The baby boomers have been a boon to the golf business. Participation rates in Canada are at an all-time high and money is changing hands at a furious pace.
According to a Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA) study released last year, there are six million swinging Canadians, a national participation rate of better than one in five. What’s more, Canadians are spending almost $13 billion a year on the grand old game. But every bubble bursts, and there are fears in the industry that as the boomers start toddling off to the 19th hole of life, they’ll be leaving behind more than a few empty spaces on the tee box. Red flags are already fluttering. The same RCGA study also shows that the participation rates for junior golfers aged 12 to 17 has declined from a high in 2001 of 17.6 per cent to 14.6 per cent last year, representing a loss of 53,000 potential paying customers. The biggest drop-off was among boys – with 29.4 per cent playing golf in 2001 and only 20.8 per cent participating today – although it was up slightly among girls, rising from 5.0 per cent to 8.1 per cent. Underlining the point is that the average age of golfers in Canada is now 40 for men and 42 for women, and, at this rate, that average isn’t going to go down anytime soon. It may have to, in order to support the kind of golf-course development that took place in the ’90s, when approximately 50 new facilities came on stream in B.C., bringing the total number in the province up to around 350. (Another mini-boom is currently underway, primarily in the form of golf-course real-estate plays being marketed to retiring baby boomers.) It’s not hard to figure out why golf is having a hard time attracting Generation Next. For one thing, it has a lot of extremely well-marketed competition, including hockey, baseball, soccer, skiing, climbing, kayaking, snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking and tennis – not to mention the lure of the Internet, TV and that perennial favourite: hanging out at the mall. Golf is also perceived by many young people as elitist, expensive and, well, uncool: something that middle-aged white guys in dorky clothes do, not cool kids who snowboard with MP3 players. Rachel Sharman of Deep Cove is typical. When asked what kind of person she thinks plays golf, the 16-year-old skier and mountain biker replies, “retired people living in the Okanagan.” Unfortunately, she hasn’t been given much chance to think otherwise. Evidently, there’s a boys’ golf team at her school, Seycove Secondary School, but when some girls asked if they could have one too, they were told they’d have to organize it themselves and on their own time. That was the end of the girls’ golf-team idea. “And it looks really expensive to play golf,” Sharman adds. “Especially when you consider that we can get a season’s ski pass for one of the local mountains for $160.” Nonetheless, young people represent the future of the game, and the fact is that if they don’t start playing now, it is likely they never will. They’ll already be lost to other recreational pursuits. The golf industry is beginning to wake up to this reality, says James Cronk, GM at Westwood Plateau Golf and Country Club and a driving force behind a promotional effort called Play Golf Canada. He says the industry has to work on three levels. “We have to let young people know we have a great game,” he says. “We have to let their parents know that hanging out at the golf course learning etiquette is better than hanging out at the mall, and we have to encourage the golf industry to offer more incentives, marketing dollars and sponsorship so that young people have more heroes like Mike Weir to look up to.” It would be nice to have golf courses exclusively aimed at young people, with rock and roll playing in the clubhouse, but the economics wouldn’t support that. Nonetheless, the general consensus is that if kids can be introduced to the game without being humiliated, they’ll adjust to the culture, and the culture will adjust to them. Standardized teaching will go a long way toward eliminating the humiliation factor, says Jeff Thompson, Mississauga-based managing director of player and program development for the RCGA. The RCGA and Sport Canada have developed a Long Term Player Development program, which the two organizations hope will become the national standard for teaching. This makes sense; young people in organized programs are three times more likely to stay the course than those who go at it piecemeal. Golf also needs to take a page from the hockey/soccer/baseball playbook and get kids involved at an earlier age, says Paul MacDonald, the RCGA’s Mississauga-based managing director of golf programs and services. To facilitate that, the RCGA developed Future Links, which MacDonald describes as “a buffet table of resources and programs for golf facilities, schools and youth recreational organizations.” (Seycove Secondary take note!) Andrew Ripley, an associate pro at Seymour Golf and Country Club in North Vancouver, agrees that getting them young is essential. He’s been walking the walk by making appearances and offering clinics at North Shore elementary schools. “A lot of kids have this funny idea of golf,” he says. “But when they get a chance to play, they love it.” Other examples of the golf industry “getting it” include GolfBC’s Kids Play Free program, says Jeff Ciecko, GM at Nicklaus North Golf Course in Whistler. It allows 16-and-unders to play free twilight rounds in the company of full-fare-paying adults. There’s method to the generosity, he adds. “Research indicates that once a potential golfer of any age touches a golf club five times – either on the range or on a course – they’re hooked.” Other courses offer similar programs, so the rub is finding them, but that’s getting easier as well. The National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) sponsors the getlinkedplaygolf.com website, which has a search function for courses throughout North America, including B.C., that have something called Beginner Friendly Certification. Here, you can find such courses as Bootleg Gap Golf in Kimberley, which is listed as offering a short course and a long course as well as “group lessons, annual free clinics, and lower-priced clubs for new golfers.” What makes a beginner-friendly course? Ross Marrington, architect of the online BCGolfGuide.com, says he and his eight-year-old son are looking for a facility where “the starter doesn’t wince when he sees us.” Evidently, the starter didn’t wince when the Marringtons showed up at Vintage Hills Golf Course and Academy in Westbank. “Kids are the future of the game,” says golf director Dean Claggett. “And we’re the right kind of facility.” The right kind of facility means shorter; Vintage Hills is a par 63, measuring in at 4,300 metres. It also offers a host of golf education programs and tops it off by turning the NGCOA-sponsored Take a Kid to the Course Week (kidsgolffree.ca) into a month-long affair. And if the course is quiet, mom and dad don’t even have to pay. “You never know,” says Claggett with a chuckle, “sometimes if you can hook the kids, you can snag mom and dad as well.” Unlimited-pass programs are another great investment tool (just ask all the local ski-hill operators). Fairview Mountain Golf Club near Oliver offers an annual pass for under-19s at a mere $195, that’s good for unlimited play, notes director of golf Brian McDonald, who adds that he never had time to hang out at the mall when he was a kid because he was always at the golf course. “My mom would drop us off in the morning and pick us up at the end of the day,” he recalls. Other courses offer similar deals. If yours doesn’t, ask why not. In response to the short attention span of kids, Riverside Golf Resort at Fairmont Hot Springs offers all-day children’s programs that include some golf in conjunction with other activities such as horseback riding, waterskiing, hiking and fishing, says head pro Billy Kulyk. Ultimately, selling golf to the next generation is about being creative, making space on the tee box and offering the right kind of promotion. “I really would like to play more,” says 18-year-old Gabriel McPhee, a Grade 12 student at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver. McPhee, a soccer player from the age of three, also skis double black diamonds and counts tennis, squash and badminton as regular activities. “The thing is, you never see any advertising for [golf],” he adds. “Not in the schools, not on the buses. If we saw an ad saying come to this or that golf course, show your student card and we’ll give you a good price on golf, then me and my friends would come.” McPhee and Sharman are awfully nice kids. They and their friends would be an asset to any course. Somebody should give them a call.