American Express invited atombash.com to the USGA’s PLAY9 Day at Skyway Golf Course at Lincoln Park West on July 27. Coming off a successful first year, American Express proudly partnered with the USGA for a second annual PLAY9 initiative, encouraging golfers across the country to get out and play 9 holes. Many golfers find it challenging to regularly fit 18 holes into their busy lives. American Express and the USGA hope that the PLAY9 movement gives them the chance to get out and play this great game they love in a way that’s more conducive to their lifestyle. The event began with continental breakfast and a meet and greet with AMEX and USGA executives. After everyone warmed up, they played nine round of gold. Lunch was served following play. Skyway Golf Course once an urban landfill, is now a landmark golf facility defined by its positive environmental impact. Using sustainable resource management, Skyway is now a golfer’s paradise featuring panoramic views of the Pulaski Skyway and Manhattan skyline. USGA Executive Director Mike Davis sat down with us to discuss the importance of this initiative. Read highlights below:
Tell us about the event.
Mike Davis: Let me just start off by saying thanks for being here. This is actually the second year in a row we’ve done this and this is all about an awareness campaign, it’s nothing more, nothing less. What we found last year is that, when you sit and you do the research about pace of play or just the game of golf and some of the obstacles or barriers to the game you quickly realize the time it takes to play, the cost, and the accessibility are the three biggest areas, and you say, well 9-hole is actually pretty good because we’ve got roughly 15,500 golf courses in this country and believe or not by 27% of those golf facilities are 9-hole facilities and being around the east coast, you’re saying that can’t be right. But in middle America, you go in little towns and 9-hole golf courses are common place. And I think one of the things, we were trying to say is that you may recall about three years ago we started this while you’re young campaign to really focus on pace of play and that was an awareness campaign and ultimately we really focus a lot of time and resources on coming up with solutions and it’s not just pointing the finger at golfers saying play faster which is pretty much what’s happened over the years. This is a way to go to facilities and say here’s some ways you can help the experience and moving your golfers around and not having them wait on the group in front and its some, first of all it’s how often are you sending out groups. What are your intervals and I think you’d be surprised around the United States how many places are sending out golfers every 8 or 9 minutes. It’s staggering. It does not work mathematically. That’s why you get a bunch of groups on the course and everybody is waiting on everybody.
So it’s that, it’s how they set up a golf course, it’s the tees that golfers play from, it’s the height the rough, it’s not looking for golf balls as much. Just some common place things, we’ve come up with some technology where flag sticks, whether in or out, where somebody on a 9-hole course that doesn’t have a big budget, that doesn’t have a ranger out, they’ll know exactly where the groups are, and if there is a group causing a problem, they can know right in the shop saying hey, get out to the fourth hole, we got a group that’s a hole and a half away behind already, and before they weren’t able to do that. Back to today, I think we looked at it and said listen, if we can take a, whatever, four and a half hour round and reduce it to four hours, that’s a good thing. But there’s still some people around that say I still don’t have four hours to play golf and this is just about saying come out and play 9 holes. That if you think about it, it takes you roughly two hours, that’s two hours you could’ve gone to a movie, you maybe could’ve gone to a dinner, or you maybe could’ve gone to a sporting event and the median price for a 9-hole round in the United States is $22. So from a cost standpoint, they’re spending that on a dinner, on sporting events, on movies. So this is a way to bring the family out, it’s a way to enjoy yourself, maybe after work when you don’t have time to go play 18-holes, go play 9 holes and there’s this, we’re not trying to condemn 18-hole rounds, cause that is, at the heart of it, that’s how golf is played. But, when you look at all golf courses, which is about 80% in this country that have public access, 88 percent, 88 percent offer 9-hole rounds, yet so few people play 9-hole rounds. And just by doing this last year, and again, it’s just an awareness campaign, we upped the number of 9-hole rounds by 13%. So, it’s getting people that may have said I can’t play 18 that just didn’t play golf, and now they can come out and play 9-holes. So I think that this is about how can we as an industry get more people to play, how can we introduce new people to the game and I think 9-holes is less intimidating, it’s certainly better to bring families out, and by the way many people that are more serious about the game think well I got to play 18 holes to get my handicap, but you don’t. You can turn in a 9 hole score and get your handicap that way. So, again, you’d be surprised just how many people are unaware of that fact, so that’s what this is about.
