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January 2021

Healing Power Through Golf

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Healing and Renewal Emerge as Resonant New Themes for the Industry

By David Gould

As America seeks to rebound from its Covid-19 misery, golf is ready to further assist. Meanwhile, the industry can take pride in having written a comeback story of its own, amid the chaos of 2020.

Victimized by the Great Recession and shifting societal preferences, golf was still scuffling when out of nowhere came the pandemic. Like Rudolph on a foggy Christmas Eve, the game went from under-appreciated to uniquely valuable.

What followed was a summer of triumph, driven by built-in social distancing plus a unified industry approach to the workarounds and messaging needed for safe operation.

Now there’s a chance to extend that comeback tale and write a new chapter for golf’s public image. It’s about getting the mainstream media to stop grousing about fungicides and fertilizer and start portraying golf as a crossroads of good causes, good deeds and contributions to society. Negative reports about course closures don’t have to endure forever. They could legitimately give way to stories highlighting personal recovery on the links and golf’s growing value as a stress reliever.

David Lorentz, head of research at the National Golf Foundation, tackled this topic in a recent essay. “Golf has a lot of people’s attention right now,” Lorentz pointed out, “and with that comes the opportunity to create impressions—new and better impressions.” He went on to “counterpunch,” in his words, against the standard critiques of costs-too-much and takes-too-long.

But the comment by Lorentz that “the marketplace will define your story if you don’t give it a story to talk about” also suggested it was time to take credit for positives, not just refute negatives. That makes sense to Scott Allen, executive director of the Salute Military Golf Association, which benefits post–9/11 veterans through a multi-pronged effort. Allen instinctively connects his group’s work to a bigger public-relations picture for the game.

“The coronavirus led to golf being seen as a refuge and a remedy,” said Allen. “That’s a very good thing, but it’s been true for populations like wounded veterans and underprivileged urban youth for a long time.” The feel-good stories he’s referring to get told on a piecemeal basis quite often, yet never seem to add up to a general impression of golf as a broadly therapeutic environment. But “there’s a definite chance to get the world thinking differently,” he believes. 

Among the marketing group at Troon Golf, the same “cause marketing” initiatives that Fortune 500 companies have been pursuing for years are now actively in play. Troon’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing, Kris Strauss, encourages his team to connect with that broad swath of consumers that bases so many purchase decisions on whether part of the price goes to worthy charities. “The more we can do positive things in our communities to help those in need—for pandemic-driven reasons or otherwise—the more golf will be looked at in a favorable light,” Strauss said, adding: “And it’s also the right thing to do.”

The UK psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Smith recently wrote a paper arguing that the game’s throwback qualities position golf as “the go-to leisure activity in a post-pandemic world.” Smith pointed out that our central nervous systems have been stressed in a way that calls for something serene, scenic and genteel to soothe it. “As we continue to deal with the first global pandemic in over 100 years, the need for certainty and confidence has never been greater,” Smith wrote, citing golf’s pastoral traditions as a uniquely stabilizing force.

Here in the States, a University of Virginia social scientist made similar comments. “Contact with nature slows down our stress response and induces calm,” explained Professor Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist. “It promotes stress-resilience, it decreases our risk of depression and it increases our social wellbeing—particularly on a golf course where you are interacting with other members of that community.” Picking up on this theme, Syngenta Golf conducted a survey of people who had joined golf clubs in the prior six months, discovering that 55 percent cited “mental wellbeing” as their primary reason for joining.

The effect of Covid-19 on children is being studied with appropriate urgency by groups like the prestigious Aspen Institute, which recently looked at Covid-driven changes to participation in youth sports. Examining a long list to see how vulnerable each sport had been to interruption, the group’s researchers found very strong numbers for golf. Out of 21 sporting activities, golf took the second-smallest Covid hit, as measured by hours per week spent on it by youth participants. Indeed, golf trailed only bicycling: Kids went from an average of 10.5 hours per week on their bikes down to 9.1 hours, whereas for golf the numbers were 10.4 hours pre-Covid and 8.4 hours once the crisis hit. No sporting activity that usually requires parent involvement fared as well.

