EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - The Vail Valley is not unlike many golf destinations across America in that the golf industry here is adjusting to new normals and new strategies for keeping the game relevant and fun.
As the Vail Daily has examined the state of golf in our valley over a series of articles in the last week, one thing has become evident: Local golf is going to get through, and in some ways is already getting through, hard times created by a variety of factors.
With the over-development of golf courses in the valley in the 1990s and 2000s, and a national recession that hit the golf industry hard around 2008, it seems golf's tougher days are over.
"I think we're doing pretty well," said Eagle Ranch Golf Director Jeff Boyer. "We've stabilized over the last couple of years - we definitely saw a drop in 2009 and 2010."
The weather this year, while not so great for the local ski industry, has been fantastic for the golf industry. Unseasonably warm days in April, May and June kicked local golf courses into gear earlier than usual, which is sure to bode well for 2012 revenues.
The weather has helped, but so have the strategies that many golf courses have adopted. Golf isn't an elitist sport for retired millionaires anymore - at least not solely.
Golf courses are working hard to bring in young people, women and anyone else who might not have given golf much thought. Programs being sponsored by PGA of America and the United States Golf Association, for example, are encouraging golf courses to welcome as many new golfers as they can handle.
A change in the industry
Harry Frampton, of East West Partners, has already seen the difference. Golf courses around the valley have gotten better at what they do, he said.
But, as the Cordillera mess is cleared up and the 2 1/2 courses that have closed there eventually reopen, which Frampton suspects will happen, the cushion the other courses around the valley have felt will disappear.
The reduction of courses has given other courses a boost, but it can't last forever, Frampton said.
"My bet is they're going to have to work harder the next two to three years," he said.
The premier courses in the valley have an easier road ahead. Frampton thinks Vail, Singletree, Red Sky and Arrowhead are some of the core golf courses that are running better and remain less affected.
Frampton points to research by David Hueber, a 25-year industry veteran who received his Ph.D. from Clemson University, who has served as vice president of marketing for the PGA Tour and president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation. In his dissertation, "The Changing Face of the Game and Golf's Built Environment," Heuber found that the 1990s development of expensive and difficult courses that take too long to play led to a decline in participation and rounds because those courses offer "a product customers don't want to buy."
Dr. Elaine Worzala, who chaired Hueber's dissertation committee, told Club Resort and Business magazine recently that the research is an eye-opener.
"A paradigm change in an industry is often overlooked, and irreparable damage can occur if the critical issues are not addressed proactively," Worzala told the magazine, "So, groundbreaking research such as this that clearly shows the product has shifted to something the consumer does not want can enable an industry to chart a new course to fix the problems, as opposed to letting the confounding winds of change determine golf's future direction and destiny."
Frampton couldn't agree more.
"If golf has one problem, it takes too long," Frampton said.
Supply and demand stabilization
Local golf course developer Fred Green said there will always be some level of demand for golf in the Vail Valley.
"I think it's pretty well known nationally as an area that has the availability of a lot of golf, and some very good golf," Green said.
One the supply and demand stabilizes, Green agrees golf will do fine as an industry, but it's an issue that can't be overlooked.
Greg Nathan, senior vice president of membership at the National Golf Foundation, said all golf courses are under pressure because of the imbalance of supply and demand.
"In order to get closer to equilibrium and healthier golf courses (financially), the number of golfers-per-course needs to increase," Nathan said. "That means either a reduction in courses or an increase in players is necessary to improve the overall state of the industry. Americans feeling better about job security and their personal financial situations does wonders for all types of discretionary spending and recreation, and that includes golf."
Nathan said that since the early 1990s, supply of facilities has gone up 30 percent and golfers are up only 6 percent.
"As a result of the supply/demand imbalance, course owners and operators are forced to compete for golfers more than they ever have and it diminishes their ability/leverage to charge more for their greens fees."
But as tee sheets at public courses do begin to fill up again as courses close and that imbalance in supply and demand stabilizes, private club memberships should increase in demand again, too, Nathan said.
That's good news for the valley, which has a good mix of private and public courses.
Gary McCord, a part-time Edwards resident and golf industry TV personality, said there's a waiting list to get into the Country Club of the Rockies, for example. That's a turn of events since waiting lists at private golf clubs these days are usually waiting lists to get out.
"Golf's not going to go away," McCord said. "TV likes it; people like to play it - it will be modified a little bit, but it won't go away."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.