May 21, 2018
FOCUS: Business of Sports

CT's sluggish golf industry steadies amid new-age management strategies

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
Richard Crowe, Rockledge Country Club's head PGA professional, stands above the public course's 18th hole.
Photo | Contributed
An overhead shot of Manchester Country Club.
Photo | Contributed
Timberlin Golf Club in Berlin offers an array of instructional programs for beginners and juniors.

The Great Recession and its aftereffects took a major bite out of Connecticut's golf industry, forcing a number of courses to close and many others to experience declining revenues and memberships.

But after years of battling difficult conditions — including changing golfer habits — the state's $638 million golf industry has finally begun to level off as course operators diversify the player experience to accommodate a new range of customers, officials said.

Tom Hantke, executive director of the Connecticut Section PGA, says course operators across the state are rethinking their marketing strategies to attract a new generation of players and restructuring prices to lure budget-conscious golfers.

In Connecticut, private and public courses hosted an average of 22,000 golf rounds in 2016, up 2.3 percent from 2015, mostly due to growth at public golf links, according to a recent PGA Annual Operations Survey.

Meantime, private golf clubs are trying to make the game more affordable by lowering membership fees. Average annual membership fees in Connecticut declined 11.8 percent in 2016 to $7,500, the survey found. Hantke says that helped the state's private clubs grow their average memberships by roughly 2 percent in 2016 to 280 members per club.

Clubs are also focused on generating more revenue from non-core services like instructional programs and club restaurants.

At Rockledge Golf Club in West Hartford, for example, construction crews are putting finishing touches on a fully renovated restaurant — Rockledge Tavern — ahead of its Memorial Day opening.

Richard Crowe, the public course's head PGA professional, says the restaurant is under new management and is being added to spur new sales and improve the club experience.

"We are adding a quality restaurant that is going to add to the bottom line," Crowe said. "It's not just about the golf course, it's about the total experience."

New pricing strategies

Rockledge hosted 45,000 rounds in 2017, down about 6 percent from the 48,000 rounds played in 2015, Crowe said. Last year, the club's men's league also shrank by roughly 10 percent.

There was a bright spot: its women's league grew by 5 percent to about 100 members.

Crowe says Rockledge has concentrated on raising its female membership by fostering a welcoming environment and by offering a free instructional clinic held in May.

Meantime, Rockledge has kept rates flat for three years and instituted a popular "10-play" pass, providing a discount for players to purchase 10, 18-hole rounds for the price of eight.

Keeping prices flat has helped Rockledge stay competitive, Crowe said.

They've also focused on improving the player experience by quickening the pace of play and promoting the course via social media.

"We are always changing with what our clientele is looking to do," he said. "The industry is somewhat leveling off. I don't see a big rebound coming, but I think we can work on getting support from the community and getting the patrons to play and enjoy the golf course in a timely fashion."

Meanwhile, Berlin's flagship public course, Timberlin Golf Club, saw its season pass totals fall 20 percent in 2017 compared to two years earlier. The course raises fees by 2 to 4 percent annually to offset higher costs from a large municipal workforce, which privately owned club's do not bear, said Marc Bayram, Timberlin's head PGA professional.

But public clubs, Bayram says, have benefited over time from "cost-conscious" players opting for affordable public golf alternatives. And there's proof in Timberlin's annual traffic, which far exceeds state averages as the course hosts more than 40,000 rounds a season.

Timberlin works to increase its player base through long-standing instructional programs for beginners and juniors. It has also partnered with GolfNow, the top-ranked online tee-time booking service, which has spurred new business, Bayram said.

"Overall, it is my job as a leader in the industry to keep up with the positive trends golf courses are using to attract customers and members," he said.

Value upgrade

Improving the membership value for customers at Manchester Country Club has become a key initiative under the leadership of director John Cook. The club, which celebrated its 100th-year anniversary in 2017, has more than 350 members.

Cook likened Connecticut's golf industry to a revolving door: Revenues fluctuate each year because of notoriously fickle New England winters disrupting spring openings and the changing availability of golfers.

"I think any type of growth in New England is a success," he said. "It's all contingent on awareness for the type of program you are running."

The quasi-public club has been "aggressive" in its efforts to sell memberships and welcome new players by improving the course's condition and implementing new advertising strategies.

Cook said he spent significant time over the winter researching how to communicate with the community. It's chosen to ramp-up its social media efforts to promote membership rates.

"It's clearly the place we need to be reaching out to these folks," he said of using Twitter and Facebook.

Status quo

Golf's economic resurgence on the national level in 2016 means little for Connecticut's market, officials said.

Hantke says the national uptick was mostly due to the revival of course real estate values and golf tourism in America, which ballooned to $28.5 billion in 2016, up from $20.6 billion in 2011.

Although the Travelers Championship in Cromwell is the second-most-attended PGA Tour event on the circuit, out-of-state recreational players rarely visit Connecticut for a round.

"Those two factors don't play too strongly in Connecticut," he said.

Still, Connecticut's ability to endure the financial crisis of 2007-2008 is no small feat.

"I think there is a strong educational network of club owners, operators and professionals making sure there are great golf experiences," he said. "Every golf course operator is more involved in outreach then they've ever been before."

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