Innovations help boost interest in golf

The green LED light slips from sight, sparking a cheer from Rina Delmonico’s playing partners. A birdie in the dark. Minutes earlier, another cheer had gone up from a far corner of the Escambia executive course. And before that, from somewhere out near hole No. 4. On this night, everyone seems to be taking to heart the words of Belle Glade ambassador Rick Phelps, who noted in his final instructions that if someone makes a birdie “and I can’t hear it, it doesn’t count.” Sometimes all those daylight rounds still aren’t enough in The Villages. An alternative nine — illuminated by glowsticks — draws enough of a crowd that it’s offered five nights a week. And the post-round banter is no different than you’d find in late afternoon.

It isn’t exactly Topgolf — but around here, it doesn’t have to be.

While the overall golf industry has spent the better part of a decade wrestling with modern consumer shifts, The Villages keeps splitting the fairway. Rounds played on a network that encompasses 693 holes have topped 3 million in three of the past four years, marred only by a hurricane’s passing blow.

Nor is it just the folks who already arrived in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown with a zest for the game. The Villages Golf Academy is on pace to introduce 450 new golfers over the course of 2019. It isn’t all that uncommon to run into someone who’s been at it less than a year.

“We’re growing, they’re losing (elsewhere),” said Trent Reeves, the Academy’s director of instruction. “They’re shutting courses down, we’re building courses. It’s the exact opposite of almost anywhere in the world.”

Of course, The Villages has its inherent advantages. No place on Earth has so many golf holes concentrated into such a compact area. Golf was an emphasis from the very earliest marketing campaigns. Villagers have more time to tee up than working dads and moms. Playing options are varied and plentiful.

At the same time, the demographics of The Villages means a higher concentration of golfers who must leave the game because of physical ailments. The key is to extend their playing enjoyment as long as possible — while eventually turning the numbers over via new arrivals or new students.

“Golf is a game of invitation,” said Steve McMillen, executive director of the North Florida section of the PGA of America, which includes The Villages. “Somebody says to you, ‘Let’s go play golf.’ You’ve been invited to the game through a relationship with somebody who plays the game. The Villages does a great job of taking advantage of those opportunities.”

It essentially boils down to two elements: More options, less intimidation.

Bucking the trend

According to the National Golf Foundation’s (NGF) 2019 industry overview, on-course golf participation has leveled off in recent times, holding right around 24 million golfers for each of the past three years.

That’s actually good news, stabilizing a 12-year slide in which more people left the game every year than were added.

In the business world, it might be termed an extended market correction. The meteoric arrival of a young Tiger Woods made golf cool to the younger generation, creating a boom unseen since the marriage of Arnold Palmer and television in the 1960s.

Modern life, though, proved a tougher fit with a game that takes 4 1/2 hours to play 18 holes. Throw in the economic downturn of a decade ago, and the boom was unsustainable. Course closures have outpaced openings every year since 2006.

Tony Wilson, head PGA professional at Cane Garden Country Club, has seen two of his former clubs close their doors in the past decade — DeLand Country Club in 2012; Longwood’s Rolling Hills Country Club two years later.

“(DeLand) was a great piece of property that they couldn’t keep alive,” Wilson recalled. “Some people were resistant to change, and it chewed them up from within. How do you answer the challenges of changing times?”

In recent years, the NGF has begun to measure participation in off-course variations of the sport such as Topgolf and Drive Shack — the whiz-bang driving range/sports bar concept with electronic targets built into the landing area.

It’s a great place to gather with buddies after work or hold a Sunday family outing. Hit as much or as little as you like, and you’re never more than 10 feet away from your beer or plate of nachos.

“I applaud those folks for doing those things,” said Ken Roshaven, golf services director for The Villages Golf & Tennis. “Why not? If it involves golf at all, there’s going to be a percentage that’ll want to experience more. We need to open our arms and embrace all they want to partake.”

From The Villages, though, it’s a 90-minute drive to the nearest Topgolf just off Orlando’s International Drive. One might look out of place here, anyway, with all the green fairways around.

“Options are what’s important,” Wilson said. “As long as we can direct people where to go as far as this or this or this, there are choices. A lot of clubs on the outside don’t have that.”

Golf for every type

No individual club could replicate the variety of options that Villagers have to choose from.

Low handicappers will find their challenge in the 12 country clubs scattered about, some playing as long as 7,300 yards from the back tees. Many of those also require forced carries over water or marshland — hazards gradually scaled back as one moves to more forward-teeing areas.

By the time one gets to the green tees, the danger is all but eliminated.

“It’s important to play the appropriate course at the appropriate yardage,” Roshaven said. “If we go to Palmer (Legends) and play from the tips, you may not get a lot of enjoyment out of it. When I see them coming off the course, I’m looking for smiles.”

