Despite slowdown, golf course operators woo next generation

Tom Brooks, the owner and general manager of Carson Valley Golf Course at Gardnerville, has learned to take the long view — a very long view — when it comes to development of the next generation of golfers.

And it’s not easy to maintain that perspective, Brooks says, in an era when operators of golf courses often find themselves under pressure to produce financial results right now.

But Brooks, like other golf course managers in northern Nevada, continues to swallow hard and make the investments that the business requires if today’s kids will turn into tomorrow’s avid adult golfers.

It’s an urgent investment. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of golfers in the United States declined by 14.2 percent. More than 60 percent of golfers are over 50 — and 37 percent are 60 or older, says the National Golf Foundation. Players under 30 account for only 5 percent of golfers.

“This is absolutely crucial,” says Brooks.

That means courses in the region are paying close attention to the development of the next generation of potential customers.

The Mountain Course at Incline Village, for instance, launched Family Days last summer in an effort to introduce golf to youngsters in a non-threatening manner that allows kids and their parents to play together.

Children played the course for free with a paying adult and found kid-friendly features such as a eight-inch cup on each green for easier putting.

Charlie Kent, director of operations at the course owned by the Incline Village General Improvement District, says the short, par-58 course allowed families to play a quicker round of golf.

Like Brooks, who’s spent the better part of a decade developing young players at the Gardnerville course, Kent learned this summer that it’s a slow process.

“It grew each week, but it’s something that we’re going to have to stick with over time,” he says.

Brooks, who got serious about player-development programs a decade ago, says three years of patient work was required before Carson Valley Golf Course began to see results.

“The short-term payback just wasn’t there,” he says.

The Gardnerville course added family tees that shorten course, allowing kids to have fun while they learn the game with their parents. Discount prices draw families to play nine holes together after 5 p.m.

Summertime camps drew 500 youngsters a year from the nearby towns of Gardnerville and Minden during the peak pre-recession years, and have continued to draw 300 each summer after the financial crisis.

“We want them to get out on the course and really enjoy the game,” he says of camp activities.

Today, Brooks says, he regularly sees one-time participants in the youth camps who today are all grown up and enjoying golf as young adults.

That sort of long view is difficult when hundreds of golf courses nationally struggle to survive.

Darius Hatami, managing director of consulting firm HVS Golf Services of Boulder, Colo., estimated earlier this year that the closure of somewhere between 850 and 1,900 courses nationwide might be necessary to bring supply into balance with existing levels of demand.

A multitude of initiatives around the region are designed to boost the demand side of the equation. Washoe Golf Course in Reno, for instance, scheduled monthly Family Day events through the summer at which kids played free when they tagged along with an adult.

Organizations such at The First Tee of Northern Nevada also provide assistance as the golf business seeks to create a new generation of payers.

The nonprofit based in Reno provides low-cost golf lessons throughout the Reno, Tahoe and Carson City region. Participants also learn life skills — resilience and self-management, for instance.

But nonprofits and golf course operators alike first need to get the attention of young golfers and their parents.

“Golf is competing with so many other activities,” says Kent.


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