Set up to a tee

In almost everything, Jamaica must be a follower, not a leader; one possible exception is in certain styles of popular music, another is in world athletics, where we are sprint kings and queens. That latter status was tested over the weekend, during the inaugural IAAF World Relays, in Nassau, The Bahamas. Our crowns slipped a little, but the crowds did not see us deposed. But, in other areas, we are very much followers of fashion.

In recent days, the business of US golf has had its future put under scrutiny. That should give us cause for concern, not least because, that country provides a large portion of our tourists, and most of those who visit Jamaica to play golf. My eyes caught a piece posted by Bloomberg that looked at the chronic decline in various aspect of that sport. The headline grabber was that about 400,000 players left the sport last year, according to the National Golf Foundation, the US trade association. Almost 260,000 women took up golf, but some 650,000 men walked off. Harsh winter weather on the East Coast worsened matters this year by delaying the start of the golfing season for many. Slow sales of clubs and other gear dragged down results for Dick’s Sporting Goods this week, sending its stock on the worst tumble since the retail chain went public in 2002. Money talks, and it seemed to be saying “Fore!”

The trends in Europe and Asia are not the same. However, the USA is acknowledged as the major market in golf, with nearly 27 million players out of a world total of 56 million. For context, 5 million players are in Canada, 5.5 million in continental Europe, 14 million in Japan, and about 4 million in the United Kingdom. According to the same source, the leading market in terms of golf as a sport is the United States, estimated to contribute over US$60 billion to the economy. Europe (aside from the UK) is not a mature golf market; it is still mainly pursued by the elite few (worth $20 billion). The UK, Japan, and Australia all have mature golfing markets. Interestingly, the Caribbean does not feature in terms of numbers in the report produced by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. I draw heavily on its information for the sport worldwide.

The mature golfing markets of North America, UK, Japan and Australia have stagnated in terms of the number of dedicated golfers in recent years. Membership seems to have reached saturation level; a major contributor to this seems to be the amount of time the sport consumes (average round of golf is around 4 hours). Increasingly, people would rather participate in activities that take a shorter amount of time. We are also in the era of electronics, where entertainment is possible with no physical movement or travel. I am mindful of how much time golf can consume, and try to use little blocks of time to practice, then play quickly without much time spent socialising before or afterwards. That suits my general lifestyle, and allows for the other obligations that need to be addressed. I know many, however, who lounge around after their play, drinking beers, telling jokes, and letting the good times roll. Power to them.

In these markets, the main potential for growth lies with the aging population, which is growing in size in most developed countries. These consumers are becoming increasingly active–they are likely to be either “empty nesters” (parents whose children have left home) or retired, they tend to have more time than their younger counterparts.

The rapidly growing golf markets in Asia, the Middle East and Mexico will contribute to the growth of the golf sector worldwide. However, it is not expected that these countries/regions will contribute to the growth of golf tourism in the short-term, as there will be a delay between actively taking the sport up and travelling to participate. I know people who rave about the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as golf playing places, but like Mexico, I imagine they will be more like to attract tourists, rather than supply tourists. In that sense, Jamaica is in region where the competition is fierce. Florida is just ideally placed for most of the region, being a hub for many connections from the Americas and from Europe.

In continental Europe the participation rates in golf are low but are increasing steadily (French participation rates are increasing between 5-8% per year). This is the market that demonstrates the most growth potential in terms of golfing holidays. The proliferation of the low-cost airline sector in Europe has had a significant impact on the growth of golfing holidays in Europe, in particular from the UK, but increasingly from other countries too.

