Crowds at the Waste Management Phoenix Open
Nothing reflects the success of golf in Arizona than massive crowds at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. (Waste Management Phoenix Open)

Last year, the Waste Management Phoenix Open brought in a record $222 million in gross state product, a formula that Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business tallies based on ticket sales, hotel stays, restaurant visits and other tourism revenue.

Billed as the “People’s Open,” the annual stop at TPC Scottsdale has become the most-attended tournament on the PGA Tour, giving the Airpark-area economy a major boost.

The Phoenix Open always has been emblematic of the Valley’s year-round love affair with the game, our mild climate making the Valley — and in particular North Scottsdale, with its abundance of lush green courses (200 plus) — the perfect setting for the languorous sport.

But today, the legendary Phoenix Open has become more like an annual rock festival for a crowd less interested in the sport than the spectacle. Golf industry statistics say the game itself is in decline, particularly among impatient millennials, who are not picking up the time-eating activity while boomers are aging out. They’re closing business deals more on Snapchat than on the golf course.

Innovations like TopGolf, a combination sports bar and driving range, with an added dose of high tech — players hit balls containing computer microchips that score each shot’s accuracy and distance like a video game — have been successful in luring a new generation to at least a variation of the sport.

But is traditional golf in trouble? Can the sport that has fueled so much of Scottsdale’s growth finally be facing obsolescence?

Stephanie Pressler
Stephanie Pressler, community affairs manager for Experience Scottsdale, the rebranded name for the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. (Experience Scottsdale)

Stephanie Pressler, community affairs manager for Experience Scottsdale, the rebranded name for the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, insists it’s not quite as bad here as the national golf publications suggest.

“On the national level, obviously the golf industry is facing tough times,” Pressler says. “But we’ve been very fortunate that Scottsdale’s golf industry is extremely innovative and has mostly been able to buck the nation trend so far. We host nearly 9 million visitors each year, and according to a city of Scottsdale report for 2015, 13 percent of those visitors are playing golf at their destination, which is much higher than the U.S. norm of 4 percent. And that doesn’t even factor in our percentage of Canadian and international visitors who play golf.”

Still, Pressler acknowledges that participation is not growing as it has in the past. Quoting the latest data from the ORCA report, a locally-produced metric that measures how Scottsdale-area golf courses are performing, Pressler concedes that Scottsdale’s golf business is stuck in a bit of a sand trap.

In the 2016 year-to-date numbers through November, rounds played remained flat at 51.5 percent, representing a 5 percent decline. Average rate per round was down 1.3 percent. Revenue per available round dropped by 1.8 percent, according to Pressler.

Experience Scottsdale began commissioning the ORCA report last July to learn how Scottsdale-area golf courses are performing and how their performance compares to competitive markets in the region. For example, Palm Springs and Las Vegas through November experienced year-over-year drops in occupancy, while revenue per available round was unchanged. Average rate per round experienced minor growth in those markets.

Pressler sees Scottsdale’s golf courses already addressing the issue by introducing new twists on the game, most designed to speed the action and make it more attractive to the new generation of recreational sports participants.

“We’re fortunate to have golf courses that look to boost interest in the game and even make it more accessible by offering programming like the ‘digital caddy’ at the Boulders Golf Club, or the GolfBoards and Segways at Kierland Golf Club, or the nine-hole courses at the Phoenician,” she says. “Not everyone can take the whole day to go out and play a game of golf anymore. So innovations like these are adapting the game to fit our new lifestyles.”

Scottsdale courses are feeling another threat: the decline in Canadian visitors, due to an ongoing drop in the value of the Canadian dollar, commonly called the loonie. In 2015, Experience Scottsdale initiated a discount program, Loonie Love, offering Canadian tourists — the city’s No. 1 source of international visitors — discounts on hotels, restaurants, events and activities, such as golf-course entries.

“Sometimes as much as 20 percent off,” Pressler says, “which makes it pretty much comparable to how much it cost them in the past to visit Scottsdale.”

The net result is a local golf industry incomparably primed to take on whatever changes impact the game going forward. But just what’s in store for the business of golf in 2017? And will Scottsdale stay ahead of the curve?

The TopGolf effect

“TopGolf definitely hit a nerve,” says Jerry Rose, vice president of Communication Links, a 24-year-old Scottsdale-based marketing-communication services firm catering to the local golf industry. “Their facility is fantastic. My wife had never picked up a golf club in her life before TopGolf came to town, and now she loves going there. We’ll get some friends and have some drinks and people are talking and hitting shots. It’s really captured the social nature of the game, and made it all about having a good time.

“And so a lot of the golf courses are looking at that and saying, ‘Hey, there’s something here. There’s an untapped market here, let’s take advantage of it.’”

Some of the first courses to try radical new angles are, unfortunately, a distance from the Airpark, but Rose says all of Scottsdale’s courses are watching the new ideas that other operators are testing.

“Courses are changing what they’re doing, making the game more social,” he says. “Like the Wickenburg Ranch Golf and Social Club, where they just opened what they call L’il Wick, a nine-hole, par-3 course that loops around a bar at the center. And four of the nine holes are lit, so you can play into the evening. It’s more social. There’s more interaction. You can kind of come and go as you please. Out there, you have the opportunity to basically play horse with golf. You can say, ‘We’re gonna play from this tee to that green, and whoever wins the hole can pick what green we’re playing to next.’ You’re not confined, and there’s more creativity and flexibility to the game. It just keeps it fun.”

