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  • Writer's pictureJoe Jemsek

Fortnight in Florida

After escaping the cold of the Chicago winter to spend half of the month of January to attend the National Golf Course Owners Association #NGCOA - Golf Business Conference #GBC20, PGA Merchandise Show #PGAShow presented by Professional Golf Association #PGA, and the Golf Industry Show #GIS2020 presented by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America #GCSAA, American Society of Golf Course Architects #ASGCA and Golf Course Builders Association of America #GCBAA, the jury is still out on whether the golf industry as a whole is in a better place and whether or not the current path the industry seems to be following will create something entirely new.

Screen Golf

After taking some time to reflect on a busy couple of weeks, I think my biggest takeaway (and perhaps one of my fears) from the #PGAShow is the impact that screen golf & technology driven golf are going to have on revolutionizing the industry. Transforming dusty corners of the club into multi-sport, virtual reality, gaming centers is driving new incremental revenue for courses from nine hole rural public to exclusive urban county clubs. In my own experience, I’ve seen the dramatic shift in traffic with the recent installation of #Toptracer at a driving range. The most telling comment to reflect the way this new tech is delivering new customers is evident by something said from a long time range employee “I used to know everyone’s name and now I don’t know anyone.” Additionally, I’m less optimistic that the new clientele will translate into increased rounds of live play. Existing data supports my fears, finding that screen and virtual golfers aren’t expected to venture out to green grass courses in any great numbers. In a time where we are so digitized in every aspect of life, the golf course is supposed to be a place where we unplug and keep the phones in our golf bags.

To be honest, one of my greatest fears is that the digital play will continue to negatively impact a slowly dwindling industry. The newest data shared by National Golf Foundation #NGF reports that in 2019 there was a loss of an additional net 260 courses on top of the 200 courses lost in 2018. With all the uncertainties about the future relationship between golf and technology, it is clear that digitizing advances are here to stay. It is the job of designers, owners and managers to figure out how to help make it work for the benefit of their clubs without losing the desire to walk out onto the course.

This industry is for the dogs…

After several successful project interviews and my fears of the scary technology boom subsided, I was not the only one in a good mood at the #GIS2020. Overall the crowd of golf course superintendents, builders and architects appeared much more upbeat than the vibe just a few years ago. I guess that has to do with the billions of dollar invested into country clubs in Florida alone over the last two years. It’s a difficult thing for older clubs to face, but the private club market is getting more competitive and by doing nothing, clubs can expect to be on the closure list over the next couple of years.

As for the actual show floor it has gone to the dogs! The bird dogs drew a large crowd as they herded a trio of ducks around the trade show floor, although no one seemed concerned about the trauma inflected on these poor ducks by the dogs who diligently chased them. Dogs have become the poster children for calendars and even promotional items. I used to grab squishy balls and Frisbees for my kids, now Charlie gets the swag.

Domo Arigato Mr Roboto

On a more practical note, innovative course management software was interesting and will provide a tremendous amount of data to track maintenance procedures. Larger management companies should be able to use the information to help further streamline operations, but I wonder if the single course superintendent will spend more time and effort inputting data than extracting value.

Another advancement that will certainly change the future of golf course maintenance and the human element includes the use autonomous equipment. At the show, the Toro driverless fairway mowers drew large crowds and appear promising, but for me the highlight of this group were the simpler Echo range picker and rough mower. In my opinion, these will be the easier and less expensive to add into a maintenance program. If one mower/picker can save 4 hours of labor per day, courses should realize savings in the second year of operation. But recent news of Club Cadet ending the greens mower program should be a cautionary tale that autonomous equipment is still a few years from being a reliable solution.

At the end of the long excursion to Florida, the takeaway messages became clear that in order to achieve success, golf courses are going to have to follow John Nash’s Coordination Game Theory. This simply states that individuals who are doing what’s best for the group will have greater cumulative returns than everyone trying to maximize personal returns. For example, at the courses I have worked on in South America, I was surprised to find out that none of the clubs have aerating equipment. Instead they all pay dues to the golf association which owns the equipment and then schedules their agronomic practices bi-annually. Clubs can expense cultural practices as they are needed rather than purchasing or leasing expensive equipment up front. In Chicago, specialized cultural practice service firms allow smaller courses to outsource their aerating, fertilizing, top dressing, and spraying, allowing the superintends to focus on daily maintenance routines. These cooperative efforts can pay immediate dividends for courses and clubs while allowing for the inclusion of technological advances in meaningful ways.

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