A Public Players Quest for Value

A Public Players Quest for Value

Golf value, like beauty and putting styles, is in the eye of the beholder.  My very first twitter poll some time back asked people if they would rather play one top 10 course or multiple rounds at very good courses.  The responses were mixed and that is not a surprise.  In my review of Cabot Links I placed the value as high, which seems odd to some given the greens fees were about $150 at the time.  However, the opportunity to play the best course I have ever experienced and was top of my bucket list at the time provided me strong value to pay that much.  It was, indeed, an experience.

But the context of value is much broader than justification for world class course greens fees.  The opposite end of the spectrum is something I actively seek out as well.  I have paid $8.00 to play a local 9 hole course, doing so on poor weather day which allowed me the chance to play 2-3 golf balls at one time and go around the course 3 times.  Here are some tips I utilize for finding golf ‘value’.

  1. GolfNow – Based in the USA, GolfNow is expanding across the country and around the world. With an increasing listing of courses available in the Greater Toronto Area and throughout Ontario (and really, across the country), I am seeing favourites of mine added regularly.  Here, players can go online and identify their search parameters.  Discounted offerings can be had through their ‘Hot Deals’ section on their site.  What I love about this site is its ease of use, and the ability for me to filter as a single player and what are my geographic parameters to play.  If you can get onto the tee within a couple hours of logging in, there are incredible deals to be had.  They have also added a loyalty program to further incentivize players.  GolfNow is a staple for me, especially in the fall seasons.

 

  1. Golf Course Websites – Not to be dismissed are the websites for various courses. Some have a strict policy offering lower greens fees than any other site and in many cases you can find value options for foursomes which may include carts and or meals.  It is, I find in my conversations with other players, an underutilized resource to find golf value.

 

  1. Multiple Green Fee Packages – Some courses, in lieu of memberships, offer players a chance to purchase multiple round packages. I have seen offers as low as five rounds and as high as 40.  These allow offer discounts from their daily greens fees.  I would see this as an option of convenience for people living close to a course they like.  Here, you can explore other daily green fee deals but fall back on the convenience of a pre-paid package when time or funds are tight.

 

  1. Loyalty/Discount Cards – I have also experienced courses or regions offering players a loyalty card. Some courses are centrally managed or others exist within a unique geographic area.  Loyalty programs exist to reward players who play regularly with discounts on play, or ‘rewards’ like carts, apparel, etc.  While aware of some programs, I never frequent one area of golf ‘company’ enough to warrant the value but it is interesting to see and worthy of sharing.  My fall trip to PEI allowed our group to use the Golf PEI Green Card.  Through this offer, we played 10 rounds for an average green fee of $37.90.  There were six other course options we lacked time to utilize. Buy early in the calendar year, they sell fast.

 

  1. GTA Golf Club – This Company bases it operations in regional clusters of Toronto, London, Ontario and Chicago. This group allows people to buy graduated levels of ‘membership’ which provides access to a restricted number of daily discounted tee times at courses.  Here, the player simply books a tee time at a participating course than acquires one of the limited access times available that day.  The membership provides access to these deeply discounted rates and if you’re willing to pay more, you can get a certain number of round credits added in. This is where the real value is.  Credits are for $35 credit off the already discounted rate.  Courses I love fall within this price range, so for me it is often free to play.  If I wanted to play somewhere else, it may range from $5 to about $40 or so, out of pocket.  Another surprise to me this year was a returning customer I received a discount on my renewal and some ‘free’ round credits.  This gets high marks in my book and I have yet to see a value program equivalent.

 

  1. Under Par – This is an email service all public golfers in Ontario should sign up for. Throughout the season, UnderPar will email you offers for two or four players to play at courses in Ontario.  The geographic range of courses is impressive; this is less Toronto-centric than other discount programs.  Often the offers have fine print such as deadlines for use and minor restrictions but the value is sensational and I have used these vouchers on many occasions with enjoyment and success.  It’s a nice way to treat a family member or friend to play a round.

 

  1. Shoulder Season Play – Value need not be aligned to course commitment or front-end investment. Here, if you’re willing to play early or late in the season, you can often get heavily discounted rates on some of your favourite courses.  The same concept at a twilight rate (another excellent option for the value conscious golfer), here, before and after a certain time of year you can get great value.  I love fall golf and enjoy the fact it is often less wet and buggy than spring.  The chance to play a bucket list course at a reduced rate is something I always explore and the shoulder season is a favourite strategy I employ.

 

  1. Stay and Play – Not everyone has the time and resources to enjoy stay and play options but if you’re seeking value, it is worth looking into. Some courses have hotel, spa, restaurant options and the Stay and Play special could also include replay options, creating additional value for golfers.  For destination locations, the research could prove worthwhile.  Here, I like to marry Stay and Play with Seasonal play to maximize the discount options.

