Study Finds U.S. Golf Industry Failing to Attract, Retain Women


As the golf industry searches for ways to attract new customers and retain current players, a recent research study would emphatically tell the industry that appealing to and appeasing women is a prudent path to economic health and well-being.

Moreover, the study reveals that facilities willing to make the investment to woo and maintain women stand to benefit financially as the majority of those surveyed acknowledged they would pay a premium price to play their "ultimate" facility.

Women find the game costs too much, takes too long to play and is too difficult, according to "The Right Invitation," a comprehensive research study to guide the golf industry to meaningfully increase women's golf participation and satisfaction. The study was funded by the Little Family Foundation and conducted for the National Golf Course Owners Association.

"The golf industry needs customers and the obvious group to pursue is women," the study noted. "There is a great economic opportunity for the golf industry to attract and keep a large underrepresented and underserved portion of the golfing public."

The Little Family Foundation focused on women in their study because "they are underrepresented in the golfing public, have discretionary money to spend and often will make the decisions on how family leisure time is spent." Arthur Little and his wife, Jann Leeming, learned first-hand about how to attract women (and families) at Province Lake Golf, the course they owned from 1996 to 2005 in Parsonfield, Maine.

The upshot of the new study, carried out by Jon Last of New York-based Sports & Leisure Research Group, is that Little and Leeming will be producing a "how-to" guide for the golf facilities to follow if they hope to achieve economic success with women, in addition to a new website, www.golfwithwomen.com. The purpose of the web site is to educate the golf industry on "best practices" for increasing play and enhancing revenue from women and families.

"We are struck by the lack of inventiveness on the part of the golf industry in addressing these issues," Little and Leeming observed. "Many of the barriers can be overcome without great additional cost with relatively rapid monetary return. "Our aim is to provide the industry with educational information and tools that will encourage (and retain) women and families."

At Province Lake Golf, which became a Golf Digest "Top 50 Courses for Women" under Little and Leeming, the pursuit of women, juniors and families necessitated an initial capital investment of $80,000, with yearly marketing expenditures of $20,000, having the effect of improving the bottom-line by $200,000.

"The industry must be aware that the economic effects of following our how-to recipe won't be immediate; patience will be necessary," Little and Leeming said. "Based on our experience, the changes will take two to three years to reach full effect, but we believe it is well worth the effort. Golf with women playing more will be a better sport in many ways."

To ensure the study reached a wide swath of women golfers, current players as well as lapsed players were interviewed. Women were asked to detail their "ultimate" golf facility and experience, and it was determined that they would pay and 8 to 15 percent premium once they found a place matching that description.

But the study concluded that, when women players and facility operators were surveyed, there were large gaps in the perceived delivery of benefits. Specific examples of how the perceptions of women differed from the golf operators who believe their facility is "women-friendly" include:

Almost one-third of golf facilities are currently charging higher fees than the $50 women expect to pay even for an "ultimate" facility.

Most facilities have multiple sets of tees, although those that describe their facilities as "woman-friendly" have no more sets than facilities in general. While fewer than one quarter of golf facility customers are women, nearly all facilities consider women important to their financial success and to the overall environment at their facility. Yet only two-thirds of facilities consider themselves as "women-friendly" and only a very few of them provide the features that women want in a golf facility.

In a surprising development, the study found the game's difficulty did not rank as highly by women as the inability to reach greens in regulation, which is a result of limited tee positioning.

According to the study, "It is critical to remove the intimidation factor by providing tees at the proper yardages for the full range of swing speeds. Properly designed sets of tees reduce round times and make the sport much less difficult and more enjoyable." The study concluded this could be a make-or-break issue for facilities if they expect women to return. For example, for an average woman golfer with a 65 mph swing speed (140-yard drive) the optimal tee yardage is 4,200 to 4,500 yards, and for women with 75 mph swing speeds (165- to 170-yard drive) the best total yardage is 4,800 to 5,100 yards.

The new website showcases Old Macdonald, the newest course at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort as setting a new standard in the proper positioning of tees."

Beyond tee positioning, other key issues uncovered by the study include:

* Courses need to be more flexible in providing play options that address both time and cost, such as nine-hole rates, pay-by-the-hole and low junior fees that are part of a family play plan.

* Fifty percent of women who no longer play said if they would continue with the game if they had steady and enjoyable playing partners.

* Childcare must be provided at a reasonable cost, a fact that has been duly recognized by the ski industry for many years.

* Facilities must select personnel, especially in their pro shops, that are receptive to and completely supportive of the issues that are of greatest importance to women. Staff members who are not true believers, the study says, can and will undermine all of the positive programs that a facility adopts.

The complete 84-page study, as well as summaries, can be found at www.golfwithwomen.com.


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