New research into golfers’ attitudes towards courses, playing conditions and social enjoyment will help the game evolve and deliver long-term commercial success, says Rod Burke
The global economic downturn of the past five years has proved to be a pivotal period for the golf business – and perhaps a moment of enlightenment.
More than at any other time in the game’s history, attention has been focused on the long-term business sustainability of individual golf courses. The result is that courses have become more aware of who their customers are and the importance of taking a customer-centric approach to their operations.
At Syngenta, we support this positive response and over the past two years, we have commissioned two market research studies – the Golf Player Survey (2011) and Growing Golf in the UK Survey (2013) – to help golf courses and the industry better understand what golfers want, what will attract more players to the game and develop future solutions for golf courses.
Both surveys, the most recent of which was presented at the KPMG Golf Business Forum in St Andrews in June 2013, underline how important golf course design and conditions are to golfers, and how players’ wants and needs will help shape golf courses in the future.
According to the research, golf course design is the most important factor in attracting golfers to visit a new course. However, it is the condition of the playing surfaces that can give them the greatest satisfaction when they are there.
The most recent survey interviewed a variety of golfers, lapsed golfers and non-golfers of both sexes and a variety of ages. The research found golf course design tended to more important to men than women, although women tended to put greater importance on environmental issues. Design is also a more important factor among younger golfers. Interestingly, on a regional basis within the UK, course design is most important to golfers in Scotland.
For low handicap players, it was evident that design of the golf course was of greater importance, even above the cost of play. When asked ‘What factors most attract visiting players?’, overall the design of the course came out top. In contrast, clubhouse factors, including ambience, food and drink service, shop merchandise and buggy availability, all fell in the lowest six ratings.
The implication is that if you have a capital sum to invest, redesigning holes, upgrading bunkers and investing in tools to improve turf quality is going to assist in attracting more players, and deliver a better return than spending money on improving clubhouse facilities.
Both surveys were consistent in spelling out the importance of a golf course’s greens and the quality of the putting surfaces. In the most recent survey, smooth rolling greens was the number one ‘on-course’ demand of golfers (followed by course design and visual appeal), and is the definitive measure by which golfers judge a golf course.
Naturally, other factors come into play, including the cost of membership or play, but the important message is that the golf course is top priority, both in terms of design to attract golfers and the quality of the greens to create an enjoyable experience.
While the quality of the golf course is of paramount importance, the environment in which golfers play is a key element of their enjoyment and overall experience. Around three-quarters of players say viewing birds and wildlife on the course during their round is of high importance. In addition, nearly 70 per cent of players indicated their desire to see more environmental initiatives instigated by golf courses. Participating in projects such as Operation Pollinator is an opportunity for courses to enhance their environmental attraction, engage players in a positive way and confidently communicate their ecological credentials to customers and local communities.
Detail from the latest survey has reinforced the importance of environmental features, alongside the provision of great golf. The research found that women and older golfers place the highest levels of importance on environmental factors. It is also of significant interest to non-golfers, who may be attracted by a greener, more natural perception of golf and a sport that offers more to the wider community through the environment. While it might be assumed low-handicap golfers focus on their play, the research shows that they, too, are interested in their surroundings and the environment.
It is apparent that as well as good golf, players prefer courses that incorporate environmental features and support ecological initiatives.
Our surveys have also looked at the channels that influence where golfers play. For the top courses, television and tournament coverage are the most influential factors, while reputation and history are also vital for the significant top tier. However, the internet – including golf course websites and golfers’ forums – is having an increasing role in influencing where golfers play.
The studies indicate the many nomadic golfers, who are not members of a club and regularly play different courses, may spend more than 40 minutes online selecting their next round – reinforcing the need for an effective web presence. The research also reveals that golfers themselves are important advocates of golf courses. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of golfers become aware of new courses through word of mouth, while 68 per cent of golfers recommend their course to others.
While the rough on a golf course defines the shape and playing lines of holes, and adds to the visual appeal of a course, Syngenta’s research shows that golfers are clear about what they want on-course – to find their golf balls in the rough in a reasonable time and avoid slow play.
The Player Survey revealed more than 70 per cent of players rated being able to easily find balls in the rough of high importance. Asked if they thought the in-play rough on their golf course was too thick, 56 per cent said it was.
The research showed clearly that slow play is a frustration for many players, with rounds of more than three-and-half-hours triggering discontent. Interestingly, the results reveal slow play is also an issue for younger players and new entrants to the sport, as well as low handicap players.
For club managers, slow play has a fundamental financial cost, when the number of rounds playable in a day is compromised.
On many courses where rough has become dominated by tangled thick course grasses, the response is often to hack back vegetation several times through the season, impacting on original course design and appearance. This practice carries a significant financial cost and can create risk of ecological damage.
However, innovative new turf management tools have been designed to help balance course and player needs. The selective herbicide, Rescue, for example, can remove ryegrass and coarse grass species while allowing attractive fine fescue grasses to flourish, opening rough that will quickly enhance player satisfaction in a cost-effective way.
Understanding players’ demands
Syngenta’s golf surveys point unequivocally to players demanding high quality playing conditions and good golf course design above other factors. Individual golf courses, planning for the future, can be confident in making strategic decisions focused on these factors, enhancing the playing experience and satisfying customer expectation.
The research Syngenta has conducted is some of the most comprehensive undertaken in the UK golf market and, for the first time, includes lapsed golfers and non-golfers, as well as regular players.
Over the next six months, Syngenta will be sharing different aspects of the research focusing on a variety of themes and opportunities including friends and family participation, the accessibility and flexibility of courses, friendliness and customer service in golf, and returning to the theme of course conditions. By understanding what golfers and prospective golfers want, we believe golf courses will adapt appropriately and golf will continue to evolve as a successful, sustainable sport and business.
Rod Burke is Syngenta’s business manager for Europe, Africa and Middle East. For more information on the Golf Player Surveys and the implications for the industry, contact him via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture Issue 34.