NGCOA’s Jay Karen on Key Issues Impacting Golf

This month, our series of interviews with some of golf’s movers and shakers focuses on NGCOA CEO, Jay Karen. I asked him a variety of probing questions about issues of relevance in golf and Jay couldn’t have been more thoughtful and insightful in his responses. AS CEO of the organization representing golf course owners, I started by asking him what he perceives as the golf industry’s biggest current challenges. Somewhat surprisingly, Karen focused on work force challenges, citing “creating higher demand for working in our industry” and “Figuring out how to put into operations more of what employees need to be sustainable is our challenge.” He also mentioned that “the golf course operations industry has traditionally shown little appetite for research, data and insights“, among other things.

Also, in the area of staffing, the issue of working conditions for golf pros was recently highlighted in Golf Digest and I asked Karen about that.“Workplace culture has always been an important part of the overall equation, but what young people value in that culture has been changing. Employers who grew up working in the 1970s, 80s or 90s cannot expect young people working in the 2020s to have the same exact workplace values they did. In many ways, golf courses have had their workplace recipe remain unchanged for years, and they expect new employees to like their recipe. If course operators are hurting for good employees, we need to ask ourselves – do we work even harder to find young people who like the recipe we’ve been cooking for decades, or do we alter the recipe a bit to appeal to more young people?

Always an issue in golf, I asked Karen about the industry’s efforts to grow the game, and his response was that “the game is still not fishing where the fish are.” In particular, he compared golf’s efforts to other sports like football, basketball, baseball and soccer, where parents visit the local park and recreation facilities to sign their kids up and golf is nowhere to be found. In other words, golf has to move to where the kids are rather than expecting them to come to the golf course, which “is not familiar territory for your typical family. Parks and rec offices have become the gateway locations for sports and activities, even if they don’t administer all of the activities.” Diversity also being an issue of the times. Karen said that NGCOA encourages its members to support the various grass roots programs working to promote diversity in the game. He also indicated that NGCOA has been encouraging the allied associations to continue improving the diversity of who will be “at the table” in the future.

Changing gears a bit, I asked Karen about a recent article by Kermit Zarley on the issue of water usage and the impact on golf of its potential scarcity. He said “The fact is water is an endangered resource in many areas around the globe, and the western US has pockets of this. Even where the water might be more plentiful than meets the eye in arid regions, there are political fights to gain access to it. Add to that, golf is seen by too many as a “nice to have” place for recreation more than it’s seen as an important business and community asset. The more extreme the situation is for water, and the more people see golf as a dispensable community asset, the more Mr. Zarley’s concern could be accurate. When water is truly scarce, those in power over water supply will have a pecking order as to what kinds of businesses or communities should have access to it. Course owners and operators, along with their superintendents, are doing their best to apply science to sustainability when it comes to water use, and those practices need to continue spreading. At the same time, golf needs to stay politically engaged and constantly telling our story of goodness, if we don’t want to fall off the list of important industries that deserve to have enough water to stay viable economically and environmentally.

Among the biggest questions in the golf industry is the sustainability of the participation surge resulting from the COVID pandemic. I asked Karen how NGCOA is helping to prepare its members to take long-term advantage. First, he said: “It’s not like COVID brought to us a different kind of human being than before the pandemic. We were the fortunate beneficiaries of more of them!” In comparing the COVID surge to the Tiger Woods effect of 25 years ago, he opined: “We cannot exhibit the same hubris we had twenty five years ago, when we last saw a spike in demand with the Tiger Effect. The rock star impact on the interest in playing our game was undeniable. But those newcomers didn’t stay, demand didn’t keep up with supply, and we fell into a fifteen-year industry recession. Now? I think we have two factors that could yield better results: 1) owners and operators who lived through the recession are more in-tune with what it takes to stay alive, let alone succeed, and 2) people came to the game for the same reasons that people stay with the game for decades: it’s fun, it’s outdoors, it’s challenging and it’s social. The organic retention should be better than before.

A prominent issue in the news of late is the establishment of the LIV golf tour and fragmentation of the professional game. I asked Karen on its impact on both professional golf and “rank & file” golf. His perspective was interesting: “The elite game is a different universe than what our members do every day. But having sports heroes – both men and women – has always been fuel for the recreational game, and the recreational game is what has always produced our heroes. So, while we are interconnected, and while this may sound like a cop-out, my personal opinions on this are inconsequential. I wouldn’t appreciate other golf leaders commenting on how NGCOA or our members should do business, so I don’t think it’s my place to arm-chair quarterback this one. Jay Monahan and the PGA TOUR are incomparable allies in our industry, and Greg Norman has been a friend to me and NGCOA. It’s an unfortunate development to see our sport’s heroes pitted against each other. But the game is much bigger than this battle. NGCOA simply wants to help our members run successful businesses. We have our own dragons to slay, and I’m focused on that.”

Among recent issues confronting golf course owners is the preponderance of 3rd party tee time providers and their impact on his members’ businesses. Karen pulled no punches in his response: “The best word I can use to describe the status of what we call Online Tee Time Agencies (OTTAs) is: unfriendly. The second best word is: complicated. The fact is our industry has only one formidable choice when it comes to participation with an online tee time aggregator, and having one choice in a market is about as unfriendly and un-American as you can get. The number one OTTA purchased the number two OTTA in 2019, and there is/was no distant third place competitor. The tactics used by OTTAs to leverage a course’s own brand against them in the search engines are notorious. The anti-competitive realities and possibilities by the one OTTA also controlling any outside or additional access to tee sheets of thousands of courses should have owners and operators raising pitch forks. But protesting or rocking the boat is not the nature of our industry, because there are entanglements and alliances that cause many to stay on the sidelines, look the other way or not look closely enough.”

Finally, I asked Karen about his goals for NGCOA. He listed assisting owners/operators in establishing modern workplaces and expanding digital content for members in addition to the efforts already in place. As one might expect, Karen, a long time industry veteran who’s also led two lodging/hospitality associations understands that golf is a hospitality business and has lots to say from a unique perspective. Having recently passed his Playing Ability Test (PAT) on his way to becoming a Class “A” PGA Golf Professional (now an associate), Karen can see the golf industry from a variety of angles. His “360” vision is not one to be ignored in an industry with not only unique challenges but also many that are constantly evolving.