Golf Distance Insight Report – What Does it Mean?

Today, February 4, 2020, the USGA and R & A have released the Golf Distance Insight Report, a study of the impact of increased distance resulting from equipment advances and other factors on the game.

While certainly affecting the variety of skills needed to play golf, distance also impacts the economics of courses and clubs, as stated in the report:

  • Expanding existing courses and building longer new ones often requires significant capital investment and higher annual operating costs. 
  • Overall, the trend towards longer courses puts golf at odds with the growing societal concerns about the use of water, chemicals and other resources, the pressures for development restrictions and alternative land use, and the need to mitigate the long-term effects of a changing climate and natural environment.

Lengthening golf courses not only serves to further separate stronger players from less-skilled, but also encourages golfers to play the wrong tees for their game.  The biggest impact, however is economic and environmental.  The USGA/R&A report says:

Increasing course lengths also have broader potential effects on long-term sustainability. The sport of golf is recognizing the need to adapt to escalating environmental and natural resource concerns, climate change and associated regulatory activities, such as a need to address the following issues: 

  • Water and chemicals. With the United Nations predicting that the world’s water supply will fall 40% short of projected demand by 2030 and with regulatory efforts to limit water consumption and preserve water quality, many golf courses are under increasing pressure to reduce their use of water, nutrients, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.  
  • Land use. Accelerating population growth and urbanization in many regions is contributing to rising land values and increasing efforts to use open spaces, leading to golf course closures
    where planners and developers see a better use for the land. And in some places, these land use pressures on golf courses are exacerbated by environmental challenges such as desertification, sea-level rise and coastal erosion. 
  • Wildlife and habitat protection. Pressure to protect threatened species and their habitats is growing in many regions, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for golf courses. Well-managed courses have proven to be exemplary stewards of wildlife and pollinator habitat, which can be accomplished in various ways, including by converting maintained turf where the game is currently played into out-of-play areas.
  • Energy. The issues associated with fossil fuel consumption are well known, and the amount of fuel and lubricants used by maintenance vehicles and equipment at a golf course can be reduced by shrinking the total acreage of maintained turf.

All these contribute to higher operating costs, including maintenance, which make it more difficult to be profitable for the “for-profit” segment and sometimes unsustainable for the “non-profit” segment of the golf market.

The American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), represented by President Jan Bel Jan, says:

“Just as ASGCA members design courses for all players – not only championship-caliber layouts – we are glad to see the USGA and R&A looking at the entire golfing public,” Bel Jan continued. “Golf course architects continue to blend preservation with innovations in their designs. ASGCA members work across a diverse array of course types and conditions in more than 90 countries around the world, and we remain excited to bring our voice and expertise to this important topic in the game.”

Bel Jan, from Jupiter, Florida, said ASGCA noted the USGA and R&A recognize that increases in distance can potentially contribute to demands for more resource-intensive golf facilities. “Golf courses are small businesses that seek to be operated in a sustainable way, both for owners and surrounding communities. We are encouraged to see that sustainability continues to be considered as part of the distance issue,” she explained.

DIR findings also serve to reinforce the value ASGCA members place on Forward Tees and multiple tee options, including, “We believe that many recreational golfers are playing from longer tees than necessary. We have a particular concern that the forward tees at many courses are very long for the hitting distances of many of the golfers who play them,” the report says.

“Golfers of all skill level should be encouraged to play from tees that provide the most enjoyment and the best opportunity for them to score well,” Bel Jan said. “We are thrilled to see continued promotion of the benefits of moving forward.”

Golfing great Jack Nicklaus has advocated rolling back the golf ball for years.  The elite players have made many great courses obsolete and promulgated the costly lengthening of many classic courses.  Enlarged, they now also cost more to maintain and have more impact on the environment.  Water is a resource that will become increasingly precious including in areas of the country not used to conserving water.

The economics of golf in many instances are that it costs more to “produce” a round of golf than golfers are willing to pay for it.  In our recent market summary we found that of the courses we surveyed, the average cost for golf course maintenance for a daily-fee course was $22 per round and for a private club was $70 per round or nearly $3,800 per member, per year.  Is that sustainable in the long term?  As long as courses continue to close, the answer is probably not.

The USGA and R & A are now considering solutions.  What all this means is that to preserve the skills needed to play (other than just length), the environment and the economics of golf, changes to equipment are necessary to preserve the integrity of the game and the economics of golf courses and clubs as well as the environment. As one who measures the value of golf courses and assists clubs in developing economic strategies, such changes are welcome.  Will we have to get used to less-manicured courses?  A course ranked consistently in the world’s top 5 spends less than the equivalent of $1 million on golf course maintenance (for 36 holes), provides more than adequate firm surfaces and consistently gets positive reviews.  American golf is becoming unsustainable, as demonstrated by exploding maintenance costs for ever bigger golf courses to accommodate the better equipment and longer ball.  Something has to give, and distance might be a big part of that.