Sacramento-area golf leaders tee off on volatile state of the game

Special to The Bee

You can argue that golf in America peaked in 2005. More than 4,500 courses were built – 40 in the Sacramento area – in the preceding 15 years as the economy soared. And Tiger Woods, arguably the game’s most influential torchbearer, was at the height of his powers. The sport was flying high in spectator interest and recreational participation.

But golf has been on a steady national decline since, and the number of players and rounds and money spent have slumped. For nine consecutive years, more courses have closed than opened nationwide. An economic downturn got the ball rolling, but changing lifestyles of young adults in the social media era makes a significant trend reversal questionable.

While the decline is bad news for those in the golf business who stand to gain financially from the game’s growth, does the average golfer who enjoys the sport as a pastime care? Should he or she? Wouldn’t greater participation lead to slower rounds, less supply and higher fees?

Maybe, but there is an intrinsic desire to see golf, in general, healthy. Too much contraction could lead to more course closures and slipping conditions at those that survive.

Boxing and horse racing once dominated the American sports landscape, but they’ve cycled out as relative afterthoughts. Newspapers, the print versions at least, are falling victim to changing habits. Things change.

There are still more than 16,000 courses in America and 25 million golfers who contribute to a $30 billion-plus annual industry that’s responsible for nearly a half-million jobs.

Golf is a great game with a long history. It isn’t going away, but where is it headed?

Q: The golf industry has a financial stake in growing the game. Does the game’s growth/decline really affect the recreational player?

A: Damian Pascuzzo: The current recreational player does have a vested interest in growing the game because somebody grew it for them. There is a legacy there. What they may face personally is that if the game continues to decline, there will be fewer opportunities, fewer places to play.

A: Tom Morton: The healthier the industry is in general, the more (advantages) there’s going to be for the recreational golfer. It’s going to be more fun for them if the industry is healthy.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to growing the game?

A: Charlie Gibson: Golf has become so diverse that it’s creating a bigger challenge. One guy’s idea is to wear his hat backward and his shirttail out and drink 12 beers. And another guy’s is to make sure you’re standing at attention and you never utter a word. It’s a conflict of direction.

A: Morton: The industry has no clue about what growing the game really is. There are lots of initiatives out there, which are great. But initiatives are initiatives. That doesn’t mean somebody is going to play golf because you held a 200-person clinic at your golf course. (A clinic) is great, but then what did you do with those 200 people to actually get them excited to come back, get involved in the game? Growing the game is only growing the game if people are actually sticking to the game and continuing to play.

A: Del Sayles-Owen: That’s what (the Executive Women’s Golf Association has) tried to do nationally and locally, is to start with that brand new golfer and give her a place to go. Give her a support group. She can always go to any course and sign up for a lesson, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to have a group around her to play with and to help her get a handicap, to help her get comfortable on the course. Golfers learning the game need to have a community.

Q: Statistics suggest that millennials, who view golf as too time-consuming, difficult, exclusive, non-diverse and expensive, are behind the game’s dip. How is the golf industry responding?

A: Caroline O’Brien: It’s become more acceptable for nine-hole rounds to be considered a real round of golf. Nine holes needs to be acceptable, and six holes should be acceptable. I think a lot of golf courses are adapting to that.

A: Gibson: I think a major problem we don’t know how to deal with is the millennials are looking for a different product than the baby boomers and looking for a different product than the youth. You go out to one course and you have 40 kids out there taking three hours to play four holes and all the baby boomers and millennials are angry, and you’ve got a guy with a mini-keg and a boombox who’s a millennial that’s going to spend $75 that day and you’ve got a guy who’s paid the senior fee that’s absolutely livid because (the millennial is) there and not respecting the game. I think what it’s going to come down to, as our business shrinks and finds its center, instead of us trying to be everything to everybody, you’re going to find Rocklin may become a course that’s youth inhabited where the rates are nothing, and maybe WildHorse is the smoking jackets, and maybe Morgan Creek is the hard-core competitors.

