INNOVATION
Golf Innovation Symposium Showcases Industry Opportunities April 3, 2019 By David Shefter, USGA

Industry leaders met last month in Tokyo to share knowledge and seek solutions to increase participation in the game of golf. (USGA)

As with many other activities, those who foster and promote the game of golf are constantly seeking ways to increase participation, especially in an era when time and cost are high priorities among consumers.

For leading golf organizations, including the USGA, the conversation has centered on finding avenues to achieve these goals.

The 5th Golf Innovation Symposium, presented by Cisco and held in Tokyo last month, reinforced these issues while at the same time bringing to light some solutions through research and metrics.

One possibility moving forward: simulators and short courses – both in yardage and number of holes – are acceptable alternatives that make golf more inclusive and welcoming to newcomers. Even Topgolf, family-oriented facilities where players of all skill levels hit golf balls to specified targets, has proven to be another way to introduce the game in a non-traditional setting.

Why? Because today’s consumers are vastly different from those of a decade – or half-century – ago.

In a world often defined by 280 characters or fewer, with attention spans not lasting longer than a 10-foot putt, the game can be perceived as too slow. Given that 18-hole rounds can take four-plus hours to complete, interest for the non-traditionalist can wane.

This is true for many sports, which is why efforts are being made to speed things up.

Just look at how golf has recently evolved. Eighteen-hole playoffs at major championships have been eliminated in favor of shorter formats. And even golf’s most sacred statutes – the Rules – underwent a major overhaul in 2019 to simplify the game.

It’s why some of golf’s influencers have argued for alternatives.

Eighteen-time major champion Jack Nicklaus has advocated for six-hole golf. The USGA has promoted its Play9 initiative.

The French Golf Federation spearheaded an effort to construct 100 short-course facilities over the past 11 years. By providing a welcoming atmosphere and good value, these facilities recorded more than 80,000 “licensed” golfers in 10 years, more than 17,000 of whom were new golfers.

Many facilities in the U.S. have constructed short courses as a way for youths, families and novice players to enjoy the game without the intimidation of playing a regular layout. Most are par-3 courses that require only a handful of clubs and take far less time to play than a traditional course. And most are nine-hole layouts.

In the Republic of Korea, where the game’s popularity has exploded since Se Ri Pak claimed the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open title, simulators have become one of the fastest growing segments in the game. Because of the extreme costs to join a private facility, many aspiring players in this golf-crazed region have turned to simulators to enjoy the game. According to GOLFZON, which has installed more than 5,700 simulators in Korea, nearly 80 percent of “screen golf” participants have played golf on a green-grass course.

Simulators also enable someone to play a great course in a short amount of time.

Lauren Johnson represented the USGA's Research, Science & Innovation department at the 5th Golf Innovation Symposium in Tokyo. (USGA)

Once on the golf course, the biggest issue facing the game is pace of play. The enjoyment factor is reduced when a round gets bogged down by slow play. Data shows that the No. 1 concern for recreational golfers when it comes to pace of play is not having to wait during a round. When elite golfers were asked the same question, consistent pace was the top priority.

At the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., the USGA increased tee-time intervals from 11 to 12 minutes in an effort to improve pace of play. When the data was calculated, rounds improved by nearly 20 minutes.

“We had excellent pace of play during the entire championship,” said Greg Sanfilippo, the director of the U.S. Junior Amateur. “We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the committee and players experienced minimal waits on the golf course.”

The conclusion: Better spacing of groups can ease congestion and create better fluidity.

Operating costs and maintenance also continue to be key issues for golf facilities. Some recent innovations are playing a role to help reduce budgets in this area.

Kasumigaseki Country Club, which will host the golf competition of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, used GPS loggers that generated data from the USGA’s Resource Management tool showing several areas for maintenance efficiency, including the possible removal of bunkers. The  two-fold result of eliminating hazards would be to create quicker pace while reducing maintenance costs.

At Crandon Park, a public facility owned and operated by Miami-Dade County in Florida, course architect John Sanford used the heat maps produced by golfer traffic to identify more than 40 acres of turf that is being converted in his proposed redesign of the layout. The financial impact of this redesign would be an annual reduction of more than $350,000 in water costs.

Hamanako Country Club in Japan initiated a solar- and wind-power generation program that reduces 1,250 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually and is expected to result in a positive return on investment in 16 years.

Golf Australia’s consolidation of its golf administration operations at the national level resulted in the addition of 14,000 members and the reinvestment of $4 million into programs.

“The USGA Golf Innovation Symposium demonstrated that no matter where golf is played, there are plenty of common challenges as well as opportunities for making the game stronger and more sustainable,” said Tsunetada Takeda, chairman of the Japan Golf Association, which helped conduct the symposium with the USGA. “The USGA has shown the path forward for using data and technology to bring much-needed solutions to the industry.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

More From the USGA