SERVING THE GAME
USGA, Industry Partners Spark Dialogue at Public Golf Forum October 5, 2014 By Dan Scofield, USGA

The USGA's Dave Oatis (third from right) shared ideas for golf's long-term sustainability at a Public Golf Forum at Bethpage State Park. (Barry Sloan/MGA)

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – The USGA, as part of its continuing efforts to advance the long-term viability of the game, participated in a Public Golf Forum hosted by the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Association on September 30 at Bethpage State Park, a two-time U.S. Open site and one of the busiest public golf facilities in the country.

The mission of the day was to pinpoint solutions for economic and environmental sustainability issues that have surfaced on public golf courses. Representing the USGA was Dave Oatis, the Northeast Region Director of the USGA Green Section.

Oatis kick-started the morning on a positive note by sounding a note of optimism to the audience of public golf course superintendents, directors and PGA professionals.

“Now that we’ve acknowledged that we have these issues, we can do the necessary research and implement solutions,” said Oatis.

In his presentation, Oatis discussed issues that may be detrimental to the success of public golf courses, such as those caused by overindulgence in cosmetics and built-in problems.

Inefficient mowing patterns, cart paths without curbing and even ball washers near tees make little common sense when you step back and think about their concepts. Ball washers, for example, cost an average of $500 per unit, require constant maintenance and are sometimes misplaced on courses. 

“Why are ball washers placed on the tees? If you are using a ball washer on the tee, you are putting with a dirty golf ball,” Oatis pointed out.

Aesthetic-based course components, such as flower beds and other maintenance-intensive features, are extras that most courses can do without, Oatis says. Eliminating features that are dispensable will not only save a public golf course maintenance money, but will also limit negative perceptions that might steer golfers away from returning to that course.

Removing unneeded fairway acreage and adjusting mowing strategies were other points of emphasis during Oatis’ presentation. Fairways have become increasingly narrower over the past decade, resulting in a slower pace of play while restricting shot options for golfers of all skill levels. Low handicappers are missing out on opportunities to strategize because of the reduced fairway width, while high handicappers are struggling to hit enjoyable shots that might encourage them to play more regularly.

Public courses, just like private clubs, must also weigh the expectations that golfers have when it comes to maintenance. Customers often are disappointed if a course doesn’t have meticulous maintenance and consistent bunker conditions, just like they see on television. Oatis believes those ideologies are negatively impacting some public courses.

“What we see on television is not really good for us on the local level. What is done for a week at a tournament is just not possible or sustainable on a regular basis,” said Oatis. “In essence, we’re pampering our golfers and pampering our turf. That’s not helping the game.”

The current model of cutting low and cutting often is hurting courses both environmentally and economically. Oatis says letting environments and species grow naturally will not only help cut down on maintenance fees, but will also reduce the courses’ overall environmental impact.

Joining Oatis as featured speakers were Jim Keegan, author of the “Business of Golf Series,” and Jonathan Gold, the PGA of America’s Player Development Regional Manager for the New York market.

Keegan spoke to forum attendees about technology’s vital role in a sustainable golf course’s management. Simple online strategies, such as conducting customer surveys, can assist superintendents in finding out exactly what golfers desire when playing their course. The supply can then meet the demand to create a healthy, on-going relationship between the course and its golfers, ultimately leading to more rounds being played.

Gold ended the forum by presenting the audience with ideas tailored around improving public course sustainability through the implementation of player developmental programs. One of the key programs discussed included PGA Junior League Golf, which has had over 18,000 participants in 2014, and Get Golf Ready, a program designed to attract new golfers that expects to reach 95,000 participants by the end of this calendar year.

Gold says public courses must start thinking differently to not only attract new players, but to make sure they return to play more often.

“What’s stopping you from having something like a 5k walk on your back nine at 8 a.m. in the morning?” Gold proposed. “At the end of the day, we need golfers. It is our revenue source, it is our revenue stream. The more golfers we have now, the more success the game of golf will have in the future.”

Dan Scofield is a communications intern at the USGA. Email him at dscofield@usga.org.