A: Morton: Municipal public golf does need to be all things to all people. As Charlie suggested, it’s not easy. Take FootGolf. There are some people who despise it because it’s not a traditionalist thing, but we’re doing thousands of rounds of FootGolf that is bringing people to the golf course who never would have before. We’re starting to hear stories and see folks that never touched a club before that started with FootGolf that are now starting to play golf. That’s awesome and that’s what the industry needs more of, to be more open-minded.

A: Greg Bliek: It takes a lot of communication because it’s really challenging to explain to the golfer why we need these programs to branch out to bring new people to our properties to keep them alive and going and strong. Some of them see it as an inconvenience, so it takes a lot of communication and education to make sure they understand why we’re doing it.

Q: Is it possible that golf’s decline is just a natural evolution from the 80,000-round days?

A: Gibson: I believe I could do 70,000 rounds at each of my courses in the area next year if it was $6 a round. The cost per round is what’s banging us out of the market. Everybody wants to play free.

A: Morton: At Haggin Oaks, each course used to do 100,000 rounds in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Well, within 50 miles, there’s been 40-plus golf courses opened up since then. Just do the math.

A: Sayles-Owen: Golf has changed. If it had stayed as exclusive and non-diverse as it had been, it would have been out of here as a pastime. It had to change. That’s why I have hope for golf because it has demonstrated that it can change, be flexible and respond to the population that want to play the game now.

A: Gibson: Why do we have the three most visible organizations in the world of golf, the Royal & Ancient, the USGA and the PGA, telling everybody they need to use a short putter, count all their strokes and not talk? Why do we have the three most influential bodies discourage millennials from coming out and having a good time and drinking a couple beers? Those three organizations are doing everything they can to not let anybody come out and have any fun. That’s a problem.

A: O’Brien: I think some of the culture is changing. The PGA in particular is trying to promote that you can start playing golf without knowing the rules of golf. That you can take your ball out of the bushes when you’re learning to play, but you can aspire to be a golfer who plays by the rules.

A: Bliek: You see the commercials. You hear what the push is from those organizations. But where is it at the local level? Where is it actually being applied? We can’t wait. We’re doing it ourselves. I appreciate the rhetoric, but I just don’t see it being applied on the local level.

A: Pascuzzo: I’m no grand economist, but I think you’ll see the change happen more effectively when the TV ratings fall and attendance at national championships falls, when purse money falls. Then those organizations will be motivated to do something. But right now, they just signed a huge deal with FOX, they’ve got more money than God. Their tournament schedule is full. Golf at that level changes at a glacial pace. The golf world that we deal in, we’ve got to be more nimble.

Q: Are today’s juniors – the First Tee hosted 3.5 million last year – being exposed to the game any differently than in the past?

A: Gibson: When I was a junior, I picked up range buckets, I vacuumed the shop at night ... I’d do anything to be a part of that golf course. Most, not some, most of the (top-caliber) kids now that are exposed to the game at (the elite) level are arrogant little pukes. They walk around with entourages. They come out with two coaches. They’re 15 years old. Their parents never get (more than) 6 inches from them. The point is this:These kids who are playing golf right now don’t get it.

A: Morton: What the First Tee is doing, what golf brings, I think we’re close to seeing it circle back to how important the values are. You’re starting to see in some school districts how kids are being graded not on just how they do on tests but how they are as a human being. The report cards are starting to show that. With adults working more and more, kids need help being brought up. I think the organizations that do that are going to win out in the end.

A: O’Brien: A lot of kids are getting exposed to golf through their high school golf teams. They’re learning to shake hands, to look you in the eye. Their exposure is very positive. These teams, when they come out to our tournament, they’re very gracious.

Q: Is golf as financially accessible to juniors as it needs to be?

A: Morton: If a child wants to get into golf and can get to the facility, they are going to be able to participate. The First Tee will make sure they get to play and be a part of it. You might have to look a little harder, but it’s out there to be a part of the game.

A: Gibson: I think relatively, golf is still one of the cheapest things you could ever do if you’re a kid.

Q: What is the status of women in golf? What can be done to attract more women to the game?

