How are changes to golf, proposed by the game’s governing bodies, resonating on courses in the Cape Fear region?
“I agree with the USGA and what they’re trying to do with changes to rules,” said Blake Valand, assistant pro at Cape Fear National at Brunswick Forest. He added that the suggested rules changes “simplify golf and make it more fun, more entertaining.”
The initiative comes at a time when golf has seen a 30 percent decline in participation, according to media reports, including one by Bloomberg Gadfly. Citing data from golf business consultant Pellucid Corp., Bloomberg Gadfly reported the number of players in the U.S. fell from a peak of just under 30 million in 2002 to 20.9 million in 2016.
Locally, the developer of Echo Farms has opted to build homes on the community’s golf course, which was struggling, according to a recent Business Journal story.
Oleander Golf Center in Wilmington and Brierwood Golf Club in Shallotte closed this past summer.
In March, the U.S. Golf Association and its international counterpart, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, announced an effort to reduce the number of rules and make the game easier and faster to play. Proposed changes include such measures as allowing players to leave the flagstick in the hole while putting and prohibiting caddies from lining up their players.
Several proposals take aim at one oft-cited golf drawback: the time commitment required to play a round. For example, the USGA and R&AGC are suggesting shortening time for lost-ball searches and giving players no more than 40 seconds to take their shot.
“Faster rounds is something we’re very conscious of, and the pace of play is a priority with us,” said Josh Pierce, golf professional at Magnolia Greens in Leland.
Improving the pace of play is also on Eric Morgan’s mind. The Lockwood Folly Country Club PGA head golf pro cited a recent study on how marginal gains, a concept made famous by Britain’s Olympic cycling team, could apply to the game of golf.
“It’s doing more than one thing at a time,” he said.
Morgan believes rules changes that would speed up the game and make it easier to learn will benefit longtime golfers as well as newcomers.
Trying to set a peppier pace isn’t the only way some local golf courses are appealing to players. Some courses are tackling golf’s sometimes stuffy image.
Valand laughs when he hears pundits say that what millennials want from golf is faster play, Wi-Fi on the course and beer along the way. Although Cape Fear National’s current market is mostly Brunswick Forest residents, who largely are retired and have time to savor their hours on the links, the club is thinking ahead.
“Millennials have not impacted us on a great level yet, but we expect to see that in the future,” he said, noting that his organization is looking at ways to make golf more fun and faster paced. “There are other kinds of events we can do: disc golf, soccer golf, night golf with glow balls and glow stuff on the pins, tournaments with some kind of food and beverage component.”
It’s all part of addressing what Valand calls the “intimidation factor” that a steeped-in-tradition game like golf can pose to the uninitiated.
“Society is definitely changing a lot,” he said. “Our perception of what is acceptable is changing as well. We’re trying to get people to participate in the game of golf any way we can.”
Technology is also having an impact on golf. Jake Walker, general manager of Beau Rivage Golf & Resort, says that the club’s carts are now equipped with GPS.
“We can see how much time people are taking [to complete their round],” he said. “With the eye in the sky, we can resolve a problem before it happens.”
New carts are also equipped with chargers and plug-ins, allowing golfers to enjoy music and Wi-Fi connections on the course.
“The experience in the golf cart is just as important as the experience in the golf shop,” Valand said.
Golf apps for smartphones can help instructors teach and students learn, since they can map the arc of a ball, dissect the impact of a club on the ball, recommend body-friendly moves and show players how to improve their game.
“I find a lot more of my younger students are intrigued by having all that data that they can see on their phones,” Valand said. “I can show them and start working from there.”
Keeping facilities in top condition is important as golf courses seek to retain veteran players and attract new ones. Lockwood Folly boasts a new 14,000-square-foot clubhouse and improved greens. Crow Creek, near Calabash and Tiger’s Eye at Ocean Isle Beach are reopening this fall after redoing their greens.
Beau Rivage also actively works to attract youngsters to the sport. The club’s head professional started a junior golf academy, and the club offers junior memberships and student memberships.
“We’re pretty much the opposite of a private [club],” Walker said. “It’s all about value.”
And about the experience, he added. While acknowledging the need to keep players moving along the course, Walker said Beau Rivage doesn’t “rush people off the course. We give them four-and-a-half hours.”
Walker also doesn’t see his club offering different games on the golf course.
“Things that are less traditional, yeah, we’re giving them a shot, like sometimes using 6-inch or 8-inch cups, but at Beau Rivage, it’s always going to be golf.
“A lot of courses emphasize course conditions. We emphasize the way we treat people, their interaction with our staff, and that has helped us. We are a family-owned business; this is our 12th year. Hospitality comes first.”