Editorial: A 20/20 Vision for Arizona Golf

By Ed Gowan
At the recent annual meeting of the National Club Association (an information and lobbying group based in Washington DC) discussions ranged from economic and demographic analyses of the club business, especially related to golf, to the legislative agendas of congress in the coming year.
Demographics and Economic Indicators are key elements to understanding the claims and assertions regarding the alleged declining, improving, profit taking, growing, shrinking industry we call golf. Experts from every field take turns praising or criticizing the game, all quoting facts that support their positions. The quoted facts and following assumptions probably aren’t wrong, but are often taken out of context and reflect only one facet of this $62 billion-peryear game. The statement that we need “a course a day built” to meet demand by the National Golf Foundation in 1985 has proven accurate. Unfortunately, the kind and locations of courses needed were determined by individual investors, not the demand demographics that engendered the statement.
The demand curve was met around the year 2000. Growth has been flat since, and is in fact declining, as the hyper-growth in both courses and those trying the game have diminished. NGF now predicts zero growth of courses for the short term.
NGF also predicts up to two percent annual growth in rounds played per course over the next 20 years, with new courses replacing those sold for higher profits as valued real estate.
The challenges are in the positioning of courses in their communities, answering the needs of the golfers, and dealing with the increasing pressure to be environmentally conscientious. Public-access courses must be careful to provide the quality and price-points of those who support them. Certainly the bar has been raised substantially on conditioning and services from the golf of 1980. Likewise, golfers are intelligent about the balance between price and quality.
Private courses are serving a stagnate constituency. Growth will occur with development, and long-standing clubs will have to adapt to a changing environment where traditional golf attitudes must be balanced with desires of the younger, more critical, potential new members. When a quality golf game is available nearly everywhere for a daily fee, $500 monthly dues are finding few takers.
The equation, though challenging for owners and operators, is a blessing for individual golfers—their choices are many, and pricing is becoming marketdriven. Those who recognize and follow market trends will be successful.
Environmental factors will become critical for all courses to take into account. Our last tongue-in-cheek look at Global Warming (last issue) offended some who took the comments at face value. The truth is we cannot know what exactly will be coming our way in climatic change, but prudence demands we plan for the worst.
What is critical in Arizona? Obviously water access and quality are in the forefront, but likewise are the selection and chemical management of grasses. The good news is that golf superintendents are among the world’s best environmentalists. They use less water each and every year as more is known about soil-management, and have the highest efficiencies of any industrial user of water. Golf course grasses, almost all developed under USGA-sponsored research, are the best of nature’s natural filters for poor quality water while drought-tolerance has also improved—all the time driving over one billion dollars in direct spending each year in the state.
It’s easy to argue golf courses should use non-potable sources for irrigation. Will government cooperate with reasonable pricing and access? Today’s landscape for availability is a mixed bag. What about chemical use? Arizona’s courses use less chemical than other states, and in fact, less than the average homeowner. Many products we individually can buy in the local stores are banned on golf courses. The biggest challenge in our future is the threat of extended drought, especially in the mountains that feed the Colorado, Salt, Gila and Verde river systems. Much of Arizona depends on historical flows that have determined water rights in many cases. If these sources decline by the 15 percent suggested by the recent IPCC reports, golf courses will have to respond in kind.
Put all of these factors into the 2020 Arizona Golf Equation and you will find adaptations and increasing costs. The good news is that the industry is aware, can respond, and those who love golf in Arizona will continue to enjoy the best selection. Arizona Golf will remain healthy by being conscious, conscientious and innovative.