Some of the experts quoted in the Aspen Institute report reacted in near-panic to the data. One of them called it “a frightening number for the viability of the youth sports system.” He expressed his view that “it’s really important we acknowledge that kids maybe don’t want to go back to sports the way they were—this looks like a real pivot point.” Again, golf proved exempt from that worrisome pattern, suggesting that even young people found it to be a balm.

When industry veteran Cathy Harbin is asked how golf might go about retaining all the “Covid newbies” who sought refuge on America’s fairways, one theme that comes to her mind is golf-was-there-when-you-needed-us. For Harbin, a PGA Master Professional as well as a course owner and former ClubCorp executive, the ideal welcome for that new player was a combination of safety precautions with a caring attitude and the right style of instruction.

“For the customer who is leaving coronavirus behind as they make their way into golf, the ideal experience in my view is socializing-meets-coaching,” says Harbin, owner of a Paris, Texas, daily fee called Pine Ridge.“If they keep hearing one promise, that ‘we’re going to have fun and you’re going to get better’, and that promise gets kept, we’ve done our jobs. We’ve provided an escape from the misery of the pandemic—people won’t forget that.”

Working to attract more women and girls has been a factor in golf’s tilt toward wellness and well-being programs. This trend was cited by the Wall Street Journal in a 2017 article titled, “Can Yoga Save the Golf Club?” In a similar vein, the influential online magazine Women’s Golf Journal recently published a feature article on “Top 10 Wellness Golf Getaways.”

And where else but in golf would you find a story like Alison Curdt’s? One of the most recognized women in the golf instruction field, Curdt personifies the connection between golf the game and golf the therapeutic platform. On her journey from collegiate stardom to professional competition and then to the teaching side of the business, Curdt earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. The move stemmed from her early experience on the lesson tee, where many of her female golf students responded to Curdt’s natural gift for talk therapy by sharing their emotional and psychological challenges. Curdt remains a highly sought-after golf coach, but she’s also a practicing psychotherapist in the state of California. 

Parkinson’s Disease is the latest condition to avail itself of golf as a healing and prevention tool. There’s a Parkinson’s Golf Clinic attached to the Norton Neuroscience Institute in Louisville, Kentucky, and a similar program underway at Boston’s famed Massachusetts General Hospital. “We’ve found that golf helps with balance, gait and rotation—functions that Parkinson’s patients often struggle with,” said Megan Cash, a physical therapist who works in the Norton program.

In response to Covid, golf showed off its capacity for healing and stress reduction. At the same time, the golf community was also flexing its fundraising muscles to financially support front line workers. Dan Pasternak, a nationally known PGA professional and GM of Essex Fells Country Club in northern New Jersey, serves as president of his PGA Section’s charitable arm, the New Jersey Golf Foundation, which recently donated $20,000 to the RWJBarnabas Health Emergency Response Fund, in support of Covid-19 relief efforts. The donation was well publicized, which Pasternak feels is important.

“There is so much charitable activity within the golf community that it’s hard to keep it all straight,” said Pasternak. “We as an industry could probably be more efficient and do more good if our efforts were more organized and centralized—that’s one of the key reasons why the New Jersey Golf Foundation was established in the first place.” His comments circle this discussion back to cause marketing, which is basically an agreement between a vendor and a consumer that every business transaction should contribute to the public good.

You can hear similar pragmatism concerning the game’s image from other industry leaders who have been around awhile. Golf could make an even greater contribution to the common good, they sincerely believe, if the industry didn’t have to “counterpunch” against the same criticisms that get recycled over and over. David Lorentz is one of many industry researchers certain to keep an eye on public-image trends for golf as 2021 and ’22 unfold.

“The good news is that opinions of golf have been improving,” Lorentz pointed out. “Seven years ago, 43 percent of non-golfers had neutral or positive things to say about the game. Earlier this year—pre-pandemic—that proportion had risen to 55 percent. It’s significant progress but there’s room to keep going.” The messaging that would make that happen seems clear enough: Come out to the golf course and feel human again.


 

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