As we look back over the last fifteen years since we started this magazine, many things have happened. We began life as Golf Range News, somewhere along the line we morphed into GRN-OGRO, and then more recently we became Golf Features.
Fifteen years ago there were no adventure golf courses, smart phones, iPhones, iPads, and sat-navs were just in their infancy. Very few golf ranges had automatic tees - PowerTee had only just started to operate - whilst hardly any golf ranges had carpeting or flooring, with the facilities generally being rather unsophisticated.
SwingCam was cutting edge technology of its time. This large unit, complete with VHS recorder and built in indestructible girder-like housing, was quickly popular throughout the country.
We had had the dotcom bubble, but we had not got used to the way that technology would impact on our lives - and the golf industry had certainly not got used to the way that it would impact on golf. Who would have thought that one of the most popular teaching cameras in golf ranges would be replaced by a phone? Much in the same way as it is easy to explain flight from the perspective of a butterfly, it still looks pretty tricky when you are a caterpillar. We obviously could not imagine how everybody would in the future hold not just a phone, but also a camera and have access to video and interactive opportunities from the Internet. Personally, I do not think golf has taken sufficient advantage of these opportunities yet, and much more will follow. Advertising on golf ranges has come and gone over this period, but is now returning.
Metal headed woods were small, but Tiger Woods was big. The impact that Tiger had on our game was really being felt - he was in his prime. He destroyed fields and created a massive desire for more people to have a go at golf. His red-shirted, fist pumping, all-action Sunday hero was such a gift to marketing men, and golf thrived. The man who launched a million Nike shirts could not, however, persuade people to buy their clubs, and now 15 years later there has been more than a little re-adjustment in the golf industry.
Nike has gone back to shirts and shoes, Taylor-Made is for sale and dozens of other golf companies are no longer trading. Fifteen years ago, golf retail was quite a good business to be in; there was not much consolidation, and there was only a limited threat from the Internet, although the wise could see this growing. Today, only the bold dare tread in the golf retail world. American Golf were a big and thriving company 15 years ago, and today they dominate the High Street in golf retail, probably being responsible for creating more new golfers than anybody will ever give them credit for. Direct Golf (UK) has gone and Mike Ashley does not look up for the fight of creating an alternative retailer. There are still a few independent retailers providing excellent service, but, for the main part, golf purchases are focused more and more online.
When it came to playing golf, courses were still fairly formal: waiting lists existed, dress regulations were prim and clubs did not take a certain type of golfer if they did not like the look of them. Today, most clubs are much more welcoming: most clubs need more income and so being welcoming is a necessity of modern life. Life has definitely speeded up - more can be done in a day than perhaps can be enjoyed. The lack of available leisure time is having a real impact on people's ability to play golf regularly. It is not that it is impossible for people to play, it is that there are just so many more options for people looking to enjoy their weekends and other periods of free time.
Gender equality has definitely played a part, as a working mum may well be reluctant to wave goodbye to a husband for weekend golf on a regular basis. Gender equality, however, is great for progressive clubs, as an increasing number of women see the opportunity to play golf with the whole family; this has been embraced by many golf centres, which are now describing themselves as 'family golf centres.’
Over the last 15 years, golf has flat-lined in terms of its participation. Membership numbers are receding. There is, however plenty of evidence to suggest that more people are playing different varieties of golf. FootGolf has emerged over recent years, providing a great opportunity for many to broaden their appeal and can take advantage of existing courses of all types. Such 'sport sharing' often requires a deft touch from the customer care department, as it is easy to see why golfers and FootGolfers might not initially get on. When adventure golf is included in this mix, the number of people actively participating in the sport of golf is far greater than it has ever been. These new players must be included in our participation figures for those that govern the game, so they fully understand the market.
