The Myrtle Beach golf industry can finally again trumpet a positive number.
For the first time in 13 years, the Grand Strand market has shown an increase in total rounds played over the previous year.
Statistics compiled by Golf Tourism Solutions, a marketing and technology agency for the Grand Strand golf industry, show rounds increased 4.1 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.
The numbers are based on the T-Links reservation system, which documents rounds booked through nearly 80 Strand courses in Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick (N.C.) counties.
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The increase breaks a string of decreases dating back to 2004.
“I think it’s fair to say most of our golf courses were able to play a few more rounds and deposit a couple more dollars,” said Tracy Conner, executive director of the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association and president of technology for Golf Tourism Solutions.
“We are healthier than we have been in a number of years, though we still can improve and we’re working hard to make ’18 better than ’17,” Conner said. “To own a golf course you’ve got a lot of challenges and you’ve got to work hard and smart. But we’re starting to improve and see the bottom lines getting a little bit better.”
The market had somewhat stabilized over the past seven years, as rounds dropped 2 percent or less compared to the previous year six times – the exception being a 6 percent decrease in 2013 – after the market suffered significant decreases in each of the five years prior to 2010.
The 12 years of decreases dropped the estimated number of rounds played on the Strand from more than 4.2 million in 2001 to less than 2.7 million in 2016. The Strand has also lost nearly 30 courses from a high of about 120 in 2001, including 20 course closures from 2005-07.
“It’s not as if the golf industry is celebrating right now,” said Golf Tourism Solutions chief executive officer Bill Golden. “Four percent is measurable and certainly provides reason for optimism. Some folks were up more than that and some were down from that. That’s a look at the aggregate numbers. … The challenges are clear. The good news is the way this community is approaching it is allowing for that type of growth to begin to happen and we certainly can build upon that in the future.”
Continued improvement is needed for many courses on the Strand that have been struggling through the declines.
“Everybody in the golf course business at the beach probably has conversations about how they’re going to make money,” said George Gore, managing partner and general manager of The Glens Group, which operates three courses on the Strand after recently closing Heather Glen Golf Links, citing in part financial struggles.
The Myrtle Beach market performed better than the nation as a whole and South Atlantic Region in particular in 2017, according to statistics supplied by Golf Datatech and the National Golf Foundation.
Through November, rounds nationally were down 3.8 percent on public courses and rounds in the region along the Atlantic Coast from Delaware through Florida were down 1 percent.
The rebounding golf market reflected and perhaps contributed to a general increase in tourism on the Strand last year.
Myrtle Beach International Airport easily surpassed 1 million passengers for the first time to exceed the 2016 total of 972,000 passengers, and hotel occupancy rates were up in the key golf periods, according to reports from the Coastal Carolina University Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism, which collects hotel data weekly.
Fall occupancy for Grand Strand hotels, condotels and campsites was up 6.7 percent in the spring (mid-February through May) and 7.3 percent in the fall (late August through late November), and the average daily rate was up in those periods as well, according to the Brittain Center.
“You look at it from a destination standpoint with increase air service, increased occupancy and the overall success of the destination, and it falls into place that golf would be in that scenario as well,” Golden said.
There has been an ongoing strategy over the past few years to increase direct flights to Myrtle Beach from key markets, and it has included pitches to airlines to come to Myrtle Beach with accompanying marketing in the new air markets.
“It’s nice to see we’re beginning to see some positive numbers and momentum that is going to be sustainable into 2018,” Golden said. “Just the increased air service alone is going to warrant that kind of growth and I’m confident we’ll continue to see both air service growth and growth on the golf side because the air service in the markets we currently get and will be getting service from are great golf markets. So the ability to target those markets for spring and fall golf is critical.”
The year got off to a strong start with 21- and 26-percent increases in the first two months and closed well with a 17 percent increase in October, which had favorable weather following calamitous weather events on the month’s opening weekend in each of the previous two years.
Record-breaking rainfall amounts in 2015 led to heavy flooding and Hurricane Matthew damaged the area in 2016. October rounds increased from 247,000 in 2016 to 299,000 in 2017.
The Strand was hit by Hurricane Irma this year, but it came through on Sept. 11 before the golf season kicked in.
“A 17 percent increase tells me we regained the lost business we feared we would lose after terrible Octobers,” Golden said. “We’ve regained that business and I think we’ve added some additional business in October. That was a very positive outcome to what we feared would be a multiyear effort to regain October, which is a critical revenue and rounds month.”
Consistently good weather throughout the year undoubtedly contributed to the overall uptick.
Golden believes the improved use of social media including Facebook has helped the market reach golfers, particularly younger players. “We’ve seen a significant increase in our referrals and site traffic from Facebook specifically and social media in general, and that’s certainly part of the growth we’re seeing now and will be a big part of the growth in the years coming,” Golden said.
Future rounds already booked for 2018 are up 4 percent compared to this time last year, with about 25,000 more rounds on tee sheets. “So that’s very encouraging,” Conner said.
Courses have encouraged vacationing golfers to book in advance with reduced rates for packages booked earlier, allowing the market to bite into the trend of short-term bookings inspired by the ability to book instantaneously on the internet.
“We’re making a real, real effort to price better and smarter to incentivize that customer to book in advance, and it’s paying off,” Conner said. “We just really started that about 2 ½ years ago and it takes time for it to take root.”
The rounds data for the past five years is according to rounds booked through the T-Links system.
Prior to that, rounds were recorded for several years based on the collection of a per-round transaction fee, and they were previously compiled through surveys of golf courses conducted by marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.
Conner and Golden believe the market statistics are now more reliable than they have ever been.
Total Rounds Played in 2017 vs. 2016
Total/Paid Rounds Since 2003
(Percent Change from previous year)
* Some percentages compare paid rounds from the previous year and others compare total rounds from the previous year.