Consumers are predominantly male, with the majority being middle-aged (40-55) or retired (55+). Professional and managerial groups dominate the sector. Golf tourists are likely to be members of golf clubs at home:

• United States: Golf participants are generally affluent, they have a higher than average annual income with two-thirds of American golfers earning over $50,000. 65% of golfers are over 40 years of age and 80% are male.
• United Kingdom: Golfers are predominantly (78%) male. 62% are aged between 35-60 and 42% are from the AB socio-economic grouping.
• Canada: Predominantly male with an average age of 48 years. The Canadian consumer tends to combine golfing with business trips. They are likely to be well-educated with a graduate or undergraduate degree. The Greater Toronto Area is the key generating area.
• France: 65% are male, although 70% of golfing tourists will travel with their partner or spouse.

For the Caribbean, much interest is in the potential of golf as a part of its tourism product. But, the sport has an important domestic component, which is something that has been intriguing me for several months. I have not seen data from the Jamaica Golf Association, so the following is largely impressionistic. That impression is that golf in Jamaica is at best stagnant, male-dominated, predominantly played by middle-aged people, who are affluent (often self-made business people). Young players (under 21) exist, and there is a small, but budding crop of good teenagers. The local sport has two separate markets–that for the visiting tourists, mainly on the north coast, and the local players, who are predominantly in the Kingston metropolitan area (but who play there and travel to play on most of the courses, especially on the north coast).

Sponsors are the life blood of the competitive local scene, which is a main feature, with many weekend tournaments, for both charity fund-raising, and club and team competition. They provide funding, material support such as refreshments, as well as prizes. Many sponsors are organisations with at least a smattering of golfers. Over the past month, culminating this coming weekend, we have had the annual LIME Cup, a six team competition, featuring most of the island’s players in match play format. Matches are squeezed into a single day, with morning and afternoon rounds. That is consistent with the usual time demand on players–one day, often Saturdays, but for LIME Cup, Sundays. We have just had the National Amateur Championships, played at Caymanas Golf Course. But, charity events feature most of the calendar, and the beneficiaries are well-known and often well rewarded; the tournaments are usually well supported.

My thoughts have focused on how the local sport integrates, or not, its activities with other aspects of the economy. My impression, for instance, is that the main hotels do not promote golf either as a tourism product, or for local players. The north coast courses near Montego Bay are the main attraction for tourists. I was recently at Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, which abuts the Hilton hotel. Guests from the hotel sat on parts of the course watching the play going on; some were walking the course, for recreational purposes; some played on the day before the tournament. When I have stayed at that hotel (while my wife was at conferences), I was fed misinformation about golf opportunities. Basically, the hotel is not interested in this feature that stares it in the face. Why? I have not found out, fully, but have heard stories of ‘strained relationships’. Money, maybe, doesn’t talk loudly enough. Another course, Half Moon, is directly associated with the luxury resort of the same name. Other Montego Bay courses have mixed hotel associations: Ironshore (no hotel), White Witch (adjacent to Cinnamon Hill), and Tryall (resort and villas). The visitor should be a willing captive, if he or she is a golfer. I have had the frustration many times of being at a hotel close to a golf course, but being unable to play for a range of personal or logistical reasons. These courses, with their lovely vistas, palm trees, and sandy layouts, often fall into the category of idyllic. Serious golfers would do anything to play them. Are they helped by their hosts? Not that much, is my impression. We have in Jamaica what I think is a unique feature, at least six good quality courses, along the same strip of road, not more than a hour between the first and the last (running from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay). For instance, why do we not see a package that includes a hotel stay with the chance to play all six courses (or some of them) as a major pull? I am not an expert in tourism, but this seems to be more about good business rather than the nature of the business. Maybe, I have misunderstood, but I don’t see a real linkage between the courses. Admitted, they are all under separate management. But, I think back to a municipal area in Maryland, where the many courses were grouped together and a ‘pass’ could be bought that made playing more than one of the courses a tempting option, with reduced rates. Is that sort of idea too much thinking outside the tee box?

The Kingston area courses do not seem to be of any interest to the city’s hotels. I may be mistaken, but at a glance, the option for businessmen to stay in New Kingston, and then play golf is not prominently placed. It would be no more than a 3-40 minute drive to either of the two courses. Lounging by the pool or cozying up to the hotel lobby bar is maybe better for the hotels, but the tourism product should be seen holistically.

