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Back on Course: With Boom Times Over, Local Golf Pros Cultivate New Interest in the Game

by on July 11, 2017 5:00 AM

When Joe Hughes and Steve Wager of Penn State Golf Courses talk about the game’s decline in participation, they start with Sept. 11, 2001.

The day that changed everything in America led to a cultural shift felt even on the fairways and greens of the nation’s golf courses.

Working at the time at a private club in Lancaster, Wager says “guys played golf on the weekends. Once 9/11 hit then all of a sudden we started changing how families focused on each other. … There was a big shift. Parents started looking at how they spend their time, and their values.”

Youth sports like baseball and soccer, now played year-round rather than for only a few months, have increased demands on families’ time.

Combined with a downturn in the economy, people started questioning whether they could afford to spend $4,000 for a club membership while golfing perhaps eight times in a year.

Hughes, general manager of the Penn State Golf Courses, calls the years before 9/11 the “glory days” for the game. It was a time when the charismatic Tiger Woods was dominating, attracting new audiences to the game.

“Golf courses were opening up daily back in 2000 and now they’re closing daily,” Hughes says.

Charles Sheppard, director of golf at Toftrees Golf Resort, says the golf boom of the 1990s and early 2000s led to “a lot of courses being built that never should have been.”

The saturation of courses that struggled led to a perception that golf was dying.

The recession of 2008 made things more challenging in the few years that followed, but Sheppard sees things improving now.

“The demise of golf has been greatly over-exaggerated in the media and in general,” Sheppard says.

“It’s not that golf has drastically become less appealing, it’s just gone back to the level where it was” before the boom, he says.

At the private Centre Hills Country Club, pro Jeb Boyle says rounds played have been going up in the past few years. This past year saw slightly more than 18,000 rounds played, an increase from the club’s lowest point of 16,698 in 2013. While not close to the club’s high point of 25,500 in 1998, the uptick is encouraging.

“I think the economy is getting better and helping attract new members,” Boyle says.

While stats show participation in the game largely flat nationally over the past decade, there are growing signs of sunnier times ahead. The optimism is thanks largely to a greater focus on youth programs and efforts to attract new adult golfers by making the game more accessible — and more fun.

Local pros are on the front lines in working to rejuvenate interest in golf. A big part of that focuses on a youth movement.

At Toftrees, for example, the newest golf carts have USB ports so players can charge their phones and even play music.

“Five or 10 years ago you never would have dreamed of taking a device out there to play music on the golf course,” Sheppard says. “Now that’s becoming pretty commonplace.”

Penn State Golf Courses and Toftrees also have apps that allow players to book tee times, and feature things such as electronic scorecards with a course GPS.

Skytop Mountain Golf Club offers Golfboards, which allow riders to use their body weight to navigate Skytop’s hills while standing on a battery-powered board with wheels; it is something of a cross between a skateboard and a Segway.

Millennials will have a lot to say about the future of golf, Sheppard notes. “You’re seeing a lot more effort to make the game a little more fun for younger people.”

Hughes and Wager, who is director of instruction at Penn State Golf Courses, enthusiastically discuss two PGA programs that are opening the game to new players: Get Golf Ready, a one-week class for adult novices, and PGA Junior League Golf for boys and girls 13 and under.

The local junior league started last year with 39 kids; this year, there are 63 participants, Wager says, drawn from courses around the area. While last year only a few of the participants had a friend who golfed, now “everyone knows each other. They’re starting to play, practice and push each other. Kids start to see that, oh, golf’s pretty cool.”

An all-star team of 10 of the top golfers from the league even won a Pennsylvania regional last year and represented the state at the Mid-Atlantic regionals.

Before this season had even started, one parent had already asked about booking a trip back to the Mid-Atlantic regionals this summer.

“It’s infectious how much it grows and gets (families) excited,” Wager says.

That’s big, Hughes says.

“You’re investing in the game,” he says. “Youth leagues bring parents to it — it gives back. Eventually the investment in junior golf and the beginner golfer is going to pay dividends. We’ll get back to something more substantial than what it is currently.”

Pearce Smithwick has a 12-year-old son in the junior league and is a golfer himself. “Steve runs a great operation,” he says. “They learn the game but they also learn sportsmanship and how to be a good citizen.”

Bob Parette used to play a lot but doesn’t get to very often these days. His 8-year-old daughter joined the league last year and although she has progress to make, Parette is hoping one day they’ll be able to play together. “[The league] has good coaching and a lot of value for how much it costs,” Parette says.

The season fee of $150 includes a team jersey, practice at the courses, and greens fees for the matches, which are played at Penn State, Centre Hills, Philipsburg Elks, Toftrees, and Mountain View Country Club.

Golf is a family sport, Wager says. “I can play from these tees, my kids can play from those tees, and we can all have fun,” he says.

Fun is also the name of the game in the Get Golf Ready program. The group class, which costs $110, includes seven- to eight hours of basic golf instruction over the course of a week. Part of its aim is to conquer fears that many novice golfers may have.

“I tell them they’re not going to get better in those five days,” Wager says. “They’re going to learn a lot, they’re going to get some practice in, and they’re going to get comfortable out there.”

Teaching the basics of golf etiquette is “huge” in making new golfers more comfortable, Hughes says. Knowing about where to park a cart near a green or how to rake a sand bunker, for instance, helps take stress away for novice golfers.

“It creates an environment that’s fun and welcoming,” he says. “If you’re getting yelled at by groups around you (for an etiquette misstep) it’s intimidating.”

A number of local courses also have individualized programs for beginner golfers that focus on getting them “course-ready” in a handful of lessons.

Part of making golf more accessible is making courses more playable for novices.

Toftrees last year introduced green tees that allow a golfer to play a 4,500-yard course. Before that, the closest tees played to 5,400 yards. The most skilled golfers can play over 7,100 yards.

Relatively simple steps like mowing patterns to create wider fairways on the approach to holes, and pin placement make courses less difficult for newcomers, Sheppard says.

“As golf was booming everyone wanted to have the toughest course; now it’s really coming back to: let’s make the course playable to bring new people to the game and they can go out there and enjoy it,” he says.

Wager, who recently was honored with the Philadelphia section PGA Player Development Award for his efforts to grow the game, is starting a “breaking par” program at the Penn State courses this summer, with tees moved closer to the greens.

“My goal for you is to play nine holes and shoot 36,” he says. “How far away can you get from the hole before you can’t shoot 36?”

The “sweet spot of learning,” he says, is that something “needs to be challenging, but not so difficult that it’s impossible.”

The other key to bringing in new golfers is affordability. Toward that end, many local courses offer discounted rates at non-peak times, at mid-day or starting in late afternoon when fewer players are typically on the course. Rates are also designed to accommodate those who may not have time or interest in playing 18 holes (Penn State courses, for example, charge $1 a hole after 6 p.m.).

Skytop is trying to make a membership worth as many rounds of golf as possible, opening 365 days a year, says Jeremy Crawford, head pro.

“We want to make sure we have opportunities for everybody that fits their price range,” says Sheppard of Toftrees, which offers various memberships as well as hotel resort packages and is also open to the public.

And there’s one more thing that novice golfers might want to know:

“Once you get out there you realize people who have been playing 20 years have some of the same frustrations as someone who just picked it up – topping shots, going on the wrong fairway,” Hughes says. “You realize, ‘I’m not so bad.’ Before you know it you start getting comfortable with yourself and your own swing, you get a couple of more tips from a pro and before you know it you’re out there playing recreationally for fun, and you can enjoy meeting people.”


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