Despite the recent downturn in the golf business, Bruce Charlton – immediate past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and president and chief design officer of Robert Trent Jones II (RTJ II) – sees a time of great opportunity.
“The game has been around for 500 years, and over the centuries it’s taken various forms,” Charlton says. “I think we’re going to see some different things ahead, like a period of new courses as public spaces – the way golf was at its Scottish beginnings. We’ll see fewer expensive private clubs hidden behind hedges, and more public facilities where golfers might encounter their neighbors walking their dogs around the links or strolling on public paths built in and around a golf course. People are beginning to realize – again – that golf courses are terrific community assets that both golfers and non-golfers can enjoy, but which can also produce revenue.”
“We’ll also see golf grow as a hotel and resort amenity, especially in places not currently associated with the game – like China and Dubai, Scandinavia, Turkey, South and Central America, and even Africa,” Charlton says. “People will continue to value golf as a magnet for attracting tourism worldwide.”
Charlton, an industry elder statesman along with partner and RTJ II chairman Robert Trent Jones, Jr., observes that the golf business went off track and is currently suffering the consequences.
“We overbuilt and saturated some markets with courses and golf housing communities. Ten years ago everyone was building golf course communities and trying to sell golf as a lifestyle. There wasn’t anything wrong with that model – perhaps we just did too much of it.”
According to Charlton, that overbuilding and the current financial challenges aren’t entirely golf problems – they’re also banking and lending and real estate problems that happen to affect golf.
“But, as an industry, golf generates more dollars than the motion picture industry. Golf isn’t about to go away,” Charlton says. A recent report on the golf economy estimates that the game generates more than $75 billion in direct annual revenue and employs more than 2 million workers.
For those in the business, Charlton – long known for his upbeat, optimistic nature – advises, “Now is a great time for existing facilities to take a look at themselves, to upgrade their courses and meet new environmental standards. And existing courses may need to reposition themselves in the marketplace – especially older clubs in markets that have changed.”
“Developers should also look at the actual hard costs of development and revisit plans with their architects and contractors – not just the costs, but the model for who they are aiming at. Housing developments can be built around public courses that are community assets, encompassing parks and green spaces and wildlife habitat.
“Golf can return to the democratic roots of the game that developed in Scotland and have kept it popular for centuries. Construction costs are at levels where they were five years ago; savvy developers will get projects under way now, when costs are inexpensive. When the market picks up again – as it will – they’ll have product ready.”
“The golf industry should also look at new business models – instead of a purely private club, how about one with some public access; we have hybrid cars, why not hybrid golf courses that combine public/private partnerships, whether in the deal structure itself, or in a facility that might offer several days of public access to offset membership costs, or rotate two courses between public and private access?”
Charlton concludes, “Golf will come out of this current period leaner and stronger. We’re getting rid of fat, learning from our mistakes, and developing a clearer sense of what the golf market and the golfer need. We’ll be more unified. There’s never been a greater time for everyone in the industry to get together and sing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire and begin to tell golf’s story to the public – a story of positive impacts, economically, socially, and environmentally.”
Robert Trent Jones II www.rtj2.com
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