A: O’Brien: We have women’s clubs at 41 courses in Sacramento. Some are more successful than others. The key to the successful clubs is the relationships they build with the staff at the course. Creating a community at that golf course. That’s a huge factor in the success of women’s golf. If women enjoy what they’re doing, they will bring friends. They will encourage other women to come and play.

A: Bliek: We’re trying to provide more nine-hole opportunities. Nine holes with food, more of the social aspect. We’re trying to gear more toward a relaxed atmosphere and less time involved.

A: Pascuzzo: We are trying to open our clients’ eyes to those type of opportunities, where we will identify six-hole loops, or five-hole loops or seven-hole loops, whatever works with the routing of the golf course – we call it a taste of golf. It’s shocking to me how much resistance we get. The operations folks just can’t wrap their head around it because it’s not what they’ve done for the past 30 years.

A: Sayles-Owen: We are getting a lot of women who already belong to clubs joining us. They come out to an event or two and we’re more relaxed, we’re more fun, we drink wine. They stop playing at their home club and start golfing with us. Our goal is to make sure they all have a good time. We make sure there are lots of opportunities for them as they make their journey, because I really do believe it’s a journey and you have to have something for them every step of the way.

Q: What is the future of course design and maintenance as water conservation becomes more critical?

A: Pascuzzo: Water is an issue that’s not going away. We’re working with six clubs in Southern California on turf-reduction programs. Part of that is being stimulated by the rebates the water districts are offering. The incentive is there. We can do on a single golf course what it would take 2,000 homeowners to do to achieve the same water savings. I have seen a trend for the last six or seven years of moving away from overseeding. Something as simple as that. I was at TPC Sawgrass a few years ago in February. Brown as could be. They didn’t overseed and they were full and getting top dollar.

A: Morton: Look at what they did at Pasatiempo. Arguably one of the best golf courses in the United States. The first 100, 150 yards out, they just let it go.

A: Bliek: On the national level, it’s being embraced and there are some really high-end clubs leading the way. But locally, I think it still takes everybody going down that road together, because when a course does go dry and the rest don’t, there will be an impact. I still thinks it takes a region to embrace that. Here in Sacramento, I have not seen any incentives. I looked into it. There are none that will actually make it worthwhile.

Q: TopGolf, an interactive driving-range video game of sorts that’s wildly popular around the country, is expected to open a facility in Roseville next year. What effect do you expect that to have?

A: Sayles-Owen: Any game or event that gets people more excited about golf is a good thing. We just have to be there to get those people who want to take it to a real course. I’m already thinking maybe I can do some socials with my women and they can bring their families. We should use it and not run from it.

A: Morton: I think it’s only going to have a good effect. I don’t think it’s going to take away from any of the courses or anything. Anyone who wants to practice their game, you wouldn’t go to TopGolf. They are more of a food and beverage business. It’s purely, go have fun, drink some beer and go smash some balls into this neat, technological arena. I think it can only get more people interested in golf.

A: Pascuzzo: They do everything right, from architecture that is welcoming and not intimidating. Their customer service is off the charts. It’s incredibly fun. It’s simple. They explain everything. Everything we have talked about to grow the game, TopGolf already does. I think it’s only going to help the golf industry. People are going to get a taste of golf and say, “Let's take the next step.” From the design perspective, we keep talking about how you could take TopGolf elements and bring them to our facilities to enhance their practice range. Not to necessarily move it away from the traditional hitting of balls, but what could you do for Friday night at the range to make it more exciting?

Q: Are 15-inch holes any kind of solution?

A: Bliek: I think that’s giving in too much.

A: O’Brien: I think it’s taking away from the whole point.

A: Gibson: I think they should make the basket bigger for the Kings, too. And lower it a little, but just on their end.

A: Pascuzzo: Let me offer a contrarian view. I think there’s a place for larger cups. Our Challenge Course at Monarch Dunes has two cups on every hole. Our guys made one of them an 8-inch cup. It’s really fun. They are doing it as part of their program to introduce people to the game. Would I want a steady diet of it? Absolutely not. But is it an interesting and fun alternative, and if my kids were young again, is that the way I introduce them to golf? Absolutely.

