News & Opinion

Golf’s growth key: Retention over outreach

I recently attended a golf event where the speaker was asked about what could be done to grow the game.

The answers were familiar: make the game more accessible, lower the cost and speed up play.

Those are the usual responses to a question that has been asked ad nauseam during the past 15 or so years, as participation has dropped from its turn-of-the-century highs.

As I drove away from the event, I wondered whether the correct question had been posed. Perhaps the better query would have been, Why aren’t we more focused on retention versus growing the game? Why aren’t we trying to make the experience so enjoyable that golfers can’t wait to play again?

Many recent success stories in golf are linked to properties that focus on golfers’ enjoyment through memorable experiences.

Any business knows that the cost of acquiring new customers is much higher and more difficult than retaining existing clients. Some studies have shown that acquisition of a new customer costs five times more than the price of keeping an existing one.

In golf, that ratio might be even higher. It is far more difficult to keep a beginner in the game than a regular player.

Of course, I’m not saying anything new about the difficulty of golf. Anyone who plays the game not only knows how hard it can be, but has at times walked away, even for just a little while, only to be drawn back by the game’s allure.

So, as the industry prepares to gather this week for the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., what suggestions can I provide to improve the on-course experience?

Early last year, I played a course near Santa Barbara, Calif. It was not inexpensive, at $199 for 18 holes and a cart.  

Southern California had received a lot of rain at the beginning of the year, making for soggy conditions and forcing carts to remain on paths. The course was a decent design, but it showed poorly and did not offer much of an experience. 

I didn’t write about the course because it was such a letdown, but things could have been different.

For example, upon checking into the pro shop, I should have been advised about the recent weather effects. Operators could have mentioned that although they consider the course to be among the best in the area, an abundance of recent rain adversely affected playing conditions. Perhaps they could have offered to discount the green fee. Or, with a full green fee, maybe provide lunch or a gift certificate to be used in the pro shop.

The message should have been: We want you to enjoy yourself and come back when the conditions are better.

Not only would the course have made a good impression, but it would have created an ambassador to help seed future business. Positive word of mouth is the cheapest and most powerful form of advertising.

The simple things go a long way: towels and water in the carts, yardage books, better rates on replays, a full offering of food and drink in the beverage cart and a fully stocked pro shop, with fair prices. 

Of course, pace of play is important and should not be neglected, but that variable often can be dependent on the individuals. 

Yes, we want more golfers, and we should work toward growing the game, but focusing more resources toward retention ultimately will generate more business and profits.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email:; Twitter: @AlexMiceli