HOW MANY SPORTS CAN SAY THAT THEY REGULARLY CONTRIBUTE to changing the world? Golf is certainly one. Not only does the sport deliver an estimated economic impact of more than $70 billion annually, it also has a charitable impact of nearly $4 billion through thousands of events and participants each year.1 With golf courses and golf communities widening their reach to embrace a whole new generation of golfers, golf events are likely to make an even bigger impact on America’s destinations in the coming years.
Though many indicators showed a dip in golf participation in recent years, today’s signs point toward a new era of golf growth. In January 2017, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) announced that its PGA Junior League Golf program, which introduces golfers age 13 and younger to the game, set a record 300 percent participation increase over the past three years, growing from 9,000 kids and 740 teams in 2013 to 36,000 participants and 2,900 teams last year.2
The American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) is seeing growth as well.
“Our membership continues to rise year after year,” says Jason Ross, vice president of business development AJGA. “I think the industry as a whole has wrapped its arms around finding ways to make the game more accessible, with different programs that break down the barriers for people who may be unfamiliar with golf, and finding creative ways, such as nine- or six-hole rounds, for people with limited time.”
Golf also returned to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time since 1904, and USA Golf, the sport’s national governing body (NGB), continues to develop the sport’s elite athletes for the 2020 Olympic Games. The Olympics offers an international spotlight for the sport that has the potential to increase participation not just in America, but worldwide.
Putting Players on Top
Another key piece of evidence in golf’s promising future is the ongoing popularity of and participation in golf events. So how do event owners keep their participants engaged and enthusiastic year after year? For championship advice, it’s always a good idea to look to the top. At the United States Golf Association (USGA), America’s amateur golf organization, which plans the U.S. Open and 12 other championships, the focus is on serving players better each year.
“We always strive for improvement and year over year and with any group, their needs have changed so we need to make sure we never settle,” says Robbie Zalzneck, director of U.S. Open Player Services, USGA. “The USGA treats the entire player experience as the time the player arrives in the host city/area until the championship concludes and the player departs. From a service perspective, we deal with everything from airline arrivals/departures, courtesy vehicles, player family transportation, accommodations, food service at the course and suggestions off the course, child care services, family activities, etc. We want the player to feel comfortable, that every reasonable thing they need while at a U.S. Open is taken care of so that he can truly focus on golf.”
When the AJGA looks for an event host, player service is high on their list as well. “We look at what’s unique in a community, how they can provide players the special flavor of that place and give players a chance to get together and have some fun off the course,” says Ross.
Bismarck, North Dakota:
Offering Opportunities for All Ages and All Levels
In North Dakota, golf lovers might be limited in terms of weather, but that doesn’t hold them back. The city has excellent courses and experiences for golfers of all ages and levels.
“We have seven beautiful golf courses in our area, and host several state and regional golf tournaments each year,” says Kris Jackson, sports and events manager, Bismarck-Mandan Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We are the perfect location for those weekend or weekday tournaments.”
The DMM (Dakotas and Minnesota) District Qualifying Tournament for the Optimist International Junior Golf Championship (OIJGC) is just such an event. One of 50-plus qualifying tournaments held throughout North America, the DMM District Qualifying Tournament brings approximately 200 people, including 70 competitors, to the Riverwood Golf Course for a one-day tournament.
Selected as one of the 2016 “Best Courses You Can Play” by Golfweek magazine, Riverwood Golf Course is a public 18-hole, par-72 course operated by the Bismarck Parks and Recreation District.
“This tournament is a fun event for us. It’s for kids through high school and the kids who win go on to compete at the International level in Palm Beach, Florida,” says Jackson.
Leveraging Social Media to Engage Players
Abilene has both sunshine and outstanding golf venues aplenty, which is perhaps why the city is home to one of the AJGA’s longest-running events.
“We’re fortunate to be hosting the Patriot Cup Folds of Honor Junior Championship presented by Bob Estes, an AJGA qualifier again this year,” says Debi Schultz, director of sales, Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They play at the Abilene Country Club, a wonderful facility with two 18-hole courses, allowing them to play a different course each year. This is the 37th year of hosting the AJGA, and the second-longest running tournament in AJGA history.”
Diamondback Golf Course, a public 18-hole course built and operated by 1971 Masters Champion, Charles Coody, is another of Abilene’s golf stars. Hosting more than 50 events each year, the venue is well-known for providing an exceptional golf experience for players of all levels.
“The golf events we host generate half a million dollars annually,” says Schultz. “We think we get events back because we service our events so well. We do everything we can do for them. If things are easier, they want to come back.”
The Abilene team is also always looking for new ways to improve player experience, and in 2015, they created a social media campaign for a youth tennis event that they plan to recreate for AJGA this year.