Nothing has increased the number of people wishing to play golf as much as well-constructed adventure golf courses, which have sprung up across the golf industry over the last 15 years. We are very proud to have helped to broker this concept as an idea for modern golf centres, as it is both economically worthwhile and provides the opportunity to broaden the appeal of a golf centre. Put simply, everyone can putt, so everyone can enjoy adventure golf. There are certain ironies to this new fangled, exciting, noisy and clearly fabricated game. Slow play is good news! A round of adventure golf that lasts over an hour is considered better value for money by those playing and paying, than if they go round in 30 minutes. Ice cream and fizzy drink sales become a seriously important part of turnover. Visibility from the road is more important than discretion. Today there are over 60 mainstream adventure golf courses in the country and dozens more set to follow in the coming years. For the child holding the putter, there can be future progression with a desire to play 'proper golf.’ We need to exploit this opportunity fully to continue the growth of the game in the next 15 years.
TopGolf is the very best example of a family friendly golf centre. This brilliant idea from the Joliffe twins, combined elements of ten-pin bowling, golf ranges and technology to create a fabulous 'game centre' experience. In essence, a computerised chip was placed in the middle of the golf ball and could be identified to the person hitting it via clever scanning in the ball tray of the range bay. Once the ball was hit, it would fall into a netted target, which would deliver a reading straight back to the bay. The more accurate and difficult shots were rewarded with higher scores. A twenty ball game could then be played between golfers of different abilities from the same bay. The really clever bit of the game was creating the outfield from synthetic grass and making huge, hard to miss targets close to the bays. This meant that young kids would often beat their dad - even when he was really trying - as the higher points available for longer shots corresponded with smaller targets. The noise from a typical TopGolf bay on a busy night would send a traditional golfer into fits of rage, but TopGolf is brilliant fun, even if you start out as a hopeless golfer. There are three sites in the UK at present, but more are planned and the American market has created some of the most exciting golf facilities in the world. Food and drink in the bays, and a great night out for all. Adventure golf is the perfect partner for TopGolf and, with enough sites, these centres will solve any drop in numbers that golf might experience in years to come.
Inert landfill projects are now the current way to construct courses and ranges: architects not embracing this new style of course building are left to re-modelling old courses and their memories of better times. Fifteen years ago, anyone suggesting that golf courses and range outfields would mainly be made from the re-cycling of topsoil, subsoil and rubble would have been considered daft. But in the last few years, there have been scores of facilities made and overhauled using 'inert' materials. Golf projects close to major construction sites offer developers an opportunity to re-landscape their flat and featureless fairways with bunding and mounds, swales and banks, which allow golf courses to be built with far more imagination than previously. Such earth works would have been far too expensive for most golf projects, but are now the justification and financial driver behind many new developments. Some have been spectacular cock-ups, but, more often than not, golf courses have been built so that they will delight and encourage play for many years to come. 'Inert' golf constructors have often been derided as 'dodgy muck shifters' and many would qualify for even more damning titles, but the number of high quality courses built for a small capital cost, or even with a cost benefit, is testament to a new and emerging art form. For those operators tempted by such schemes, please look at the back catalogue of your prospective constructor and speak to the owners of these sites before committing - this is the best way to avoid the dodgy ones!
Golf is a weird sport, as it is traditional, yet yearns for new blood. It is difficult to master, yet easy to start. It needs few rules, but is beset by so many. A simple handicap can allow golfers of differing abilities to compete, but the handicapping system has been hijacked by vicious mathematicians, determined to confuse and disorientate. Kids want to play, but adults won't let them. There are many who create golfers, yet many more who are not interested in growing the game. On behalf of all of those wanting to increase the numbers of golfers, I would like to blow a crude raspberry at the selfish ones who do not want to share golf with new generations and different types of people. You know who you are - and you should hang your heads in shame. Viva Golf!
Over the next fifteen years more courses will close, but more golf facilities will open. There will be a rebalancing of the market and that will be towards fast formats of the game with a greater participation from all walks of life, rather than focusing on exclusive and difficult golf courses. Good golf ranges will thrive and poorly located facilities will struggle. Whatever section of the golf industry you are in, we wish you well for the coming years. The last fifteen have been quite tough, but great fun - and I am sure fun has got to be at the heart of future participation in golf.