Peter Hill Envisions the post-COVID Future of Golf

As reported by the National Golf Foundation (NGF),  golf has shown strength in the COVID-19 era with increased participation and full tee sheets.  Continuing our interviews with key golf industry players, this month we hear from Peter Hill.

For 30+ years, Hill has been one of golf’s most respected innovators, owning and operating more than 300 courses, country clubs and resorts spanning 35 states.

The topics of the questions included:

  • The impact of COVID-19 on golf (the next Tiger Woods?);
  • Sustainability of the increase in golf activity during the pandemic;
  • How golf will promote increased participation;
  • Private Clubs – will they relax the culture?;
  • The impact of existing and continuing restrictions on dining and crowded functions;
  • Long term vision for club membership and daily-fee play;

Hill says time will tell whether golf’s emergence from the pandemic will be of similar proportion to the Tiger Woods phenomenon 20+ years ago. “That’s not a dodge – there are countless uncertainties how the COVID-driven dynamic shifts in our personal and professional lives will play out. When will flying to golf destinations return? Will other recreation activities be “safe enough” in the near and far future? When will people feel comfortable participating in group events, no matter the size? How will all levels of education address in-person learning? Will concert and college and professional team sports venues be moth-balled for an extended period? How will golf entertainment centers like TopGolf adapt and fare? What’s the fate of movie theaters, bars and nightclubs? The world has developed an infrastructure for socializing and conducting business at scale; now the rules have changed.” A few unanswered questions.

With analytics suggesting 25% to 30% of the workforce based at home multiple days per week by YE 2021, Hill sees a premium on “safe” activities, like golf. He sees golf taking advantage of the health benefits and shorter versions of golf (6 holes, 9 holes or a practice session) becoming popular for walkers compared with treadmills and ellipticals at “high risk” gyms.

Hill envisions golf’s characteristics of being outdoors, socializing, enjoying collective experiences and new adventures as key to attracting the 18-34 year old crowd. Golf defines a “walk in the park” and plays well to the millennial generation’s sense of altruism with it’s charitable component. He advocates leaving the game in a better place than we found it and seeks to attract this segment.

With respect to relaxing the culture (especially at private clubs) Hill sees a peaceful coexistence with both traditional and “new-age” golf, while recognizing that courses and clubs will evolve.

The impact on dining and continuing restrictions on events is significant. Hill recognizes socialization is a top reason people patronize golf and country clubs, so it is incumbent operators keep connections alive. “Assuming social distancing precautions are in full force, convert outdoor spaces to outdoor cafes and event venues under heated tents as colder weather nears. The smartphone will play an increasingly important role in scheduling, booking, paying and managing events, tee times, and course and club services. So, this bit of technology enhances experiences for golfers and increases value-propositions for course owners and clubs while golfers are at courses and away from them but seek to stay connected. Carryout and delivery menus are also popular options. Cooking classes and even trivia and karaoke nights can satisfy the six-foot rule. Whether (or not) those are sensible, keen attention to golfer / member interests, labor analysis and inventory management are financial equalizers.”

My question about the impact on club membership and daily-fee golf of family financial challenges brought the following observations:

“Compared to other recreation pursuits, there’s safety in playing golf and belonging to clubs that should mitigate hesitancies. The vast majority of golf played is local which eliminates uncertainties and risks of air or other common-carrier travel. Furthermore, unlike trips with the general population to grocery stores, country clubs are typically environments for like-minded people who share common values and interests – that was the impetus for joining in the first place. And, of course, golf is ideally suited for social distancing as courses typically cover 100 to 200 acres; that’s less than one golfer per acre at a given time. Enjoy the open space and fresh air
without crowding. Other real estate related data indicates urban dwellers are, in relative mass, planning to move to the safety, security and serenity of more suburban housing (that’s where most golf courses are) including directly into golf course communities.”

When asked for parting words, Hill offered: “If the coronavirus era has taught us anything it’s that life is short and experiences with family and friends, whether at public or private courses, reign supreme. Golf irrefutably checks that box.”

Hill offers a very positive view of the future of golf in the post COVID-19 era and focuses clearly on the “safety” golf offers in an environment of social distancing. Time will tell if a possible political shift, economic policy changes and the attitudes of society signal growth in golf for the long term. Hill points out numerous reasons why growth could occur. All of us in the golf industry hope he’s right.