“It was a social media game, giving the participants prizes for posting photos at various locations around town; this allows the players and their families to see more of our city than just the golf course.” says Schultz. “It gave them a fun way to bond and experience our community.”
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina:
Keeping Golf Relatable
If golf is your game, Myrtle Beach has definitely appeared on your radar.
“Obviously, we’re nicknamed Golf Town USA, so that tells you something,” says Mike Anderson, executive director, sports tourism, Myrtle Beach Regional Sports Alliance. “We have 100 courses in our market, more than any other in the world.”
For that reason, while the destination continues to draw some high-profile events and major charity tournaments, including Senior and Junior PGA tour stops and the annual Monday After the Masters, the participation dip worried the community. “Golf has been trending downward on the participations side, and that makes you nervous when you have a sport you’re that strong in,” he says.
But just like the rest of the industry, Myrtle Beach and its golf venues have launched an enthusiastic and creative campaign to bring more players into the sport.
“We’re looking at innovations aimed at how to keep golf relatable to people across the world,” says Anderson.
Some of those innovations include new ways to play the game — or to begin the sport — that mitigate what is seen as golf’s steep learning curve. Many courses offer both regular and foot golf, as well as sling golf, a variation that uses a lacrosse-type stick.
Using Cross-Promotions and Golf Gift Packages
Every year, the Bloomington-Normal area hosts its own tournament, the Youth Classic, that brings national and international youth golfers ages three to 22 for a four-day tournament. The area, known for its wealth of affordable, quality courses, six of which are public, was also awarded “outstanding locally created event” for the Youth Classic by the National Association for Sports Commissions. The event, which draws nearly 400 athletes each year, is successful not just because of the area’s excellent courses, but also by design.
“We partner with the Pepsi Little People’s Golf Championships in Quincy, Illinois, which takes place the week before our event and allows some of the players to travel from their event to ours,” says Matt Hawkins, sports marketing manager, Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We cross-promote and offer a grand championship for the best combined score, and the kids really enjoy that.”
Organizers also keep athletes coming back by maintaining low entry fees, by putting together exciting gift packages for players, and by planning special events such as dinner for athletes and their families.
No Sign of a Slow-Down
Golf shows no signs of slowing in Columbia, where Taylor Dalton, a former golf pro, now helps bring golf events to town with the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “From what I have seen, golf has been growing the last several years as far as the number of rounds," says Dalton. Definitely in the millennial and youth range, the game has taken off as well. In Columbia, there is a different tournament each week.”
Lake of the Woods, a par-72, 18-hole municipal course, hosts the senior division of the Show Me State Games each year. Each summer, 40 to 60 athletes compete on the course, known for being extremely playable and accessible but still challenging for all levels.
Top Courses and Favorite Facilities
Just a couple of hours away in Aurora, the golf opportunities continue.
“Orchard Valley Golf Course is ranked as one of the top courses in Illinois and is a favorite of a lot of people who come here to golf,” says Pete Garlock, director of sales, Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Another renowned facility is Rich Harvest Farms, a private course that will be hosting the 2017 men’s and women’s NCAA Division I Championships this May. One of Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses,” Rich Harvest Farms has hosted many prestigious events, including the Ladies Professional Golf Association Solheim Cup and the Arnold Palmer Cup.
The Right Volunteers Make the Event Great
Proving their skill at creating exceptional experiences at golf events, Visit Stillwater plays an important role in training a substantial number of volunteers for the annual AJGA PING Invitational. It remains one of the most volunteered, locally held events in partnership with Visit Stillwater.
“The community is continually recognized by AJGA staff for local commitment to the success of their events,” says Visit Stillwater president/CEO Cristy Morrison.
The event was recognized within the tourism industry as 2016’s Outstanding Sporting Event by Frontier Country Marketing Association.
Visit Stillwater assists in coordinating the event’s volunteers, who execute a wide variety of services from registration to identifying players with moveable name plaques on the driving range so that the many scouts and coaches who attend the event can know which golfers they’re watching.
The event is held at Karsten Creek, Oklahoma State University’s golf home and a course dripping in awards, including being named a “Five-Star” facility by Golf Digest and “Number-One Collegiate Course in America” by Travel & Leisure Magazine.
A Game for the Ages
Whatever ups and downs the sport may experience, golf is likely to stay strong over the years because, as Jason Ross of the AJGA puts it, “You can get outside. You can get some good exercise if you walk, and you can keep playing all your life, no matter what your age.” And with a committed base of more than 20 million players, golf has a strong foundation to build on, one that will pass the love of the game on to its kids and keep giving back to its communities. SDM
1 http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/ 2016/05/08/the-state-of-the-golf-industry-in-2016/#450305eb164e
2 http://www.pga.com/pga-america/pga-feature/ pga-junior-league-golf-grows-record-number-36000-participants-in-2016