Maybe those smiles come at one of the 41 executive courses in The Villages, where nine holes takes perhaps 90 minutes to play and hitting driver isn’t a necessity.

And with the recent additions of the Marsh View Pitch & Putt and the Fenney Putt & Play, the scale is even more complete. If a golfer wants to pound his driver, he can. If he just wants a challenging day with the putter, he can embrace that as well.

“There is not a better place in the country that has a Pitch & Putt,” Reeves said. “It’s beautifully laid out. You can do it in an hour.”

Tyler Krager, head professional at Glenview Champions Country Club, can see the progression a golfer can experience in The Villages as skills erode — without having to toss his clubs in the garage forever.

“Maybe they came here in 1990 and were a blue-tee player on a championship course,” said Krager, who arrived two years ago from Abilene Country Club in Texas. “They went to the whites, then they went to the greens. Some of them went to the executives. It’s, ‘How do we keep them playing?’”

Said Roshaven: “We do have those competitive golfers that always want to improve. And we have programs in place for those people. We’re also going to have fun programs that make you laugh and have a good time.”

Such as night golf, where LED balls streak through the air toward glowsticks attached to the flagstick and line the hole. Flashing red glowsticks outline hazards, hopefully saving those LED balls from an inglorious demise.

“We really enjoy it,” said Bill Tenney, a Village of Country Club Hills resident who drove down to Escambia with his wife, Louise. “It’s a different thing. Better than sitting (at home). At least you’re out doing something.”

Delmonico, who lives in the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Miona, had a hot hand on this particular evening with three birdies. So is a nighttime birdie better than one in the daylight?

“Absolutely,” she said, as husband Ken nodded in agreement. “It seems I only make birdies at night.”

Even more non-traditional, perhaps, is the opportunity to play with bigger cups — 6 inches in diameter instead of the standard 4 1/4. Those are available at El Santiago and Sarasota executive courses.

“We heard from the traditionalists,” Roshaven said. “But you have to put in specifically for those rounds. It’s a nice finding for us. It’s not available everywhere, but it’s available.”

The larger holes got an endorsement last year from an unlikely source.

“It is clear our game needs something to recapture the incredible growth and momentum,” said Mark King, the former TaylorMade CEO who now serves as consultant to Honma Golf. “Whether it is this (6)-inch-cup concept or an idea that comes from outside the industry, we need to spark a revolution that will bring new participants to the game.”

Fun over fears

At the Good Golf School, where Villagers are briefed on the ins and outs of getting a tee time and other procedures, it’s common for the instructor to survey the room about how long participants had been playing golf.

Plenty will claim 30 years and higher. More surprising, perhaps, is the number who have been playing less than a year.

“It’s not unheard of to get 20 or 25 percent of the class to raise their hands when we ask who’s played less than a year,” Roshaven said. “What a cool thing. I can introduce somebody to this game that I’ve been so passionate about.”

Learning the golf swing, though, might not be near the challenge as the procedure that leads to the first tee. Dropping your clubs off at the curb, checking in at the clubhouse and trying to find the first tee can be daunting for someone who hasn’t done it before.

“It scares people to death,” Reeves said.

It falls right in line with a cautionary paragraph in the NGF report: “The industry needs to continue making golf more welcoming and less intimidating for beginners, while at the same time embracing its steady pool of committed golfers.”

Even Woods will tell you golf is hard. It’s even harder to pull the club back when you think the world is watching. Overcoming that intimidation is a major emphasis in the Academy’s “New to Golf” program.

“We make them feel like they can do it,” Reeves said. “There’s an intimidation factor that goes along with golf where people feel like they can’t do it. We’ve got instructors who make them feel very comfortable.”

Instructors teach swing basics, rules, etiquette, how to book a tee time — even how to get range balls out of the dispenser without making a mess of things.

Seriously, range balls?

“You’d be surprised,” said Reeves, whose office at Palmer Legends Country Club facility is next to such a dispenser. “Once a day I’ll hear the machine just go crazy with balls bouncing all over.”

The course consists of five 90-minute sessions, though Reeves recently added a sixth day of instruction to do a trial run. Participants will leave the clubs at the bag drop, check in with the starter and play a couple of actual holes.

“You see them in the parking lot and they’re scared to death,” Reeves said, “and then they leave thinking, ‘Wow, that was amazing. That wasn’t that hard. What was I afraid of?’ But had we not done that, they might not have gone out and done it on their own.”

And that might have been enough to keep a Villager from enjoying all golf has to offer. Last year, the “New to Golf” curriculum sent 412 new golfers into the game; this year, the tally stands at 387 with two months left on the calendar.

“There is less pressure here to compete, to be good, than there is anywhere else,” Reeves said. “You can play with different generations; you can play with people of different abilities. That’s why you can do it forever.”

Or as Roshaven summed up: “What do they say — it takes a village? Maybe it takes The Villages to raise a golfer.”

Senior Writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.