As golf industry sags, pros get creative to boost bottom line

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A stagnant decade or so for the golf industry has caused many of the 28,000 men and women who make up the PGA of America to shoulder more responsibilities in the pursuit of profitability than any local club professional could have imagined generations ago.

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“But, you know, pros have always been survivors,” said Michael Turnbull, the pro at Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley since 2005.

It seems that fortitude is being stretched annually.

According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), participation in the game dipped another 1.2 percent, to 23.8 million, in 2016. That’s the lowest point since Tiger Woods turned pro in 1997. The high point was 30.6 million in 2003, the midpoint of Woods’ 11-year run of winning 14 majors and making golf cool to a younger generation.

In Minnesota, participation has remained steady the past five years, according to the Minnesota Golf Association. But the financial strain on courses and the reduced job security for their pros is evident. Since 2000, 141 courses have closed in Minnesota, according to Joe Bissen, a local writer and Pioneer Press sports copy editor, who chronicles the lost courses of Minnesota on his website, foregonegolf.com.

An urban golfer heads home.

In the Twin Cities alone, 10 courses have closed in the past five years. And that number could grow by one significant victim next month. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will vote on whether to abandon 83-year-old Hiawatha Golf Club, a course that’s not only under water financially but also requires expensive pumping to stay above water literally.

In the middle of this modern reality is the local club pro. Once upon a time, he taught the game, sold equipment in a cornered marketplace devoid of big-box retailers, and actually had some free time to play the game. Pros north of the Mason-Dixon Line could even winter in warmer climates, teaching on sun-splashed ranges year-round when $250 a month could fetch a furnished apartment in Palm Springs.

“The biggest difference now is the pressure on the business side,” said 55-year-old Troy Burne head professional Dave Tentis, a Minnesota PGA-MGA Hall of Famer who has played in five PGA Championships, a Masters, a U.S. Open and a U.S. Senior Open. “I don’t play that much anymore. Too busy.”

Finding their way
Some pros find themselves wearing more hats as younger staff positions are eliminated to cut costs. Rather than sneaking in a round to keep the game sharp, the club pro might find himself or herself gathering golf balls on the range or working the cash register, among other things.

Forty summers ago, when Turnbull was a 21-year-old rookie teaching pro at Sundance and Majestic Oaks, he counterbalanced Minnesota’s short season by working construction jobs, selling insurance and running an indoor driving range, among other offseason gigs. But he never would have anticipated what has happened in the twilight of his teaching career, or how he would have embraced the creative thinking behind it at Brookview.

Neighbors joke that Brookview does “Golf 2.0.” While the city-owned facility is centered on its 18-hole par-72 course and nine-hole par-3 course, it also offers nontraditional entertainment year-round.

In the winter, cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking and disc golf tournaments are offered. The course even hosted a 5K Lumberjack Run for the person who’s itching to run a long way in the cold while dressed as a lumberjack.

“We have a lot of ideas,” said Ben Disch, Brookview’s golf operations manager. “Not all of them work, of course. And excellent example is I wanted to host the world’s largest snowball fight. But based on some liability insurance issues, we pulled the plug on that one.”

Brookview offers “Happy Hour Yoga,” a beanbag league and golf clinics titled “Women and Wine,” “Nine and Wine,” and “Chip and Sip.”

A whole new world
Brookview also has golf bikes in addition to golf carts. It has FlingGolf, a hybrid form of golf using what resembles a lacrosse stick. And since 2014, it has offered lawn bowling, which has become its most popular nontraditional attraction.

The idea to use part of the course’s parking lot to construct an eight-rink lawn bowling venue belonged to Rick Birno, Golden Valley’s director of parks and recreation. He got it while at Brit’s Pub, the downtown Minneapolis establishment that has a 10-year wait for teams wanting to join its rooftop leagues.

“It’s funny,” Birno said. “We were new to lawn bowling. We’re trying to figure out how we would teach this game to all these people who might show up to play this thing. It was Ben who said, ‘What about our golf pro, Michael?’ And Michael loved the idea.”

“And now,” said Disch, “Michael is like the lawn bowling ambassador. There’s a waiting list for our Tuesday and Thursday night leagues. We have corporate outings four to five days a week.

“And what’s cool is when you got someone like Michael, who’s been around a long time as a golf professional. He comes together with the staff and no one laughs at or shoots down ideas or says, ‘We’re not doing that because we’ve never done it before.’ ”

Rounds down
Turnbull, of course, still teaches good, old-fashioned golf. But he knows the economics. When he left Baker National in the early 2000s, a busy course, like Baker, was turning 44,000 rounds a year. Now, a busy course turns 35,000. The busiest courses in the Twin Cities did 60,000 back then and do about 45,000 now.

“There are always new challenges to growing the game,” said Jeff Hintz, CEO of the Minnesota PGA of America section. “Mostly, it comes down to time, money and degree of difficulty. We have so many good professionals that can really teach the game and make it more enjoyable.”

Some suggest golf is experiencing a natural correction following a boom that produced increases at rates that were unsustainable considering the inevitable dips in the economy, real estate market and, yes, even Woods’ dominance. In Minnesota, for example, more than 100 courses were built in the 1990s alone, even as the number of rounds played remained steady.

According to the NGF, the average golf participant today is 43 years old and plays 20 rounds a year. And the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 has declined by 30 percent the past 20 years.

Turnbull is close to retirement and feels for the young pro who has to grind it out in a competitive market. Not long ago, he had an experience that made him chuckle and summarize just how different things are since he started out as a local club pro back in 1977.

“I was walking out of Maria’s Café in Minneapolis with my wife and daughter,” he said. “This guy comes walking by with his wife. He looks at me, points and yells, ‘Hey, Lawn Bowling guy!’ ”

Turnbull bursts with laughter. Yes, he is still a golf pro. But, like many of his peers, he’s also a survivor.

TNS

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