Marin Community Foundation
Playing Through

No Time for 18 Holes of Golf? Let’s Play Five

Originally published by Brian Costa, Wall St. Journal [link] on August 04, 2017

Like many golf courses, Canal Shores had seen fewer rounds played in recent years. The century-old course north of Chicago was projecting another downturn this year when, in the spring, its management group began to think about how it could reverse the trend.

On a map, the par-60 course is laid out like most others in the U.S., an 18-hole route that takes players away from the clubhouse and back. But as officials looked closer, they saw two smaller groups of holes that could work the same way: a 10-hole loop and a 5-hole loop.

Canal Shores now sells those shorter-format rounds at discounted rates.

“There are a lot of people who are time-starved, but they still want to play golf,” said Dan Bulf, the course’s business manager.

In a nod to that reality, more public-access courses across the U.S. are experimenting with offerings that are shorter and cheaper than the traditional 18-hole round. The shift comes amid a multi-year push by golf organizations to convince people that playing the sport does not necessarily require a time commitment of four or five hours.

The most common alternative is the nine-hole round, but some courses are offering quicker options or even pay-by-the-hole pricing. They are typically available only at off-peak times, such as late afternoons or weekday mornings. But the fact that they are available at all represents a change among course operators, a fragmented group of small businesses not known for their innovative thinking.

“The rate of adoption in golf is glacial for anything that happens,” said Jim Koppenhaver, president of industry consultant Pellucid. “But I think it’s resonating. It’s a slow sea change.”

The reasons for that change are no mystery. Though golf remains among the most widely played sports in the U.S., the number of people who play at least once a year has dropped steadily from 30 million in 2005 to 24 million in 2016.

Surveys have consistently shown that the amount of time a traditional round of golf takes is among the chief reasons for the decline. There is also growing evidence that if golf courses themselves don’t create alternative forms of the sport, people will find it elsewhere.

Topgolf, a cross between a high-tech driving range, sports bar and nightclub, attracted more than 10 million people to its facilities last year, more than double the number it drew just two years earlier. It has 30 U.S. locations spread across 16 states, with plans to add up to eight more by the end of this year.

“The golfer is looking for alternative ways to be a part of the game,” said Jeff Foster, senior vice president of the tee-time booking service GolfNow, which for the past several years has been encouraging courses to offer more nine-hole rates.

Some of the proposed alternatives have been more outlandish. Among the experiments courses have tried to lure young and beginner golfers in recent years are 15-inch-diameter holes, more than triple the standard size; foot golf, in which players try to advance a soccer ball from tee to hole in as few kicks as they can; and the GolfBoard, which replaces the golf cart with a bag-carrying vehicle resembling an electric skateboard.

But the idea that the major golf bodies view as both the most practical and the most promising is far less radical. It’s golf, at whatever length you have time for.

In 2014, the U.S. Golf Association launched a marketing campaign called Play9 that aims to promote the virtues of the nine-hole round to golfers, non-golfers and course owners alike. The USGA estimated that nine-hole rounds in 2016 comprised about one-third of total rounds played, with interest coming primarily from women, casual players and golfers under age 55.

There are even emerging options for people who don’t have time for nine holes. QuickGolf, which launched last year, lets golfers pay by the hole at whichever times courses allow it, based on when standard tee times go unfilled. It runs largely on the honor system, with some safeguards to prevent golfers from playing more than they pay for.

Harvey Silverman, a longtime industry consultant who co-founded QuickGolf, said it has been adopted by 36 courses in 10 states. But he said expansion has been slowed by the inherent skepticism with which many course operators view alternative pricing structures.

“It’s real tough for these guys to get their heads past, ‘If it’s not an 18-hole round of golf, then I don’t want to think about it,’” Silverman said. “Well, you have to start thinking about it. Times have changed. It’s not 1925 anymore.”

Foster, of GolfNow, said course operators have expressed concern that more nine-hole rounds would merely mean a loss of revenue, offering a cheaper option for people who would otherwise play 18. GolfNow argues that they are incremental rounds, luring people who would otherwise not play. It recommends that courses sell nine-hole rounds for 62% of their 18-hole rate.

At Canal Shores—where, before he starred in “Caddyshack,” Bill Murray once worked as a caddie—the impact of the shorter loops remains to be seen.

Mike Matthews, a 39-year-old regular at Canal Shores, often plays five holes with his 10-year-old son, whereas he said they would be unlikely to play 18 or even nine holes. “With him still learning and not being able to drive the ball, five holes is enough for us,” Matthews said. But the logistics of playing five are more conducive to slower times of day, since the five-hole loop starts at the 14th hole, meaning Matthews and his son wait for gaps between groups playing 18.

Bulf, the business manager, said the response from golfers has been overwhelmingly positive. The shorter loops now account for 20% of weekday morning rounds played. But the question of whether they represent revenue gained or revenue lost remains unanswered.

Either way, Bulf said, “We definitely think this is a trend in the industry that’s not going to go away.”