Would you guys ever entertain doing something or is there some way that the industry could entertain having a 9-hole event to add, almost a little more legitimacy to it from that standpoint.
Davis: That’s a great point. In fact, you know who brought that up a few years ago was Jack Nicklaus. He was just saying, you know, what’s going to make this more legitimate, whether it’s a 9-hole round or three 6-hole rounds or whatever is somebody in the industry needs to have an event that matters, that really embraces this. I mean, when you think about it, just think about whether it’s PGA tour, or LPGA, most golfers can never play to that level, but that level inspires golfers to play. That’s how a lot of us got started, is watching, whether it was in person or on T.V, you know, a Jack Nicklaus played and inspired us, so there may be something to that to say if we really want the public to think about it, how can we introduce more 9-hole rounds. So it’s something the industry should look at and talk about.
The senior tour did something last year, they played only 9-holes in the final round.
Davis: You know this year, we started two 4-ball championships, for the men’s and the women’s and, kind of to your point, the idea with that was, so many people in the United States, when you go out to play, you play 4 ball match play. It’s the two of us against the two of you and to have a national championship, one for men one for women, listen that quickly, it’s going to end up probably becoming the most popular championships we’ve run. I mean in year one, we got numbers on the men’s side that it was a third most entered championship and on the women’s side it was the third or fourth or something like that. To your point, maybe it takes something like that happening to really spur on. You know, sometimes, there’s competitions that you hear about, some of the most fun, competitions that are 9-hole matches, where it’s instead of having 18 holes you can go play in a, maybe it’s a membered guest somewhere, and that’s some of the most fun golf you can play. It’s a 9-hole match or it’s a 9-hole competition.
How important is it for a facility like this to bring new golfers to the sport. Golf might be an intimidating game for a novice. Something like this is a little more user friendly for someone who is new to the sport.
Davis: You’re asking a great question cause I think the more we’ve studied it, the more we conclude that in the last 40 years in the United States, there’s been a mentality of hard equals good. And I think that we’re not the only ones that think this way but now, we really think that good equals enjoyable. Do you know anybody that enjoys looking for golf balls? Or hitting golf balls into water, it’s one of these things where to the extent where we can get people to play from the right teeing ground when they can reach a green in regulation or more width where you can play or just the ability to score better. Cause when we did the Tee It Forward initiative, I tell you with the men, it’s really interesting with the men versus women here, the men across the board if they actually embraced it and did go forward, they liked it better. They played more, they had more opportunities for pars and birdies, and what we learned on the women’s side they too enjoyed it. However, we also learned that many golf courses in the United States don’t have teeing grounds that are far enough forward. And I shouldn’t even limit it to a male female thing because senior golfers, for beginning junior golfers, it’s the same thing that many golf courses that 6000 yards is the shortest, 5800, we found that to really get it right you need to be somewhere in the 4200 to 4500 yard range to your point to really take a beginner and say you can play it and I think that we learn from that and it’s one of the things we’ve been talking to golf course architects, we’ve been talking to golf facilities saying it would be in your best interest to look at forward teeing grounds and say do you have set that maybe you have forced carries that somebody that can’t hit the ball more than 120 yards off the tee can’t get over a forced carry, can’t get over water or high grass.