I have also looked at what the courses offer locals in return for membership payments. This seems to be a mixed bag:

  • Good courses; some very good (eg Cinnamon Hill), some good and extensively used for championship play (eg Caymanas)
  • Some less good (eg Constant Spring, which is nestled in an urban area, and has suffered much from recent bad weather–hurricanes and then drought, and is trying to restore its landscape). It is very accessible from many directions.
  • Coaching and training are offered, as each course has its professional, and maybe an assistant. Constant Spring also has a solid programme teaching young players
  • No public courses on the island. This limits the opportunities for less-affluent players, but does not deny them completely.

I’ve not looked at the sport’s financial situation, and may pursue that with the JGA in due course. But, my own participation has pointed to the following thoughts.

Are prices reasonable?

  • Rounds cost US$30-60 in green fees, on average (north coast courses are more expensive and geared to tourists’ ability to pay; JGA member discounts apply).
  • Caddies are often obligatory. Why? Employment needs. Risks (bushes can hold treacherous plants, which the unwary may regret touching). Local knowledge (they really know their course layouts and greens). They can add much local colour to a four hour tour. They are reasonably priced, cost US$20 (plus tips), on average.
  • Carts are obligatory on north coast courses. I imagine that should speed up play, but also adds to safety and security, in case of bad weather or other issues; some of the courses are hilly. (I never used a cart before heading to a course in The Bahamas, and was glad when I did and lightning started to strike and I was a good 10 minutes drive back to the safety of the clubhouse. On the other side, I’ve seem people roll carts over, and I was recently stuck in sand in a cart, which was funny at the time, but could have been otherwise.)
  • Cost of upkeep is high (higher than in US?). Why? Imported materials? Water, an essential, may not be as readily available as desired.
  • Do rounds represent clear value for money? That may be a question for the 19th hole. I met a man in The Bahamas over the weekend, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. He’s trying to play as many different courses as he can. When I told him the cost of playing in Montego Bay, he jumped at the prospect of hooking up for a round in the future.

The questions may have answers that are more grey than black and white. Let those stay there and others be added.Tryall

Looking around, I see that clubs also survive through other functions:

  • Constant Spring is used regulary for concerts, social events
  • Caymanas is used for conferences, seminars etc.

That’s not a surprise: golf clubs are often wonderfully attractive locations, with spacious clubhouses, that lend themselves to large gatherings. The club in the US, where I first played golf, had its course used most midweek afternoons by corporate groups (of say 40 or so players), but was also used for weddings, conferences, seminars, etc. It makes good sense. Tiger Woods is famous for, amongst other things, renting out all of Sandy Lane hotel and golf course, for his wedding.

I’m watching the local golf space keenly. Caymanas has a lease that is due for renewal. I am interested in who bids on that and wins. Will they be people who have an interest and vision that changes golf from being a somewhat narrowly marketed sport? Will they seek to have synergies developed that brings golf more to the local communities? We have a country full of athletes. Many could excel at sports other than the staples of football, cricket and athletics. That may need nothing more than some early and regular exposure.

I am not going to tee off on the golf community, but I wonder if the golf community has teed itself up to see that this is a long game that needs a lot of attention to the short game.

One feature that has arisen in looking at how to stem or reverse golf’s decline is to make it more fun. ‘Hack’ golf has come into vogue, with equipment manufacturer, TaylorMade, compiling ideas such as using larger holes, letting players kick footballs to ‘holes’, taking away some of the stiff rules that may be really important in professional play, but act really more as irritants to those who just want to play recreationally. This may be something for Jamaica to look at, and see if indeed what it can help lead with is some of the ideas to bring fun into golf. We have the reputation for cool, not stodgy, so we should think about playing to our strengths. Take a look at a ‘hack’ golf video and see what may inspire

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)