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Steve King says a personal touch is key to sales with the rise of technology.
Steve King says a personal touch is key to sales with the rise of technology.

CEO Roundtable: Golf Pros

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What’s the heartbeat of the golf business? Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson sat down with PGA professionals Steve King, the course manager at Rivercut Golf Course, and Rick Neal, director of golf at Hickory Hills Country Club. They talked about course saturation, the next generation of golfers and their favorite local holes to play.

Eric Olson: If you could describe your industry in one word, what would it be?
Rick Neal: I think exciting.
Steve King: I think steady, but on the rise again. I know that’s more than one word, but it had kind of been flat since 2008, when the market took a dive and golf seemingly has never really recovered back to those numbers.

Olson: What year would you say that the Springfield-area golf business fell?
King: I think that 2010 or 2011 was really when it was stagnant. One thing we’re looking at is the rounds in our market. There were other courses that came on line in the area, in the market here in Branson. Maybe a little bit of saturation going on about the same time the market went down, so rounds were being spread out, golfers being spread out, and it impacts us in two different ways.
Neal: I say exciting because of that. It is increasing. The memberships are going up, the play is going up, something as simple as golf club sales are going up. You see that market coming back again fairly strong, and I think that’s exciting for us that have been in the business long enough. We’ve seen the highs, we’ve seen the lows, and we’re trending back up in the right direction.

Olson: Last year, the National Golf Foundation projected there would be more closures in Missouri than openings of courses. Do you think that was the case?
Neal: On our end, I think people made a choice once things started going south; people started making a decision about what they wanted to do with their extra dollars. Do they want to play golf? Do they want to travel as much? I think that was a big part of it, people backing off. There are clubs that lost a lot of members. It takes a lot of money to run this business.
King: Really the only local one that technically closed would have been Murder Rock, but that was all part of a future master plan that Johnny Morris had. We take surveys of the area and get a pulse for rounds of golf and how the facilities are doing and it’s kind of the same. Everybody has kind of dipped, it’s stabilized, and everybody is kind of on the upturn again. One of the things that Rick brought up in club sales, as far as merchandise sales, we saw a pretty dramatic turn in that. We’re slowly gaining some of that back. (Springfield-Greene County Park Board) has three 18-round golf courses in our system, and we all kind of compare notes. We definitely see a big hit as far as Amazon and eBay. We’ll actually have customers coming into our facilities with the intent of seeing our product and then purchase it on the internet.
Neal: One of the things we have left as a PGA golf professional is to actually be able to take a person by the hand and actually take them to the driving range. There’s so much technology now, these launch monitors, and everything on computer, and I think it’s so important to take them out there and see where the golf ball is going. But that’s one of the last things we’re able to do.

Olson: A few years ago, a Bloomberg report said 800 golf courses closed over a decade. What did you see as being behind the closures?
Neal: One, the market was oversaturated. There were too many golf courses. I worked for a company where our theory was to keep building golf courses so that when things got good we’d be ready for them. It happened slightly, but there’s a lot. Even here in Springfield, there’s a lot of golf offered here. I worked in California; I started in 1981 with over 80 golf courses, but now there’s over 140. Out there now, they’re really struggling.
King: I just think the discretionary income wasn’t quite there. There were several in Kansas City that closed, a few in St. Louis. I think our area can kind of hold some of that off differently than most. And I think on the flip side of that, growing our customer base. Our customer base gets older, so we’re trying to grow and create new golfers for the future. Other sports have affected the golf industry, especially in youth soccer programs – parents juggling all that with their time. Either the parent doesn’t have the time to play golf because they’ve got something with the youth or the youth we’re trying to get to our golf courses are already so heavily involved with other sports. I think some of the downturn is just from losing that core group of people.
Neal: At our facility, we’ve grown a junior golf program, but kids also have a tennis program and a swim team. So you’re spreading those kids out from place to place. You’ve got to promote and you’ve got to get them to stay around. I want them to play golf, but they want to play tennis, also. If you don’t capture these young people by 7 or 8, you’ll lose them. They’re going to do something else. The soccer fields are full of those kids out there. There’s a battle with these other sports.

Olson: In 2015, rounds played were up for the first time since 2012 and it was a 2 percent increase – 2.2 million people took up the game and the record is 2.4 million. What are rounds looking like around here?
Neal: I think on our end it’s going up. Our rounds are up, our play is up, but not enough. But yes, it’s in that 2 percent range of growth for us and I find that exciting. I like to see people around and I like to see our facility full.
King: If you look back from 1999 to 2001, when Tiger [Woods] was really coming on the scene and golf was at its peak, I would say we’re probably 10 to 15 percent down. I think if you go out, there’s a lot of metropolitan areas that are 20 to 30 percent down. Again, we’re chipping away at it. I don’t know if we ever get back to that, but if we can approach it steadily, that’s great.