So, I think you’re spot on, so we are noticing that the modern day architect are going back to what it used to be. Wider fairways, less forced carries, greens that you can bounce balls into. I’ll tell you something else from an agronomics standpoint, some of you have heard this before, in some ways we are our own worst enemies with green speeds getting too fast, where fairway heights too low, I love this example because I think it’s very telling, that down at Merion golf club in Philadelphia, we had the 2005 U.S amateur and the 2009 Walker Cup. Those fairways were mowed to a quarter of an inch. That’s what it got to on a daily basis. And you were watching members there you couldn’t get their golf ball up. In other words, right against the ground and we raised that height of cut for the U.S Open 2013 to a half an inch. When I started at the USGA, that’s the lowest fairways were cut. Now all of a sudden, one of the benefits, not a single tour player that played in that open, complained. Yet the members at Merion love it. They now can get the ball up in the air and guess what, it’s spread around Philadelphia. They’re saying jeez, if Merion does it, surely we can do it. I think that’s an example, going back to your point that, how can we make the game more enjoyable, how can we make it more welcoming for the beginning player and so those are some examples I think were very focused.
How important is it to communicate with facilities who want to be rated for players?
Davis: What’s interesting on that point is that they actually are rated, they’re just not published, and that’s a problem. So that’s one of the things we’ve been doing in our handicapping department is to say facilities, you’re not, you’re your own worst enemy in that case. If you’re not publishing, I look at my father who’s in his mid 80’s and he’s gotten to the point at the golf course he plays at he goes to the very, very forward teeing grounds now and that used to be a problem there. They were always rated and now they publish it so he can get his handicap from playing from those very forward tees and in the cause of some of the very beginners, the juniors, the females, we need some teeing grounds that are further forward. It’s a cause of building some tees or some cases you’re able to put them out in the beginning of the fairway for beginning golfers, so, lots of different ways to tackle it.
In that same vein, play9 holes have always seemed to be sort of an incomplete round, it’s not really a real round of golf. How do you sort of change that?
Davis: Well listen, that’s what this is about and you’re right. We’re not condemning the 18-hole round. That’s not part of this. We know that’s always going to be a part of golf, a part of the history, but you’re exactly right. We want people to think golf, at the heart of it, golf is about recreation, it’s a sport, it’s about competing and it’s ok to do that on a 9-hole basis. It’s ok to do it on a 6-hole basis. Not every facility is going to allow you to play 6 holes, but the vast majority allow you to play 9 holes. And it may be the difference between you playing golf on a given day, and not playing golf. All we’re saying is there’s nothing wrong with playing 9 holes. It is part of the game and if it weren’t part of the game, you’d have 27% of the golf courses in the United States saying you’re not really golf cause you’re only a 9-hole facility. You’d say this isn’t really a golf facility because it’s only 9 holes. It’s a simple message we’re trying to get out to say it’s ok to play 9 holes. Golf is about enjoyment and it’s about camaraderie and we tend to see on 9-hole golf courses, they are probably a little more welcoming to the beginning player. It’s not all about hard championship golf course. So you’ll see more families come out, more beginners come out, more juniors come out.
You referenced two-time integrals for pace of play. Have you begun to find it seeping down that people, obviously the flip side was people saying I want more revenue with two-times, but you can make the argument that you guys have that doesn’t necessarily help you in the long run. Has it started to sink in? Have you seen that?
Davis: We have Hunki Yun who is brilliant. His whole job is nothing more than pace of play and coming up with solutions.
Hunki Yun: I think in theory it’s starting to make sense and people are starting to talk about that a little more, but the key component of that is to, because the biggest barrier to that is the financial [effects]. The thinking is, if I’m spacing out my tee times, it’s less inventory and golfers on the course. What we’re trying to do, is try to prove with a financial study that doing so will not hurt your bottom line, in fact, it will improve it because the experience is better, because you can tee off earlier and it’s a 5 and a half hour round but that’s a worse experience than teeing off later and finishing at the same time with a 4 and a half hour round. It’s a much better experience. So when we finish the financial study which we’re doing this year and we put all the pieces together, cause after all when you run a golf course, it is a business, and a business is about the bottom line. If you can’t make money with it, then there’s no point in making these changes. But I think we’re doing a good job of showing that spaced out two times does help the experience. Like this year we went from 11 minutes for a ball, from a 11 to 12, which was a big help. We’ve shown examples with our championships, with the LPGA tour and I think other organization and tournament organizers have seen that and they have kind of spaced out balls as well. If you go back and look at now maybe 10, 15 years ago, you’ll see that the two-time rules have increased [kind of steadily].