 

I am sure this is not an extensive list so I welcome hearing from others about how they optimize value in their golfing experience, absent a membership of course (likely one of the best value options).  After all, I have yet to meet anyone who said they wish they spent more to play a round of golf.

Penn Classic 2014 at Cabot Links

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What is the state of the game of golf in Canada?

On July 20, I had the pleasure to attend a Golf Journalists Association of Canada event and listen to a golf leadership roundtable discuss the state of the game in Canada. After listening, and reflecting, here are my opinions on this issue.

I am not going to apologize for my optimistic attitude. It serves me well in life and on the golf course. I have noticed increased discussion around recent media coverage about the demise of the game:
http://www.macleans.ca/economy/business/the-end-of-golf/
http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/golf-course-numbers-show-declining-popularity-especially-corporate-players-1.3075580

I wonder if this is a critical analysis of key factors in golf’s sustainability or merely an effort to grab headlines. After all, are we dealing with facts or opinions? This is a critical distinction, as I agree with Michael Crichton who states, “Opinions without evidence – that’s what we call prejudice”.

So, exactly where are the evidence bases for the game of golf in Canada? I will lean heavily on one source which is a collaborative effort between Golf Canada, the PGA of Canada and the National Golf Foundation. The latter organization was new to me. www.ngf.org National Golf Foundation is “the preeminent knowledge leader for companies and organizations that relay on objective and accurate data, insightful guidance and marketing resources to support their business involving golf. NGF has provided trusted research, analysis, databases and insights on commercial trends since 1936”. If I am looking for evidence, it would appear I have found a credible source.

The three organizations listed above combined to produce Golf Facilities in Canada 2015 Report, a report identifying all existing public and private facilities in the country. It breaks down these data by province, type and number of holes. In addition, these organizations have collaborated to develop “Canadian Golf Economic Impact Study (2014)” and “Canadian Golf Consumer Behaviour Study (2012)”. These organizations are committed to building the knowledge base and helping golf leaders, and golfers, make informed decisions.

A few facts to share from the 2015 report:
• Canada is home to 2346 public and private golf facilities (7% of the global supply) and third most of any country in the world
• 2126 of these courses are open to the public
• 9 hole golf facilities account for almost 37% of Canada’s total supply
• There are 3 facilities which operate 6 holes and 9 facilities which operate 12 holes
• In the last 5-10 years, 158 golf facilities have closed. There are 31 facilities in development (planning or construction)

Add to this, statistics which Golf Canada also shares:
• There are 5.7 million Canadians who golf and play over 60 million rounds annually.
• The golf industry is worth $14.3B to the national economy (more than 1% GDP).
• Also, golf facilities host over 37,000 charitable events annually which help raise over $533M for charitable causes.

While these statistics reflect a snapshot in time – and this opinion piece is not exploring trends – I would like to focus on the positives of the game for no other reason than to dispel the notion that golf is in an unhealthy state.

Looking for more facts? Let’s examine junior golf development, as it is one area which requires a positive light shone on it. Canada hosts many junior programs which are of interest to many around the world. Golf in Schools, CN Junior Links Skills Challenge, Take a Kid to the Course, She Swings She Scores, among other programs; all actively seeking to engage youth in the game. The glass here is certainly half-full, I would attest. Granted, it could benefit from some additional marketing perhaps, but there is much positive development taking place reaching out to engage kids in the game.

The game does not declare itself as being perfect; the leadership in all organizations were able to offer constructive criticism and areas for improvement. But it is prejudicial to declare the end of golf. Golf is no different than any other game in the country; it has cycles of popularity, it is affected by economic cycles and it struggles – as all sports do – to meaningfully engage youth today. Add the usual laments about time and cost (which I do not agree with but will debate about) and one can argue about golf’s sustainability. But it is simply erroneous to state it is in critical decline, or ‘dead’. I see too many facts to the contrary.

I would like to see healthy dialogue on the issues of the game move to an exploration of solution. There are examples of good practices of golf development here in Canada and around the world. Whether it is 6 or 12 hole courses, junior programs aimed to introduce kids to the game, or businesses like GolfNow, GTA Golf Club or Under Par, to name a few, which provide value opportunities for public players. All these look to contribute to enticing golfers and prospective golfers.  I could write additional posts dedicated to the health benefits of the game or the contributions golf is making to the natural environment in our communities.

I am biased, golf is an amazing game. I want debate on issues of its development and sustainability. But I refuse to deal with arguments which ignore facts and are merely based on the opinion of a few individuals. I would like to be part of a solution than exacerbate a perceived problem. I welcome your thoughts on the state of golf in Canada.

Carlisle Golf Club – The real gem of the Kaneff group of courses?

Carlisle Golf – The real gem of the Kaneff group of courses?