Olson: It’s still a nearly $70 billion industry. There’s a lot of money wrapped into it. Where do you see people spending their money in golf right now?
Neal: In our case, dues. I mean, you pay monthly dues to be where we are … for what you get the privilege to do. There are some of those dollars tied up in equipment. You still have those guys who feel like they need new equipment every year or every other year. Gentlemen are different; whereas guys like buying new equipment, ladies might buy a set of clubs and keep them for 10 years.
King: On the equipment end, people are still buying, but maybe the guy who buys $400 drivers is waiting that extra year to buy them now. Some of that’s a factor also, but they’re still spending. One way you look at it nationally is that you see Nike Golf, which was one of the biggest companies. They are still huge on the apparel side, but they quit making golf clubs and balls. You see a lot of shakeup on the corporate side of golf.

Olson: We have seen locally millions of dollar invested into some Branson courses recently and continuing mainly through Johnny Morris in Big Cedar Lodge. What impact do you find that has on the golf scene?
King: I know an amazing facility’s down there. Incredible really is the word for it. What he’s doing down there really is amazing and I can’t wait to see what the finished product is going to be with the other stuff, but I know that on my side of it, being what I’d call an upscale public course, we kind of “cabbage” on to a lot of that traffic. We get a lot of customers that are either heading there for golf or family vacation or we get them on their way back. We’ve seen an uptick in that as far as being a place they stop because our rates are a little less than the Branson facilities. It can only help. Making Branson a huge golf destination like they are only helps us in my opinion.
Neal: I think that it’s amazing, wonderful even, to be able to fund your vision. Johnny Morris is able to do that. What he’s done down there is spectacular. I remember the first time I stood on top of Top of the Rock. It was like going to Disneyland as a kid. We’re different. It hasn’t affected us. We have members that go down there that are kind of “one and done” and that’s really about it. As far as affecting us, it really hasn’t. But I think it’s fabulous what he’s done.

Olson: What are the distinctions between public and private play?
Neal: You know, on our end, I think the expectations of what the members are looking for as far as service. I’m not saying anything about the other golf courses, but right there we have captured 650 members and about 350 golfing members. Their expectations are pretty high. We set pretty high goals for my staff and myself to cater to these people who are wanting to pay this type of money and come play a golf course.
King: We don’t have the membership, so to speak, but I think we strive to maintain the quality of the golf course. In our three facilities, we don’t have a lot of the amenities as far as the big dining and restaurant style stuff. We don’t have the pools and everything like the country clubs do, so we really try to focus on our quality of product and being friendly and making sure they’re getting what they paid for. That’s what we strive for. We’re really focused heavily on our course conditions and, barring floods, we just keep getting better.
Neal: One of our biggest changes in our facility is social events. You think about golf and you point to golf, golf, golf, and now a lot of the conversations are about social. We’re going to bring a family to the Easter egg hunt; you’ve got to balance all these balls in the air. You want to make everybody in the family happy. I’ve been in the business almost 40 years now, and I’ve seen it more in the last five or six years than I’ve ever seen. The social stuff is very, very important for the family. It’s been very positive.

Olson: What about rounds? How many rounds were played at your facilities last year?
King: At Rivercut, we’re at about 24,000. We hope this year to be around 25,000. Our peak year was around a little over 31,000. I’ve been at Rivercut now for 20 years, so I’ve seen all stages of it. We’d like to be in the upper 20s, you know, 27-28, that’s kind of our goal.

Olson: Do you look at other municipal courses as a barometer?
King: Sure. I can speak definitely for our other two facilities, and you’re talking again, 15 years ago, those were courses that were running 50,000-plus golfers and now they’re both in the 20,000s. Again, some of that is economic, but as we’ve hit on a couple times, a lot of that is saturation. We’ve had different courses come on line – Millwood, Springfield Golf and Country Club, Island Green expanded to 18 holes. I don’t know if golfers in our area have declined, it’s just that there are more options and they’re spread out over more facilities.
Neal: We’ll do 15,000-16,000 rounds, and when we say that, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but most of those are between May and September. So, obviously, we have a lot of members who travel. We hope those numbers will continue to go up. We continue selling memberships and getting more members – a lot of the members are younger.

Olson: Where do you find the most challenging holes in our area in terms of your personal play?
King: Everybody thinks we play golf all the time, but we really don’t.
Neal: I didn’t play in June and went to a tournament in July, so it’s really kind of funny when we get asked that question.
King: We play some. Difficulty wise Rick’s place, No. 4, is one of the hardest ones around. We have one, No. 17 or No. 10 at Rivercut. People say that’s pretty hard, too.
Neal: I was thinking about that. Rivercut, Nos. 9, 10 and 17, that stretch of holes are difficult. Hickory Hills, they’re hard – No. 4 is our biggest handicap hole, and it’s awful. It’s brutal. I mean par’s a good score. Usually, I get a stroke on that hole.

Interview excerpts by Features Editor Emily Letterman, eletterman@sbj.net, and editorial assistant Barrett Young, sbj@sbj.net.

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