene and a total of 350 national and international guests, along with an economic impact of $231,000 for the three-day event.
In Livermore, California, World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman designed the 7,181-yard, 18-hole championship Course at Wente Vineyards, which has hosted numerous events, including an annual tournament that benefits the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.
“The number one thing here is quality. When you’re in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, everything is pretty much city, but when you come out to Wente, you feel like, suddenly, you’re far away,” says Cabe Jones, director of golf, The Course at Wente Vineyards.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund is one of the Course’s key events each year, one that returns annually for good reason. “You’ve got a high-quality course that can be played over and over and you won’t get tired of it,” says Jones.
Venues that can deliver exceptional golf along with additional features, such as catering, that simplify logistics can be a big asset to event owners, says Ross. “It goes back to the overall experience of the player and, for AJGA, the parents. Having everything within easy reach without causing our families and players to drive all over is a big benefit.”
Golf as History
History is at the heart of South Carolina’s golf scene, with its first course built in 1927, a landmark moment in the region that jumpstarted a key industry: tourism.
“Golf has always been a major component of the community,” says Danna Lilly, director, group sales division, Myrtle Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Tourism here actually started as much from golf access as beach access.”
More than 3.5 million rounds of golf are played in Myrtle Beach annually at its 102 area courses, and while golf opportunities abound, they’re also in high demand.
“When someone is looking for a golf venue for a particular event,” says Lilly, “it generally boils down to the size of course needed and then availability.”
It’s no surprise that the PGA has held numerous events there, including its 47th Professional National Championship, which was held in 2014 at the Dunes Golf & Beach Club. A field of 312 players traveled to Myrtle Beach to play the legendary 7,200-yard course designed by Robert Trent Jones.
Myrtle Beach also has a homegrown event, Monday After the Masters, a charity tournament started by local musical icon Darius Rucker, which has grown into one of the nation’s top pro-am events. It’s a formula that works: the event began as a small charity fundraiser and now makes use of every golf course in Myrtle Beach to accommodate its players.
If sports are on your radar, Glendale probably is as well.
“What I’m really hearing from event planners throughout the industry is that what sets our area apart is that our West Valley golf courses provide experienced staff who flawlessly execute more than 15,000 tournaments each year,” says Lorraine Zomok, president & CEO, Glendale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The West Valley also delivers 325 days of sunshine annually, easing weather worries for event owners and players. With a mix of municipal courses and world-renowned golf destinations, Arizona’s West Valley has many options to fit any event planner’s vision.
In Glendale, Glen Lakes Municipal Golf Course and Desert Mirage Golf Course are city-owned nine-hole executive courses that regularly host numerous events. Nine-hole courses are an asset to golf-friendly communities, since they allow players to fit in a game of golf regardless of schedule. In fact, the USGA is encouraging courses and players to embrace the nine-hole round, allowing more golfers to fit the game into their busy lives.
The Legends at Arrowhead is another of the area’s premier golf venues. Designed by golf legend Arnold Palmer, the par 72, 7,005-yard course offers championship play set within the iconic Southwest.
Access to the Best
Exclusivity is often a key component in creating high-demand golf events, affording golfers the opportunity to play venues they might not otherwise be able to access. The Carpet Capital Collegiate Classic, held at Dalton’s private club, The Farm, is a great example, particularly since it is open to college students.
“At over 7,000 yards, The Farm is well suited for a collegiate tournament, and the owners are very big on college golf. They started the event to support college golf, and it’s a great opportunity for these players,” says Grant Shell, sports sales manager, Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Partly thanks to the Carpet Capital Classic, golf is booming in Dalton. Dalton State College’s new athletic program just celebrated its first, and highly successful, golf season with its men’s and women’s team both conference champions.
Keeping the Venues Fresh
One of the big stories in golf in recent years has been the renovation and reopening of SentryWorld. “With the 2015 opening of SentryWorld, we’re at an interesting point for golf and events coming into the area,” says Melissa Sabel, director of marketing, Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. designed the course, which opened in 1982 and in a unique turn of events, the iconic golf architect returned to oversee the new renovation. Golfers nationwide watched the 20-month renovation eager to play one of the newest Robert Trent Jones, Jr. golf experiences, a 200-acre, 7,000-plus yard course. “Flower hole” is one of the course’s key features; instead of water or sand, this iconic hole has 30,000 to 60,000 flowers, which golfers can’t play from. Landing in this beautiful trap adds a stroke to your game.
The course is part of the larger SentryWorld facility with venues that can accommodate several thousand people, with an on-site restaurant and other sports facilities, including tennis and volleyball.
Many destinations, though not yet squarely in the spotlight, are golf ready and ripe for new events. Just take a look at the Worcester region. Its Cyprian Keyes Golf Club, a public facility offering an 18-hole championship course and a nine-hole par-three recently hosted AJGA players at the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy Boston Junior event. The nationally recognized course, designed by Mark Mungeam, features five sets of tees to create a challenging experience for any level golfer.
Pleasant Valley Country Club is another local golf legend, having hosted countless PGA and LPGA events.
“Pleasant Valley has a rich professional golf history and a landscape that is ready to get back on the map,” says Tom Fitzmaurice, sports sales manager, Destination Worcester.
A Hole-in-One Experience
Brett Miller, a North Carolina-based golf course broker and consultant and quarter-century PGA pro, helps courses up their game and assists event owners in site selection.
“What courses typically need to do is increase their appeal for bigger events to show they can handle a certain size of event, and then it’s like graduating. Start with regional high school golf, maybe then move to state high school golf championship. Then you can show, here’s this is what we did, how we set it up, and now let’s go and get a conference championships,” says Miller. “A great experience is what you have to be able to show you can provide.”