Shift in course: Golf links operators making major changes to lure players to the sport

On the links, operators are trying out innovative ways — footgolf, anyone? — to attract new players and to keep from sinking during the sport’s slump.

Second of two parts

A pop of pink in the distance signaled hope to Sara Ackmann. The colorful putter and golf ball belonging to 9-year-old Jordan Dolinar gave the director of golf at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board a rare reason to be optimistic about her struggling city-owned courses.

Any sign of junior-sized clubs on one of the city’s greens is comforting to Ackmann, the person tasked with fixing $34 million worth of problems in Minneapolis golf.

Dolinar, however, is as rare as a chip-in. Attracting kids and women to the game continues to be a challenge, deflating hopes for those who want these groups to be key players in a golf revival. The number of women and junior golfers dropped 23 and 35 percent, respectively, from 2005 to 2010, according to the National Golf Foundation.

“[My friends] usually say it’s kind of boring,” said Dolinar, who started playing because her father, Jesse, was one of millions who came running to the game a decade or two ago. “But when you actually try it, it’s more fun than you think.”

A bigger picture of the game’s population is just as unsettling. Golf lost nearly 5 million players across the country in the past 10 years. In Minnesota, 40,000 fewer people are playing than in the fully booked tee-time days of the “golf boom” that hit during the 1990s and 2000s.

Sprinkled across the metro, in between cities debating their future relationship with golf or lack of one, are investors who are already betting big on a golf comeback. Some national and local statistics this summer suggest that the game could be catching a break in 2014. The average number of rounds played at Minnesota golf courses is up 7.6 percent year-to-date from 2013, according to numbers tracked by the PGA.

One hint of good news, however, is unlikely to stop a surge in changing course culture. A more relaxed, family-focused atmosphere is driving success at a Blaine course. A multi-course membership approach is working in the northwest corner of the Twin Cities. And soccer balls flying down a fairway is an increasingly common sight.

“Some of this is about golf courses reinventing themselves. How do we do business in a time where everyone wants instant gratification?” Ackmann said. “A four-hour golf round isn’t going to entice a young generation. I don’t think [golf] is dead. I just think it’s stagnant and we need to work on it.”

Adapting to the times

TPC Twin Cities General Manager Alan Cull will be the first to admit he never thought social media or new-generation trends could mesh with his private club in Blaine. Cull also thought denim, straight-billed caps and other leisure wear belonged somewhere other than his course. Times changed, and eventually so did Cull as his course began to experience the same financial pressure as most of Minnesota’s 491 other courses.

The club is now proud of a five-star rating it has on its Facebook page. Kids in soccer uniforms run freely through the clubhouse on pasta night. Membership is at an all-time high and revenue is up despite a discount of nearly 65 percent on initiation fees. It’s all about focusing on the family and embracing new trends in the golf community, Cull said.

“Golf as an industry … you basically have to hit the ‘reset’ button,” he said. “When we first opened the club we were the place you had to play because no one had played it before. But we’re 15 years old now. We saw a little bit of a flat line … so we had to reinvent ourselves and be more relevant to kids by making golf cool.”

No course change tramples traditional golf culture the way footgolf does. Hyland Greens Golf Course was the first to cut 21-inch holes in its fairways and let people kick soccer balls off the tee boxes. Seven courses have since joined the new movement, with the city of Minneapolis hoping that footgolf at its Columbia and Hiawatha courses will help add revenue to a financially strained department that lost a half-million dollars on golf last year.

Youth leader Josh Gregovich picked footgolf over traditional golf for an afternoon of fun with several of his church’s preteens last month at Hyland Greens. After two holes of the sport they had never heard of, the boys already preferred kicking and running over swinging a club and hitting a 1.68-inch golf ball.

“It’s definitely exceeded my expectations. The kids that are playing are loving it,” said Rick Sitek, manager and head golf pro in Bloomington. “It’s not the savior, but it will certainly offset some of the [revenue] loss.”

Revenue losses at municipal courses are scattered across the state. Only six city courses turned a profit in 2011, according to the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor.

Sitek said the minimal $2,000 footgolf investment is an example of the affordable and untraditional ideas that cities need to reach younger generations.

  • related content

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    Monday August 18, 2014

    The golf craze that began in the 1990s is over. The golfers are fewer and the challenges are more at Twin Cities courses.

  • New era is teeing off at Maplewood's Keller Golf Course

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    After 2 years of improvements, the historic Maplewood course will officially reopen Saturday.

  • Kickball-golf hybrid is exploding in popularity in Minnesota

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  • Your comments on the decline of golf in Minnesota

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  • Jesse Dolinar and daughter Jordan practiced on the putting green at the Theodore Wirth Golf Course in Minneapolis. Young players and women are two groups that golf course operators are working to lure to the sport — often by creative means.

  • Simon Kallal, owner of 2nd Swing, has rebuilt his golf business out of bankruptcy. Investors tried to cash in on the golf boom; now he’s returning to a simpler approach.

  • State golf at a glance

    A traditionally strong golf community has helped limit the state’s exposure to the industry’s national decline. Here is why golfers say they remain optimistic about the health of golf in the state, said Tom Ryan, Minnesota Golf Association executive director and chief operating officer:

    Economy: Golf represents $2.4 billion of the state’s economy.

    Participation: Minnesota historically ranks near the top in golfer participation in the U.S. In the early 2000s, it was known as having the most golfers per capita in the country.

    Everybody is welcome: About 90 percent of Minnesota’s 492 golf courses are open to the public.

    Destination: Golf visitors continue to rank Minnesota as a favorite golf destination with the likes of Florida, Arizona and South Carolina.

    Professional support: Minnesota is the only state to have hosted all 13 USGA national championships, the Walker Cup, Curtis Cup and men’s and women’s State Team championships. Chaska’s Hazeltine National Golf Club will play host to the 2016 Ryder Cup.

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