Golf Business Conference & PGA Show 2023 – My Takeaways

Last week, I attended (for the first time in 3 years) the NGCOA Golf Business Conference (GBC) and the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. Aside from the normal introductions of new, technologically advanced golf equipment and lots of apparel, I was most notably struck by four (4) things:

  • The encouraging signs about the potential real evolution and development of diversity in golf;
  • A focus on the culture at golf courses and clubs as it relates to leadership, management and labor/staffing;
  • The emphasis (as the picture shows) on activities alternative to golf like Pickleball and others;
  • The very positive outlook many have for the golf industry.

Long a pet peeve of mine, diversity efforts in golf seem to be gaining some traction. I saw two things last week I’d never seen before. (1) A panel on culture conversations where a white male was in the minority with 3 other panel members consisting of a woman and two African-American men and (2) I attended a diversity roundtable with about 200+/- attendees of whom approximately 2/3 were people of color. The topics of discussion included a variety of programs designed to broaden the appeal of golf, both on the playing side and the industry side. It was encouraging and I am cautiously optimistic that the golf industry is beginning to pay more than “lip service” to the issue of diversity.

Among the topics discussed were the “Make Golf Your Thing” initiative, which not only promotes playing golf but also making it your business or career, the HBCU Golf Consortium which promotes golf at Historically Black Colleges & Universities, jobs and economic opportunities in golf and making golf “look like America”. All are worthy pursuits.

Golf clubs and facilities have long been known as places of very long hours for staff and management leading to emotional and mental health challenges often unknown or ignored by all concerned. To observe the industry conducting a panel discussion on this topic was not only interesting but also encouraging. Many companies (including some golf companies) have Employee Assistance Plans (EAP’s) which address golf professionals and other onsite talent. As PGA Vice President Don Rea says, “Working 40 hours and then giving lessons? What’s got to give? Most times it’s relationships and family time.” Rea continued (in the January/February issue of Golf Inc. Magazine) by saying that “The PGA Professional is not an expense or salary. They’re going to make you (the course) way more money if they feel valued as an employee, because if they feel valued, the customers feel welcome, because that is where it starts.” There has been much written of late about the work conditions of PGA pros, and it’s safe to assume that GM’s course superintendents and their staffs are often over stressed at many clubs and courses. One firm, I’m aware of that provides services to assist is Mental Health Consultants (MHC), where my son Max is an advisor/consultant.

As the photo at the top of this post shows, Pickleball was on clear display at the PGA GOLF Show. What this clearly demonstrates is that clubs need to diversify their activities beyond golf to attract a broader constituency. Many clubs are now investing in Pickle, Paddle, Padel and other activities to broaden their membership and promote activity at the club during the off-season.

According to Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid, utilization of golf courses is up to 72% from 52% 20 years ago, despite his conclusions of fewer “playable hours” (weather related). He also mentioned that revenues were up more than 50% over the past 3 years, an average rate of 17% per year. This may actually increase in 2023 and beyond with 12 month Daylight Savings Time set to become reality nationwide starting this spring. All this would seem like good news for the golf industry. I’ve sensed an attitude in the golf industry similar to what we teach pilots to avoid, that of being “Fat, Dumb & Happy.” However, there is reason to proceed with caution and we need to pay attention.

A Wall Street Journal Article for January 17, 2023 indicates that companies are slowing their price increases, portending a slowing of inflation. With some premium courses charging as much as $800 for an 18-hole green fee, is the game pricing itself beyond the reach of most? Retention, according to Koppenhaver, is still poor, only having retained 36% of the new golfers in 2020 for 2021. The 55+ age group is still driving more than 50% of rounds played. About 1/3 of golfers are “one-time golfers”.

As the game of golf continues to evolve, so do its rules. In 2019, the USGA & R & A revamped The Rules of Golf to simplify them. There are now only 25 such rules where there used to be 34, and they include modifications for players with disabilities. Other rules are also changing. At more and more clubs, it’s OK to HAVE FUN. Dress codes, cell phone rules and more are being relaxed or eliminated and hopefully, this will lead to golf broadening its appeal and looking more like America. At Rea’s course, Augusta Ranch GC in Mesa, Arizona, course rules, posted at the club are as follows: “Come relaxed…leave happy.”. The sign also says, “You’ll remember your friends more than your scores” and “Play the tees that make you happiest.” Rea stresses the mental health aspect of golf that getting outside is helpful. He says, “In golf, it’s OK to have music and have fun and just focus on the fact that you’re off the grid.” Rea was recognized as Golf Inc’s Visionary of the Year for 2023 and is likely to be the next president of the PGA. His advice is well taken for an industry I see at a crossroads. Let’s not mess up what COVID gave us.