Why golf clubs are investing in their courses in 2018

By Tania November 22, 2018 07:22 Updated

A number of British and American golf contractors are reporting that golf clubs have increased investments in their courses in 2018. Richard Allen welcomes this news – and analyses the causes why

Lee-on-The-Solent Golf Club, which has recently invested in course improvements including to its bunkers. The work followed a number of nearby golf clubs also investing in golf course improvements

I’ll put my cards on the table: On the occasions I get asked my opinion about a club I’ve played at – the design and condition of the clubhouse is probably the last thing I think about if someone asked me to recommend a visit there. For me it is all about the golf course, and if the clubhouse is fantastic as well, then that is a nice bonus. All I need in a clubhouse are the absolute basics. I know a lot of golfers may disagree, but I daresay a lot will agree too.

I can see the attraction in a lovely 19th hole, but it escapes me why so many major clubhouse investment schemes have been undertaken whilst the golf course outside is surviving on a bare minimum of funding. A justification often runs like this: ‘If we improve the clubhouse we can increase income through catering and weddings, then the profit we make can be invested in the golf course’. The outcome is sometimes very disappointing: If the intended income does not materialise, then the golf club has to pay off the loan for the clubhouse upgrades. This can lead to a further cut (not increase) in course expenditure, and a focus on how to attract more weddings, rather than concentrating on providing the best golfing facilities possible. Most of us involved in the golf industry will have similar experiences.

Fortunately, from the perspective of all those engaged in golf course construction and maintenance there now appears to be much more attention being focussed on the value of investing in the golf course.

This year in the US, the National Golf Foundation reported that while golf course closures were still likely to outnumber new openings, there was likely to be a continued strong growth in course improvement work, with over 100 major projects underway over the next 12 months. A brief glance across relevant social media accounts backs this up. In the UK, statistics are slightly harder to obtain, but it is apparent that all the major UK golf contractors are extremely busy, busier than they have been for many years on various course improvement projects. Our own company, EcoBunker, has also seen significant year-on-year growth in the UK since founding in June 2014, and in 2018 we have recruited additional staff to manage a significant rise in construction work. Set against a background where we know that more golf courses are closing than opening in the UK, and that membership of clubs in the traditional sense is falling, how can we account for this increase in course improvements? There’s no doubt that the VAT rebates have helped, but is this the only reason?

Arnold Palmer Golf Design (APGD), with which EcoBunker was very proud to work with recently at Bay Hill GC, Florida, has some interesting answers to this question. Against each of its top three reasons to invest in improvement I’ve added in some of our own experiences at EcoBunker, which certainly back up what APGD are saying:

  1. Ageing and deteriorating infrastructure: Golf courses are living, breathing entities. Most elements of the golf course, like irrigation systems, drainage networks, bunker liners, bunker sand and even USGA specification greens all have to be fixed or replaced at some point. The crash of 2008 certainly put a brake on course improvements for quite some time as golf courses tightened expenditure and tried to squeeze every last drop of life from their infrastructure. This cannot last indefinitely, and the time comes, for example, when serious investments in irrigation is essential. EcoBunker is supplying our revetting system to some links course clients who have not maintained their bunker walls for 10 years and more. Given that revetted bunker walls seldom last more than five years in a satisfactory condition, it is no surprise that investment is badly needed now. Deteriorating infrastructure is certainly a significant factor.
  2. Staying competitive: APGD says that course improvements can breathe new life into the golf club and that the numbers prove that a well-executed improvement scheme can increase income by higher membership levels as well as increase green fee income. I don’t think that there is any doubt that golf courses in the UK are striving both to retain membership levels and attract the increasing proportion of so-called nomadic golfers. This inevitably raises competition between clubs. A phenomenon that we have noticed with EcoBunker is the generation of ‘hot spots’. Where we have a high profile synthetic bunker edges scheme, other local clubs presumably don’t want to miss out, and this has resulted in a noticeable clustering of projects. We have clusters in Wales, Scotland, around Dublin, London and Bristol, but the most obvious area is Hampshire and the south coast. Royal Winchester GC became one of the first pioneers of my bunker edge invention back in 2012, and some 50 spectacular bunkers were delivered. Since then we have undertaken major projects, including full course bunker renovations along the coast at Gosport, Lee-on-Solent and Dudsbury, then further inland at courses like Romsey, Test Valley, Skylark, Farnham and Old Thorns. There’s no doubt that course improvement work is stimulated by competition.
  3. Leveraging new technology: If you have made no improvements to your course over the last 10 to 15 years, you are missing out on the benefits of a significant influx of new technology, says APGD. This is true. In our field of expertise, the emergence of bunker liners has been rapid and there is now a bewildering array of choice available. Fifteen years ago, the only options were the now widely despised Terram style geomembrane, and Sandtrapper which was the first mass produced custom built bunker liner. Now, the choices include a range of rubber crumb derived options, resin stabilised aggregate systems, such as Capillary Concrete, recycled artificial grass, new fabrics, soil stabilisers and more. Golf clubs are beginning to realise that by investing in such systems they can make major savings in maintenance, and as a result, bunker redesign / renovation / restoration schemes are tending to be the most popular course improvement works. At Southerndown Golf Club, for example, a bunker renovation scheme replaced existing rolled in steep grass faced bunkers with our artificial revetting. The 84 bunker project was completed in 2017 and is now delivering maintenance cost savings of over £20,000 per annum, and the aesthetics blend in so naturally. Bunker liner products are proving to significantly reduce wash down, which also delivers significant savings. News of these innovations spreads fast and is fuelling the increase in improvement projects.

Of the three reasons described here as drivers for the welcome increase in course improvement works, in my opinion it is the third, the introduction of new technology and innovation which is the main one. As a technically orientated person (a civil engineer by profession), I think that this industry is a very exciting place to work at present. If the group of designers, scientists, contractors and suppliers working in the golf sector can continue to drive forward innovation, then the result will be more investment on the golf course. That would be a great legacy for our industry to deliver.

Richard Allen is the CEO of EcoBunker


By Tania November 22, 2018 07:22 Updated

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