Lionhead, based in Brampton, ON, are the flagship courses of the Kaneff group of courses. The Legends course is billed as one of the most difficult from the tips, with a slope rating of 155. The Masters course is no slouch either but is a more straightforward layout with fewer hazards to contend with. In addition to an executive length Streetsville Glen, Century Pines in Hamilton, Royal Ontario in Milton and Royal Niagara in Niagara Region, Kaneff operates the 27 hole Carlisle course in Flamborough, just beyond the border of Burlington, ON. Playing as a single on a very cool albeit sunny Sunday fall afternoon I was excited to experience this course. My initial reaction was very positive. The course condition appeared outstanding. Many of the fairways are lined with evergreen trees so leaves appeared to be much less an issue as they could be this time of year. I was instructed to play the south 9 than the north 9 and was permitted to play as a single.

At the practice green at Carlisle Golf Club

At the practice green at Carlisle Golf Club

The course started out with a fair and picturesque par 4 with a drive over water to a generous landing area, leaving a straightforward slightly uphill approach to the green. The course than back tracked and I noticed the south 9 ran parallel to the north 9 for a few holes. Fortunately, trees and generous fairways provided sufficient shelter for a quiet Sunday but when busy I would suspect there may be some risk of errant balls on fairways. The conditions remained consistently strong, better than what I’ve experienced at Lionhead courses or Royal Ontario. Tee boxes remained well mown, flat and framed the holes well. Fairways were generous in terms of landing space, well visible and in very good condition. Greens were running quick and were true and there were surprisingly few ball marks.

The course design was enjoyable and well routed on the south 9. I did notice some odd elements on the north 9, as some of the holes were located alongside boundary fencing which made me feel I was playing golf in Jurassic Park. Most notably were holes 6-8, all of which had fencing framing the holes and creating a tight feel. So pronounced is the fencing that the par 5 6th hole runs like a crescent with fencing all along the left side of the hole. It creates a visual feel of the hole being much narrower than it really is which is difficult since an ideal tee shot on 6 would be to favour the fence side of the fairway.

I enjoyed the south 9 more, with a picturesque closing three holes, the par 3 7th, par 4 8th and par 5 9th. I loved the risk-reward 3rd hole on the south with an intimidating second shot to a guarded green on the par 5. Of course I had to go for it (and of course I avoided the water short and left by badly pulling my approach which led to a bogey).

All in all, Kaneff has a very solid course to complement its other holdings. While I did not play the east 9, the chance to have three separate courses, in essence, all of which with very good condition and offering a good test of golf make Carlisle a strong complement to Kaneff courses in Brampton and Milton. I would argue, based on conditioning and layout that this is their best and most enjoyable course I’ve experienced. Add the incredible value which I was able to get for this round (under $20 on GolfNow) and this is a strong value play.

Aura – 6 out of 10 – As this is not the flagship course for Kaneff it is not as highly touted as it could be. The grounds and the condition alone would move this score higher but based on the low volume of players on that blustery, sunny Sunday this remains a hidden gem.

Value (cost / experience) – 7 out of 10. Peak rates for this course are $67.50 in the summer on weekends. Compared to the Legends course with a rate of $155, the value would seem apparent but to me the contrast speaks to the high costs of the two Brampton courses versus the value of Carlisle. However, there are many chances for public players to get greens fees for this course under $50 throughout the year. A full membership rate of $3995 is not a true value play in my opinion. However, for my fall round, I would say the value was outstanding.

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – 8 out of 10 – This was a pleasant surprise in relation to other Kaneff courses who tend to suffer from excessive play and have issues around tee boxes, some fairways and most greens. Here, there is very little to criticize about the conditions. The layout is very good, not excellent however with parallel nines and boundary fencing framing the course in places.

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – 7 out of 10 – I would like to play here in the height of the summer. I would hope that three sets of nine would help support a solid place of play but there are risks it could create backlogs as groups enter onto nines with some seeming randomness. I really enjoyed the round and the course condition was a positive and pleasant surprise. It was 30 km from my home and felt like 100km, it was quiet and serene.

Highlight (what is great about the course) – As is hallmark for all the Kaneff courses I have played, the practice facilities are very strong. A large and dedicated putting and chipping green and a range which is set aside from play is nice to see for a facility this large. The opening holes on both sets of nine are fair and strong and help set a tone for a positive golf experience. With so many pine trees it was such a treat to play a round and not lose a ball in leaves in October.

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – The scorecard does not do justice to the severity of the dogleg on the par 4 7th hole. It seemed odd to me to appear to need to drive the ball toward the out of bounds fence with no visible clarity on where to play from there. The scorecard visibly shows the hole going right but not as pronounced as it really is. I’d either open up the dogleg somewhat, making more risk-reward or reflect the angle better on the card.

