The world of golf braces for a tough year as corporate sponsors tighten their belts and golfers cut costs
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009
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"We are more concerned about the future of our clubs and courses, thereby our professionals," says Robson. "We've had one professional lose his job, ostensibly for financial reasons. There are several clubs that are well below full memberships. There are talks of mergers, though there are a lot of rumors flying around. I think public courses will continue to be healthy, because as members start leaving private clubs, they will still want to play golf."
Robson also raises an important question about the nature of private clubs, which also applies to high-end public facilities. "I think you will see a rollback in expectations," says Robson. "Maintenance budgets are being cut, dining budgets being cut, golf services budgets being cut. This whole idea that everything has to be five-star. Does everything have to be five-star to be golf? Can't it be four-star or three-star? The basic game is simple, and maybe this situation will make it more simple again."
It's a thought shared by David Fay, executive director of the United States Golf Association. "This quest for perfection is going to be dealt a pretty serious blow," says Fay. "My course up in Newport [founded in 1893 and one of the original members of the USGA], we don't have an irrigation system. We are sort of minimalist: no food and beverage service other than a lunch of soup and cold sandwiches. The way we maintain our course might be replicated by other clubs. Greenskeeping, facility maintenance would be a good place to cut back on." The USGA will bring the U.S. Open back to the Black Course at Bethpage State Park this June. The course, 30 miles from Manhattan on Long Island, hosted the 2002 event won by Tiger Woods. Financially, it was as wildly successful as the competition. For 2009, Fay knows that the expectations can't be that high.
"Golf benefits when the economy is strong and will be affected when it is weak," says Fay. "At our three Opens, we sell corporate hospitality. When times are tough, entertaining clients at golf tournaments is going to be one of the first places corporations are likely to cut back on. The Open at Bethpage will still be sold out, but given the large number of companies in the financial industry that participated in 2002 and you would expect to be back in 2009, I would have to believe that some would step back altogether and others might go from a large tent to a small tent."
There is still one strong selling point about professional tournament golf. The fact that tournaments are set up as nonprofits that contribute to charity makes shelling out precious dollars a little easier than, say, buying a suite at a football game or $250 tickets to a basketball game. Peter Miele, director of the PGA Tour's Barclays Classic, thinks the charity angle is key.
"People who are looking to spend their money have to be very critical," says Miele. "The fact we support local charities, I hope that is the tipping point for funds to come our way as opposed to another entertainment venue. That's what sets the PGA Tour apart and always has. I know for a fact that companies look at us differently because the money is going to local charities."
The question is, how much green is there to go around, anyway? How much money is there to continue to support clubs, public fee courses, golf travel and golf equipment sales? Fay chooses not to take a grim view of the situation, even displaying a bit of dark humor.
"You think that there will be courses that will be plowed under, and some might be," says Fay. "But given the situation in the construction-development industry, that's probably not going to happen. Somehow courses will keep going, some private ones going public, some merging operations. People are going to still play golf."
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