Another innovator is the new Verde River Golf and Social Club, which underwent a substantial redesign last April.

“A lot of what they did was to give players more options, so that it wouldn’t necessarily have to be as difficult all the way up,” Rose says. “If you want to have more of an enjoyable, relaxed kind of round, for instance, you can play the middle tees or the forward tees.”

Mountain Shadows is pretty much following suit.

“They’ve redone their par-3 course so you can get around it more quickly. You’re not going to lose a ton of golf balls. You’re gonna have a fun experience, as well as a bit of a challenge.

hat’s another thing: People want to play faster. It’s just about making golf more accessible to more people so you’re not beating yourself to death over hard shots.”

Rose says course design has changed since the mid ’90s, back when Tiger Woods began his winning streak that sweepingly widened public appeal of professional golf.

“Back then, we all thought courses had to be really long and challenging. That’s kind of gone by the wayside. People realize now that not every player wants that experience.”

Luke Beardmore, senior vice president of agronomy and construction for OB Sports Golf Management
Luke Beardmore, senior vice president of agronomy and construction for OB Sports Golf Management

Revamping golf courses to meet the new fast-and-furious preferences of younger players is not an easy task, however. Luke Beardmore, senior vice president of agronomy and construction for OB Sports Golf Management, says it can be difficult and extremely expensive to rework an existing course. OB Sports manages several courses within range of the Airpark, including McDowell Mountain, Eagle Mountain in Fountain Hills and We-Ko-Pa Golf Club at Fort McDowell.

“There are golf courses that are doing things physically to the courses themselves to try to create shorter loops and quicker playing times,” he says. “But, quite frankly, it’s often better to change things through course management. You’ve got to have marshals, you’ve got to have staff out on the golf course that can identify where the choke points are and make sure you have spotters there who can move people along. We’re constantly doing that at every property every day.

“But we’ll also do a lot of programming, offering maybe a kind of ‘Wine and Nine’ package, where you can play shorter rounds with a social element, or something we call Express Lane Tee Times, that are offered specifically for people who want to play golf in three hours and forty-five minutes or less.”

Not all players like the rushed feel that’s taking over the game. In October, one long-standing team of older players in Tucson, the El Rio Men’s Club, was booted from another OB Sports property, Randolph North Golf Course, reportedly because of a history of slow play. Rose says older players will simply have to adapt.

“The days of the dad taking off on a Saturday morning and being gone for six or seven hours to play golf, that’s over,” he says. “That doesn’t happen anymore. We need to be mindful of peoples’ time. It can’t take five hours to play a round of golf. Today it’s four hours. Four-fifteen, tops.”

Techy but simple

David Bataller, director of communications and public relations for OB Sports.
David Bataller, director of communications and public relations for OB Sports. (OB Sports Golf Management)

David Bataller, director of communications and public relations for OB Sports, adds that new technology also is helping speed play and make things a little more fun for the new generation of players.

“Locally, I think 2017 is going to be a big year for a relatively new product called the GolfBoard,” he says, referring to a kind of Back to the Future gizmo that debuted at the 2014 PGA Merchandise Show, where the Bend, Oregon-produced innovation was named Best New Product. The GolfBoard already is being used at the Kierland Golf Club at the Westin Kierland Resort and at the TPC Scottsdale, along with four other courses throughout Arizona.

“The GolfBoard is basically a one-person motorized skateboard with a handle attached to hold golf bags,” Bataller explains. “You lock in your clubs to the front of it and you basically ‘surf the turf.’ It gets you around a golf course in a lot quicker time, and it’s also a way to experience a golf course in a much more intimate way than riding around in a clunky golf cart.

“You’re really gonna feel the undulations of the fairways as you cruise right up to a green, putt your ball, and get back on and go to the next tee box. If not game-changing, at least this will be something that will impact time of play and attract that younger generation of players.”

Other tech innovations are playing a part, too. Pete Charleston, president of Golf Logix, an Airpark-based business that makes a golf GPS app for the iPhone and Apple Watch, Android and even Blackberry mobile devices, says apps present a great way of moving the game into the new millennium.

“It’s all about speeding up play, as well as giving golfers more confidence, so they don’t have to walk around trying to guess the distances to the front, middle and back of the green, pertinent hazards and so on,” he says. “The app keeps track of all of your scores and stats, it gives you personalized lessons on what you need to work at, and gives you easy access to knowing the distance from anywhere on the golf course. We also like to help newer golfers play better golf. We have a club prediction software that actually recommends clubs that you should use based on your own personal stats. It’s techy but simple.”

Charleston’s company has an advantage over course operators and designers trying to get inside the quirky minds of the new generation they’re trying so desperately to attract to the sport. As a software start-up, he’s got plenty of millennials right there in the office and outsourced, coding, mapping and designing the product.

“We’re already working on new software that will give the masses access to golf data only PGA pros have had until now,” he says, exuding excitement. “We just did a beta test and it was mind-blowing as a golfer. It was almost like seeing the DaVinci Code!”

– Jimmy Magahern, Scottsdale Airpark News / Edited for