After three years of relative stabilization in rounds played, the Myrtle Beach area golf market saw paid rounds drop nearly 6 percent in 2013 compared to 2012.
Paid rounds dipped in nine months, according to data collected from more than 80 courses in Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick counties by marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.
“The market is definitely a challenge,” said Rick Taylor, general manager of Classic Golf Group, which operates four Grand Strand courses. “I think we all still love the golf business. We’re going to show up for work every day and look for new ways to operate, but it’s definitely a challenge.
“… We can survive, but it’s not the perfect scenario. I’ve seen it much better.”
Weather was a major factor, particularly in the crucial spring golf season, when tee sheets are typically full and rates are at their peak.
According to Weather Trends International, the amount of “Playable Rounds” on the Grand Strand were down significantly in the spring, particularly on weekends (Thursday-Sunday) when they dipped 27 percent in February, 21 percent in March and 12.7 percent in April.
To be labeled as a playable daylight hour, the temperature must be above 45 degrees and below 97 degrees, with rainfall below .05 inches and wind speed below 34 mph.
Weather Trends International showed Playable Rounds were down only 1.7 percent for the year, though the biggest increase by far of 48 percent came in the typically slow and bargain month of July.
“We felt fairly strong coming into the spring that we were going to have a spring that included some additional demand, and unfortunately we were unable to see if that was going to materialize based upon the weather situation we faced,” Golf Holiday president Bill Golden said.
“But we can’t blame this all on the weather,” Golden added. “We’re still off 5 to 6 percent on total and that needs to be reversed. The industry is working hard to understand different ways in which we can market the brand ourselves, different ways in which we can attract new customers or customers who haven’t been here in a few years.”
A decrease in rounds is particularly damaging to course operators because the cost of a round is generally down for consumers at least slightly from a few years ago. Century Golf Partners began offering breakfast, lunch and two drinks at an affordable rate late in 2009 at its five courses – Heritage Club, Oyster Bay Golf Links and three at Legends Resort – and many other courses followed suit with deals in order to compete.
“Rates are probably close to the same but we have to offer incentives besides the rates, whether it be lunch with the round or a free replay or a sleeve of balls,” said Taylor, who is in his 21st year in the Strand golf market. “The customer is getting a lot for their dollar these days.”
Golden wants to promote the affordability of the market to consumers in the hopes of increasing rounds, which could in turn allow rates to rise. Strand courses were last able to concertedly increase rates for a short time after 20 courses closed from 2005-07 for planned redevelopment during a peak in housing sales.
“It’s a great time to be a golf consumer,” Golden said. “The value is probably at an all-time high here in Myrtle Beach so we’re working as hard as we can to get that message out and to make sure we’re targeting areas in which we can continue to educate and bring new golfers in.
“… The economy has stabilized to the point where we feel we need to begin to educate golfers to put the buddy trip back into their budget.”
Through a more comprehensive system of data collection and cooperation from golf courses in the past couple years, Golf Holiday was able to fully separate all paid rounds into their categories rather than rely on the collection of a $1.50 per round transaction fee on only walk-on and package rounds to provide its comparison of paid rounds in relation to the previous year.
Golden said transaction fee collections were down 5.4 percent in 2013 compared to 2012.
Golf Holiday statistics show package rounds were essentially static, as travelers who book golf vacations are generally coming regardless of the weather. But walk-on rounds were down 8.7 percent, member rounds were down 9.3 percent and replay rounds were down 15.1 percent.
The bulk of those decreases came in the spring, when cold and rainy weather kept players off the courses. “[Visiting golfers] will still come to town so the package numbers are relatively flat but the ancillary rounds didn’t occur,” Golden said. “[Non-package rounds] will be much more volatile in times when we’ve got really rough weather.”
The Strand was coming off three consecutive calendar years in which transaction-fee rounds fell less than 2 percent after significant decreases for several years.
For the spring season, the Strand was coming off three consecutive years of increased paid rounds, including a 0.7 percent increase in 2012 that followed more significant increases in 2010 and ’11.
“We started off losing a lot of wind in our sails in the spring and that hangover carried on throughout the year,” Golden said.
Nationally, rounds were down 4.6 percent according to PGA PerformanceTrak, and weather took away the most days in a year in PerformanceTrak history dating back to 2005. There were 16.7 fewer days open for play through November than in 2012, which was the best recorded year for weather.
Golf Holiday’s statistics show the fall golf season is undergoing a metamorphosis.
November walk-on rounds were down 10.2 percent and package rounds were down 19.4 percent to contribute to a 12.5 percent overall decrease in paid rounds in the month. Package rounds were up, however, in August, September, October and December.
Golden believes some travelers are taking advantage of lower rates around the short fall golf season of mid-October through November, and with the proliferation of ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens that aren’t being overseeded, transition maintenance practices such as overseeding, aerating and verticutting aren’t occurring on all courses anymore in the late summer and early fall months, making those months more attractive to players.
“If you look at September, October, November and December as a season, we’re 2,000 rounds off,” Golden said. “So the marketplace shifted rounds to September, October and December out of November.”
Golf operators have reason for optimism this spring, in part based on improved flight schedules for golfers.
Spirit is beginning flights earlier in the spring/winter from several key golf markets and WestJet will be flying from Toronto in early March. “So those are opportunities we can automatically seize upon, that we know we can fill the majority of those seats with golfers and it’s going to have an added impact in a critical time period,” Golden said. “… It’s a challenging time in the golf business so we need additional rounds in this marketplace. The only thing that’s going to benefit us in the end to help long-term bolster and stabilize the rates is we need to create additional demand.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284. To view Blondin’s blog, Green Reading, or Twitter page, @alanblondin, visit myrtlebeachonline.com.