With the coronavirus changing the normal rules of engagement, golf courses are starting to view single-rider scooters as a viable option and not just a cool amenity
We’re all familiar with playing “catch up” at work following a week of vacation. Phat Scooters president Derrick Mains had no idea what he was walking into when he returned from some time off.
“When I came back I didn’t even know who half the people were,” said the president of Phat Scooters, an Arizona-based company that specializes in a series of single-rider golf scooters. “I walked in and the receptionist said ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I own the company.’ We haven’t been able to keep up. That has been the challenge. We used to ship our scooters in about 7 business days and it got to where we were averaging about 25 business days in the early summer.”
Mains even implemented some unconventional means for his new employees to get acquainted.
“We have a small, nine-hole municipal golf course right down the street from our office,” he said. “I went to the pro and asked for the last tee times every Tuesday night and told him I was going to bring 20-25 people out to play golf so everybody can get together and know each other. So we’re all cruising around out there in Phat Scooters playing a fifteen-some.”
While conventional two-seat golf carts started becoming available to the general golfing public in the 1950s and have been a staple now for decades, single-rider golf scooters are a relatively new product on the golf scene.
In fact, Mains recalls the snickering from those attending the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando as they walked by his company’s space and looked at the single-rider scooter on display.
“It was really interesting standing in our little 10-by-10 booth and people would walk past, look at it, and would laugh and say, ‘Nobody is going to do this,”’ Mains said. “That first year there was about a dozen courses that were super progressive that said ‘OK, we’re going to try four of these.’ Then, the second year at the PGA Show people walked up and said ‘We’re considering this.’ And we said ‘OK, we went from nobody will ever do this to we’re considering this.’ Then, at this year’s PGA Show, it was really amazing to see all of the big boys, all the luxury courses, all the management companies, walk up and instead of talking down about the product they would say ‘Hey we’ve got to do something in this single rider space.’ We saw a huge uptick after the PGA Show this year.”
But nobody was prepared for the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak and the requirements for social distancing, including at thousands of golf courses across the nation that were allowed to remain open as they were deemed “necessary” recreation outlets.
Yes, golf was open. A system for handling the volume of players who began flocking to courses was not. While play shot up more than 30 percent in some areas, instead of a foursome taking two carts, now four players took four carts because of social distancing rules. Pros were quickly burning through their cart fleet like a knife cutting through hot butter.
“We went from this science of how many carts you needed for how many tee times to overnight throwing the entire book out the window and now nobody wants to ride in the same cart anymore; courses weren’t sure how to react to this,” Mains said. “So, we just started getting inundated. And when I say inundated I mean inundated. I have nine full-time sales people and they are a week behind on inquiries. It’s literally hundreds and hundreds of inquiries a week that are coming in.”
Prior to COVID-19, Mains’ sales team would field calls from courses hearing about the new golf scooter phenomenon and want to try out two or four of them. Courses are no longer dipping a toe in the water; they’re diving in head first.
“Now, we’re getting courses asking what is the price break if I get 50 scooters,” Mains said. “It has been a complete and total overnight transformation for us having to go out and sell why single rider was the right choice to now it’s like someone just flicked a switch and every golf operator in North America is saying ‘of course, single rider is the only way to go.’”
Montana-based Finn Cycles is a competitor of Phat, and is reporting similar impressive numbers. In fact, Finn Cycles are now located at more than 100 golf courses across the country, including such resorts as Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C., a traditional and iconic Donald Ross layout that has hosted numerous U.S. Women’s Opens.
“We’ve heard a number of stories where golf courses are running out of two-person carts by 10 a.m. because they can only check them out to one person at a time,” said Sun Mountain Motor Sports president Ed Kowachek. “They are looking for other ways to augment or to add to their fleet rather than bring in more two-person carts because who knows how long COVID-19 is going to go on — is this just for the season, 18 months, 24 months? We feel as people are experiencing Finn cycles due to social distancing they are not going to want to go back in many, many ways. It’s so much fun.”
At Pine Needles, Finn Cycles are so popular that resort president Kelly Miller has more than doubled his rental fleet in less than a year.
“We started out with four, then we went to 8 and now we’re at 16 and I’m looking to order more. They have been very popular,” Miller said. “It’s a fun way to play golf, and today especially with the social distancing you are on it by yourself and the pace of play is unbelievable.
In general, golf is a purist sport with a reluctance to change.
“I told somebody it’s not unlike music,” Miller added of the cycles. “There are some people who really like music on the golf course and some people who really despise it. The challenges are making sure you’re not offending your long-term guests who love and enjoy the traditions of the game. On the flip side, you have to watch out for your business. A good friend of mine at the University of North Carolina said if you are really looking out for the long-term interest of your business you’re probably looking at college graduates. What do they want because 20 years from now because they are going to be your consumers? We’re trying to adapt and walk the tightrope between the two.”
While there are “cart path” rules at golf courses for conventional two-seat carts, cycle or scooter riding across these green horizons may need some fine tuning as we move forward. That’s understandable with a new category.
“We may have to come up with some rules,” Miller said with a chuckle. “Right now I’m telling them to stay off the greens and out of the bunkers, but I’m seeing some run up on the tees, which we really don’t want. Again, some of this is all so new.”
And a welcome revenue source for courses looking for fill out tee sheets as evening hours approach. Golfers taking a scooter or cycle can get around the course in less than three hours.
“The way we pitch the courses is yes, it speeds up pace of play, yes it attracts younger golfers, yes it helps with social distancing, but this is all about revenue,” Mains said, “If you can get $20 extra per scooter and put it out twice a day all of the sudden that’s $1,200 per month in new revenue per scooter, which means you have an extra $80,000 a season you’re putting in your pocket.”
Both Phat and Finn are working hard to refine their products, trying to meet customer feedback needs.
“We’re trying to get more efficient and better quality because listen that’s what you demand of a golf cart company so you should demand that of anybody else who comes into that space,” Mains said.
While pull carts have gained significant ground among players during the COVID-19 outbreak, most golf courses designed over the last three decades or so years are not necessarily conducive to walking, giving cycles and scooters an advantage.
“I was at a golf expo last year in Sacramento and giving demo rides and I can’t tell you the number of riders who said this should be the future of golf,” Kowachek said. “So, we’ve heard some courses that have brought Finns in and their lease is coming up on their rental cart fleet and they are cutting back and maybe instead of 60 carts they’re bringing in 40 and then bringing in more Finns. We’re hearing of indications of that all over the country, absolutely.”
“Yes, Finn is a single rider option competitor of ours but I love them in the market place,” Mains said. “They helped validate the market place for us. When we were out there on our own a few years ago saying ‘Hey, look at us?’ people were saying, ‘Come on, who are you guys?’ So when Sun Mountain came on board it was awesome.”
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