Davis: The data we’ve collected on this, this is the classic managing by facts. All the data we’ve pooled from this has really allowed us to come up with, more than just saying play faster with the golfer, this is actually ways that we can go to facilities and say Hunki’s right, you’ve got 5 facilities that, listen it’s not about revenue there. It’s just about the experience. But on this side of it it’s looking at the golfer’s experience where they get repeat business. It’s also the owner operator saying if you can show me a way that I can have a better experience for the golfer and they’ll come back more often, it’s going to help the bottom line. I think that’s the kind of thing we’ve said, lets come up with real solutions to help them and what’s fascinating when you ask the importance of pace of play to golfers the numbers, 70, 80
Hunki: 76% is important to all golfers. When you look at the factors that impact the enjoyment of a round forced conditioning is number one. Pace of play is actually third, behind the people you play with. So it’s a conditioning thing, it’s a social thing, and it’s about the time experience, which is very important.
Davis: With that, 76% of golfers are saying this is a big issue. But then, you say, there is a real disconnect with facilities because you go to facilities and say, ok, how many of you have actual programs focused on making the experience in terms of time it takes to play, 23%.
Hunki: There’s actually a huge discount between golfers value around the golf and what facilities are working on.
Davis: We need to get to not only those 23% that are doing something say here are some additional ways, but to get to the other vast majority, and say you aren’t really doing anything right now, here’s some things if all you care about is your bottom line we can help that and in addition to that make it a better experience for your golfers. Again, when you collect that data, you realize boy, the game of golf is really missing it in a few areas.
How do you connect with these clubs with so many around the country, how do you spread your nexus?
Davis: Many or most are actually member clubs of the USGA, so we’re doing this on turf grass best practices, on usage of water, and so this is just one more thing. Listen, this just gets back to the bigger picture of, you know those of us who’ve been around golf continue to hear about how we need to grow the game, grow the game, grow the game, grow the game, we’re losing golfers, participation isn’t as high as it is. We’ve looked at it and said we agree and the industry is collaborating more than we’ve ever done to grow the game. But then you think about, that’s the supply side of this. There’s also the demand side of this, where you say, listen, if you’re going to grow the game, you’ve got to have to where it’s something that fits from a time standpoint in peoples life, cost standpoint, accessibility, and you have you make it enjoyable. People want to play. So you look at it and you say listen, we know that water is going to be an issue for the game of golf in the future, even a bigger issue than it is right now, we know that time, the cost, so we’re trying to approach it from both a supply and a demand side and pace of place is just one of those things to say if we can do a better job as an industry, and all 15,500 of those courses embrace this, more people are going to play. This isn’t an overnight fix, it’s not, but it’s something we know, we’re going to prove it long term these are things we really got to do and we’re committed to that. We’re a non-profit and we look at it continually and we say to ourselves how are we going to use our resources? All our money is going back into the game of golf, and you know, do we want to spend more on the U.S Open, do we want to spend more on the rules of golf, do we want to spend more on pace of play or turf grass best practices and we look at all that collectively and think we can get the best return on this or that or whatever. We would say this golfer experience is a huge issue in helping facilities ultimately impacts that golfer experience.
Hunki: I just want to add, to answer your question specifically, that important ally of ours, is what we call our safe and mutual golf associations, the Metropolitan golf association, the New Jersey state golf association, they have a lot of member clubs and courses and golfers and we want to educate them to educate their courses and golfers about the importance of experience and that’s a good for us to get the message out and to spread the word over the entire country.