Q: What can we say about Tiger Woods’ impact at this point?

A: Gibson: When Tiger was making his impact, it was the glory days of golf anyway.

A: Bliek: I don’t think a new Tiger would have the same effect that Tiger did at that time. If somebody said, “We just need another Tiger,” I don’t know that would have the same effect.

Q: Best-case scenario for the future of golf?

A: Morton: In the tougher times come the great ideas. We need to progress the game forward, and I think a lot of that is starting to happen. I think the game will be better off for the struggles it’s had.

A: Pascuzzo: Younger people who are not so tradition-bound come into the business with more progressive thoughts without losing the essence of what golf is. There can be multiple versions of the golf experience.

Worst-case scenario for the future of golf?

A: Bliek: The reality of it is, there’s supply and demand. We may lose a few courses in this area where there were just too many built.

Call The Bee’s Steve Pajak,

(916) 326-5526.

Greg Bliek

Age: 38

Qualifications: Sacramento County golf division manager responsible for oversight of Ancil Hoffman, Cherry Island and Mather, including budgeting, planning and capital improvements. Park maintenance superintendent, Ancil Hoffman. He was the superintendent at Tahoe Donner before coming to Sacramento.

You should also know: He likes an excuse to wear plus-fours (4 inches longer than traditional knickerbockers) and misses Payne Stewart. “I think we should have one day a week where everyone wears traditional golf attire.”

Charlie Gibson

Age: 61

Qualifications: Managing partner of Morgan Creek, Rocklin and WildHorse. He previously was the general manager at Santa Rosa Country Club, Windsor and Rooster Run. He played on the PGA Tour from 1978 to 1982, was a California state junior champion, All-American at Arizona State and a two-time Northern California PGA Player of the Year.

You should also know: He played in 60 PGA Tour events, making 22 cuts with one top-25 finish. He was a participant in “Big Break VI,” the Golf Channel reality series, in which he received his share of TV time before being eliminated twice.

Tom Morton

Age: 40

Qualifications: PGA director of player development and vice president of Morton Golf, which manages Haggin Oaks, Bing Maloney, Bartley Cavanaugh and Land Park. He oversees Morton Golf's instruction and club-fitting programs. He won the 2014 National PGA Youth Development Leader Award. He was a Northern California high school champion and played for UC Santa Barbara.

You should also know: He travels every year to Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, which he considers the best golf in the world. “If I could only play one course for the rest of my life, it would be Pacific Dunes.”

Caroline O'Brien

Age: 50

Qualifications: Executive director of the Pacific Women’s Golf Association, which promotes amateur golf for women in Northern California. Among her responsibilities from her Rocklin office are overseeing handicap system and course rating requirements, as well as tournament administration. She’s on the board of directors for the Women’s Golf Alliance.

You should also know: She is a native of Ireland and this year will again guide a ladies group to experience golf on the Emerald Isle. She spends more time thinking about golf than playing, something she hopes to remedy this year. “I only played two times last year.”

Damian Pascuzzo

Age: 56

Qualifications: Golf course architect partner of Champions Tour player Steve Pate owning and operating Pascuzzo and Pate Golf Course Design in El Dorado Hills. Their work together includes Monarch Dunes in Nipomo and the recent renovation of both courses at La Costa in Carlsbad. Pascuzzo is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

You should also know: He designed Woodcreek in the early 1990s while working alongside veteran designer Robert Muir Graves. Pascuzzo and Pate have worked for the past six years developing and promoting the “challenge course concept,” a shorter alternative to traditional layouts.

Del Sayles-Owen

Age: 61

Qualifications: Director of golf programs and services for the Sacramento chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association, which is dedicated to enriching the lives of women through golf. In her volunteer position, she helps members learn the game and improve their performance by coordinating with local pros and courses to deliver clinics and supervised playing and practicing opportunities.

You should also know: She worked as an administrator for the state of California for 30 years and has been retired for six years. She has five granddaughters. “My hope is that I will get at least one of them to fall in love with the game as I have.”