A 20-year-old Stanford undergrad stepped up to a podium emblazoned with the PGA Tour logo at Brown Deer Park on Aug. 28, 1996. Between late 1996 and 2006, the game of golf gained nearly 5 million players and 2,000 more 18-hole-equivalent courses in the U.S. Generation X, fueled by the constant stories and achievements of Tiger Woods, began taking up a game they had largely written off as their grandfather’s.
As Woods’ career began to wane, so did golf. By 2015, the year he had back surgery, the number of golf players receded by 5 million. Roughly 200 courses closed in 2018. Approximately 200 more shut their doors the year before that. Nike stopped selling golf equipment in 2016 to focus on apparel. In 2017, Adidas sold off its golf club making business. And Golfsmith, the largest golf retail chain in the U.S. at the time, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2016 and was later bought by Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The game that once was seen as a place for big deals and great business steals had become a legitimate sport of athletic prowess. Add to that the price for greens fees and club memberships, and an entire generation that may associate Tiger Woods as a name for a zoo exhibit, and you have an industry that has seen its heyday.
Country clubs, however, are still a business, and they are working to gain Millennials away from the screen and onto the green.
Greg Gilg, the general manager at Field Club of Omaha, said their approach to increasing membership is two-pronged—the first of which is cutting down on the time it takes players to get through a round. Today’s executives work an excess of 50 hours per week—a Harvard study said they work an average of 62.5 hours per week—making time truly a commodity.
“Our members choose the Field Club over other golfing options because you can play our course in three hours or less, grab a bite to eat or a cocktail after your round, and be home before your friends have even finished their round at a nearby facility,” Gilg said. “Maximizing time is so valuable in today’s market and we’re fortunate to have an answer to those time-related concerns.”
Gilg isn’t the only one thinking that way. The PGA has echoed that sentiment in recent years, introducing Tee It Forward, which encourages players to set their tees well ahead of designated tee box areas with the hope that beginner players can finish a game in a shorter amount of time.
On top of that, Gilg stressed the importance of adding new facilities as well as keeping their existing facilities in top shape.
New amenities such as a 19th hole firepit area and the recent addition of mobile ordering to restaurant outlets has been crucial to the Field Club’s success in recent years. “Plus, we are fortunate enough to host 60-70 weddings each year and our pool averages over 400 members per day during the summer; making those amenities our front door to new families who may become future members is crucial.”
This diversification has helped the Field Club grow its membership from 643 membership families when Gilg started in July 2017 to 770 today.
“We’ve been extremely fortunate to benefit from a strong economy over recent years, which has only further accelerated the resurgence,” he said. “It’s been a team effort of good planning, timing, and execution.”
Other opportunities for courses are new games such as footgolf and Topgolf.
Footgolf is a combination of the popular sports of soccer and golf. The game is played with a regulation soccer ball on shortened holes with 21-inch diameter cups, which sit to the side of the golf holes. The holes are covered when not in use for patrons’ safety. Wilderness Ridge Golf Course in Lincoln started offering it in 2014, and in 2015, La Vista Falls Golf Course and Papio Greens Golf Center started offering the sport. Footgolf requires no expensive equipment and can be played by children as well as adults.
Topgolf combines golf with the turn-based approach of bowling and an atmosphere akin to a modern video arcade in an era when video gaming has become a college-sanctioned sport. Groups of players sit in climate-controlled hitting bays, taking turns aiming at computer-generated targets that vary based on the type of game they have selected. In between plays, the participants nosh on nachos, not club sandwiches.
The ease of play—even the most heinous shot receives some sort of points—combined with the less-stuffy atmosphere makes for a version of the game with a much easier point of entry. The majority of Topgolf’s customers fall in the all-important 18-44 age demographic. An Omaha location is slated to open this spring in the Westroads area.
Gilg is optimistic about Topgolf making its way to the Omaha Metro.
“We’re excited to have Topgolf join our market as studies show they are phenomenal at introducing the game to fresh faces,” he said. “We’re even more excited about our positioning as those new players look for places to learn and enjoy the lifelong game of golf.”
Traditional golf may be returning to its pre-Tiger statistics, but with a bit of ingenuity, clubs can keep those numbers rising.
And if it means golfers won’t have to spend five hours on the course, it might ultimately be a good thing for everyone involved.
This article was printed in the February/March 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.