In the Rough
By Ben Chessor
The game of golf has been played for centuries, back to the days when the Scots knocked balls of sheep skin around with sticks. Today, it has changed greatly. Golfers now use finely made varieties of metal and steel clubs to hit multilayered balls around perfectly manicured courses.
On Vancouver Island, however, golf has fallen on hard times. With tourism down because of a weak economy, courses all over the island sit empty. Some experts claim the industry will never recover — that the game will dwindle in popularity as the millennial generation, which has never been introduced to it, grows into adulthood.
I have spent my last five summers working at Fairwinds Golf Course in Nanoose Bay, and hope to spend the rest of my life working in the industry, ideally as an instructor. So I decided to try to figure out why golf courses are struggling, and see what some courses around the island are doing to try to grow the game, while dealing with their ongoing struggles.
Rich with a surplus of championship courses, Vancouver Island has long been one of North America’s top golf destinations. It was even named the best island on the continent to golf by Travel + Leisure Magazine. Ten of its best courses are included on the world famous Vancouver Island Golf Trail, which starts in Victoria and stretches up island to Storey Creek Golf Course in Campbell River. Many have won awards and achievements. Storey Creek has been named the third best course in British Columbia by the Professional Golfers Association of BC, while the Mountain Course at the 36-hole Bear Mountain Golf Resort in Victoria is consistently cited as one of the top 10 courses in Canada by ScoreGolf Magazine.
With no shortage of places to play, die-hard golfers can find everything they need on Vancouver Island. But it looks like the area’s golf scene is destined to get smaller.
Golf courses throughout the province are hurting financially from a combination of rising costs and falling revenues. At Fairwinds, the drop in patronage can be seen in subtle ways. During the 2013 season, the scuba diving company which the course hires biannually to scour its ponds and lakes for balls estimated it found 33% fewer than in 2011. Either golfers were improving, or lesser numbers were playing than before (and given the average skills seen on courses these days, it was almost certainly the latter).
Meanwhile, the decline in American visitors, once the local scene’s mainstay, is evident in the number of US greenbacks found in cash registers. It wasn’t until late July that I saw my first American bill of the season at Fairwinds, a sight that, I was assured by my boss, was almost a daily occurrence just years earlier.
Mind you, golf has always been a boom-and-bust sport. Its first burst in popularity came in the 1920s, when it caught on among soldiers returning from the First World War. A second uptick occurred during the 1960s, as great players like Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan captured the world’s imagination. More recently, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Tiger Woods’ domination of the sport attracted new players and fans, and created a more multicultural following.
The ’90s were a beautiful time for golf. New courses opened up all over British Columbia, including a few in the Whistler area, which took advantage of the desire for more expensive courses. “People wanted to travel to play once in a lifetime golf courses,” says Fairwinds Director of Golf Operations, Ward Stouffer. “They had no problem coming from all over the continent to pay $200 for a round in some places. In fact that’s what they wanted. They could play a $75 course at home.”
The 90s boom was already coming to an end when the recession hit the United States in 2008. Combined with introduction of the HST, and a Canadian dollar that almost hit par with the American dollar, the downturn stopped the steady stream of US golfers. In fact, given the low prices of housing and golf caused by the collapse in the States, the flow reversed, as Canadians began to travel to America to play, many buying cheap homes adjacent to courses in places like Scottsdale, Arizona and Palm Springs.
Stouffer also points to the obvious geological disadvantage of operating on an island as another explanation for golf’s struggles locally. “We are all certainly victims of the ferry services,” he says. “The extra $200 to get on and off the island makes a big difference to a lot of people.”
But the recession in the U.S and the high cost of getting to Vancouver Island aren’t the only problems with the sport right now. Golf is a very time-consuming and difficult game, and the commitment required to learn and play it is cited by many as the main reason why they won’t get into it. The industry has tried to come up with ways to make it quicker and less difficult, while also reaching out to potential patrons that it has had trouble connecting with in the past: Local golfers.
“Our customer base is becoming more and more local all the time,” says Stouffer. Olympic View Golf Club General Manager Randy Frank has seen the same trend at his course just outside Victoria, but also insists that all of the doom and gloom over the state of the industry is over-dramatized. “We have noticed a distinct drop in traveling play since around 2008,” says Frank. “But we have also seen an increase in business in each of the last three years. We see no reason to believe this upward trend won’t continue.” Frank is also quick to add that, although he has seen a large drop off in guests from America, he is seeing as many guests from the rest of the world as always. “We even had a couple of families come visit us from Denmark this year,” he says.