Just So You Know – I find the posted greens fees on all Kaneff courses to be expensive and detract from any sense of value. However, they are liberal around posting tee times on GolfNow which can offer shoulder season and twilight time value to experience their courses. If Carlisle was closer to the GTA it would have a substantially higher price tag. It is worth experiencing, especially on a quieter day.

Embracing Fall Golf in Canada

OK, so I’ve been a little quiet of late. But I have to admit that the fall is my favourite time of year for golf. Temperatures are a little more comfortable for someone like myself who prefers walking. The colours in Ontario in October are spectacular and on a dry day, the course conditions are often some of the best they will have been all season long. Let’s not even talk about value because this is hands down the ideal time for a value conscientious golfer (this is where GolfNow provides its real value). Carlisle Golf Club, Carlise, ON

As days get shorter and the window of the golf season across Canada (with the exception of some areas of British Columbia) is coming to a close I have a heightened appreciation for the limited opportunities to play. The fall tends to attract the more avid of golfer as well; fair weather players have long but their clubs away in the garage for the season. As someone who plays more than my fair share of rounds as a single, the solitude of a course on a crisp fall day is one of the highlights of the golf season.

Another reason to embrace fall golf is it is likely you’re playing your best golf of the season. The rust of the spring is long gone and the hard work in the summer to refine and re-find your game has come to a peak. My handicap has dropped a full stroke in the past 4 weeks with some outstanding play. And while my putting remains as mysterious as ever there is confidence and consistency with ball striking which means I am less likely to lose balls in the fall leaves.

OK, fall golf has its draw backs. It’s not perfect. But taking a page from the Morning Drive relaxed rules of golf, proposed earlier this year; I drop a ball where I felt I should have found it and play on…no penalty. Leaves are bothersome and not all courses take care to blow leaves away regularly. But me, I liken myself to a squirrel who is preparing for winter. I’ll get out and play as often as I can during this season. I know there will be an extended stretch where I’m hitting into a net or a dome and putting on my basement carpet and not into the sweet sound of a cup (and I do encourage you to listen to this great cup sound which Cabot Links have, with a metal plate on the bottom to make that drained putt sound even better!).

Put on a sweater, book a tee time and enjoy the fall golf options which are out there across the country. This time of year passes far too quickly and before long courses will close for another winter. And here’s hoping it’s a kinder winter than last year, but for now layer up and get out there!  Maybe I’ll see you Friday…and Sunday!

The Importance of the Golf and Country Club

I have intentionally chosen to be a public player. I truly enjoy the variety and diversity of golf courses and golf experiences within Canada. I cherish the freedom and flexibility which I have to play at any given date or time. Convenience, business, value and opportunity are all factors which contribute to the approximately 25 different courses I have played each year since 2008 in Canada. I am the baseball or hockey equivalent of a free agent. I reflect back with great memories of enjoyment and discovery, stumbling upon courses I was not aware of, or, simply would not have made the time to experience otherwise.

This is not to chastise the Golf and Country Club model and experience, quite the opposite. In fact, I’d like to present a contrarian argument for the merits of membership and for me it would start and stop with one factor. The day I join a club it will be for this reason. The obvious factors – finance, course/conditioning, convenience – are straightforward to me. But here is why I can see myself joining a golf club within the next 5 years; belonging.

Last week I teed up with a good friend at the Member-Guest event at the Brampton Golf Club. This is a venerable course designed by a Stanley Thompson protégé, Robbie Robinson. It’s immaculate and presents a very fair test of golf on a course which is walkable. The course can be set up for high level competition such the recent Ontario Women’s Amateur Championships but generally plays at an even higher degree of difficulty (especially, so I hear, around Club Championship time). The course boasts a high volume of play from an active membership. My experience last week, in addition to playing a practice round earlier this month, left me feeling impressed with the community of golfers which exists. My partner and course member happens to be Men’s Captain this year. He seemingly knows everyone there and they know him. The value of these relationships helps create a community which extends, in many cases, to entire families. And while this is nothing new and I may well be describing any number of Golf and Country Clubs across the country, the fact remains that golf is one thing that is a constant for most members in Brampton, allowing them to develop, maintain and build friendships around a game they’re passionate about.

Juxtaposed to this is the experience of a public player who does not have this sense of belonging but trades that in for freedom and flexibility to play at numerous courses and/or often or in my case infrequently. And while I am not paying annual dues or membership fees I also lack access to facilities for practicing. On a personal level this is a very simple and straight forward contrast. The complexity emerges when you get into membership consortiums like ClubLink or Pacific Links. Access to several courses is intriguing to me but the relational aspect of belonging is not quite the same. Similarly for public players, sites like GolfNow or consortia like GTA Golf Club unlock issues of access but to me there is a critical element missing.

That missing piece is belonging.

And it is the sense of belonging which will drive me to join a Golf and Country Club in the future. For now, I’ll enjoy my free agency and the chances to experience all that Canada has to offer in terms of public golf!