But despite the occasional visitor from overseas, the general agreement on the island is that the customer base is more local than ever. “We are a mostly local course,” says William Mounsteven, Assistant Professional at Storey Creek. “We don’t get a lot of traveling players this far away from Victoria.” So the challenge for courses all over the island has become trying to attract their neighbours to their course, something that Stouffer admits is difficult at the price they have become accustomed to charging. “The local golfers are very value conscious,” he says. “They need to feel like they are getting a great deal for their money or they won’t come out consistently.”
This desire for local golfers to feel like they are getting good value for their dollar explains the success of some lesser-kept courses — courses that charge less money for a green fee, but in turn either do not or cannot budget for a lot of the more expensive maintenance that larger courses do. Winchelsea View in Lantzville is a prime example of a lower budget course that has found success with the value-hungry local golf population. Nicknamed the “Cow Ranch” by Fairwinds members, Winchelsea View doesn’t have the budget to trim its fairways and rough every day, nor do they change their hole location daily as most championship courses do. But with green fees of only $33 during peak season, Winchelsea View is a favourite spot for local golfers looking for a cheap game.
That doesn’t mean that championship courses are going to start slashing their maintenance budget in order to cut green fee prices, at least not drastically. Stouffer notes that local golfers are separated into two very different camps when it comes to course conditions. “There are people who are in favour of making courses cheaper by cutting maintenance. But there is also a portion of the customer base that wants to play on a perfectly conditioned course. It’s impossible to make everyone happy.” Both Stouffer and Frank are quick to point out that, while they haven’t embraced a more minimalistic approach to course maintenance, they have tried to use it to make the game a little easier. “We made our fairways wider this summer,” says Frank. “We also did a lot of work with the cuts of grass surrounding the green. Cutting the grass longer on a hill that would run away from the green, but shorter on a hill that would run towards the green. Just to give players that subtle little advantage.”
Such changes address another issue dogging the industry: Pace of play. An average round of golf on a championship course is supposed to take between four and four-and-a-half fours. This is a large chunk of time for anyone to commit in their day, yet rounds commonly take even longer, hovering around the five hour mark. “We have player assistants out on the course constantly in the summer trying to keep the pace on track,” says Frank. “But sometimes on busy days the course gets congested and rounds start to take a long time. It’s unavoidable.” Stouffer feels that if golf were invented today it would be a nine-hole game instead of 18, and he’s happy to see some of the game’s most iconic names trying to make a change. “Nicklaus and Palmer are leading the revolution of 12-hole courses,” he says. “That could very well be the future of the game.”
Courses all over North America have also joined forces with the PGA Tour to launch the “While We’re Young” campaign, designed to encourage slow golfers to pick up the pace. “While We’re Young is a great initiative,” says Frank. “Players always need that little reminder that there are people behind them. Everyone needs to work together to make sure everyone’s experience on the course is enjoyable.”
Maybe attracting more young people would improve the pace of play too. For as long as I can remember, golf has been considered a sport for adults, especially senior men. Stouffer says the ’90s boom only reinforced its image as an old man’s game. “We essentially ignored an entire generation of junior golfers,” he notes. “Everyone was so caught up in making as much money on green fees as they could. No one stopped to think we were alienating a generation of young golfers.” But courses all over the province are now making up for lost time. “We are adding more and more junior camps every summer,” Stouffer says. “We need to get kids addicted to the game.”
Storey Creek’s Mounsteven credits the kids’ programs created by the Professional Golf Association of Canada over the last few years with getting the ball rolling. “Programs like the CN Future Links [which holds instructional camps for children across the county] have been a huge help,” he says, as has its “Bring a Kid to the Course Week,” during which adults can bring children to play for free. Mounsteven also mentions the success of Storey Creek’s own junior program. “Since [Head Pro Kyle Stoudt] took over our junior program four years ago, we’ve seen large increases in our amount of junior members. Four years ago we had about 40 junior members. Now that number is over 200. We consider it to be a good sign of things to come.”
So there is some reason for golf fanatics to be optimistic about the future of the game — a game that is much too popular to simply die out, as some are predicting. Still, Stouffer warns against Vancouver Island operators becoming too bullish. “There aren’t enough golfers for this area and product,” he says. You don’t have to look far to see what he means: The Parksville/Qualicum area has four separate 18-hole courses, all within a 20-minute drive of one another, and that doesn’t even count the Qualicum Memorial Golf Club, considered by many to be the finest nine-hole course on the island. Some downsizing is clearly on the horizon.
But golf on Vancouver Island is still in pretty good shape. Even with all its problems — the expense, our relative isolation, and the sport’s built-in challenges — it’s safe to say golfers will be hitting the links — whether those links are perfectly manicured or not — for a long time to come.