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Is the Canadian Golf Industry on the Brink?

That’s the take of an article in Friday’s Globe and Mail.

For Canadian golfers, ’tis the season for eBay.

With fairways frozen harder than a Titleist, diehard duffers satisfy their golfing urges this time of year by sifting through the thousands of ads for clubs, balls and swing gizmos at the online auction site.

Sean Crogie, an Ottawa-area telecommunications worker and devoted golfer, would normally count himself among the legions of digital duffers.

But – as if anyone needed reminding – there’s nothing normal about the economy these days.

“People at my work have been cut,” the 40-year-old father of three says. “That’s always playing in the back of your head.”

So far this winter, usually his prime buying season, Mr. Crogie has not tendered a single bid. And this coming season he’s looking at cutting back his usual green fee expenses.

He’s not the only one.

Gauging by Mr. Crogie and other hibernating golf addicts, 2009 promises to be dismal for a golf industry in Canada already hurting after poor summer weather this past season.

Where to start? A “dismal” golf season based on eBay sales and the comments of one golfer? Now that’s extrapolating a point beyond its humble origins. The article, written by Patrick White, continues, using comments from Copetown Woods manager Barry Forth, Lionhead GM Boris Uvakov, and a couple of other golfers (including Crogie) to show the golf industry in this country is at a point of transition.

First, all of his sources for the story are in Ontario — where a majority of the courses are located, but not necessarily indicative of the country as a whole. There’s little talk about the private course market and apparently rather than talking to any private courses, White quotes a real estate agent who says initiation fees are slipping — dramatically. Of course, no concrete examples are provided.

Similarly, few Canadian stats are utilized. White uses a US study on the health of private courses and then tries to apply it to the Canadian market. It apparently doesn’t matter that most of the changes to golf course business in the US were led by course closures that allowed for real estate development, or course openings that were part of housing developments. That has been far less common in Canada — but never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

White also has Forth on the record saying the golf industry in Canada “will be forced to change”:

“Golf courses will be forced to change what they’re doing,” says Barry Forth, general manager of Copetown Woods Golf Club outside Hamilton. “They can’t be expecting people to pay full price to play golf in four and a half hours any more.”

Really Barry? I have a lot of respect for Barry Forth and think Copetown Woods offers great value for the buck. It would appear to me that Copetown is an example of a course that should weather the economic downturn. Barry says he’s evaluating the course’s fee structure now, but doesn’t say he’s cutting green fees. In fact, not a single course in the article says they are cutting green fees or lowering initiation rates. Maybe Barry will chime in here and give readers a preview of his new fees.

Now if the article had opened with a corporate course in Toronto admitting advance tournament bookings were down 40% from the same time last year — something I’ve heard about one area course, but have not been able to confirm — now that would make for an interesting story.

Could green fees come down? Maybe. Rounds were flat down between 5% to 15% at most Toronto-area courses last year, and no new courses are scheded to come online this summer with the exception of Turnberry in Brampton. Corporate play is surely to be down at places like Angus Glen GC, Copper Creek and Eagles Nest. What about courses further away from Toronto — like Bond Head. Will lower gas prices offset declines in corporate demand? What about Calgary? Will the drop in oil prices hurt course development?

There are the questions I want answers to — and questions that were not even addressed in White’s story. As for his initial premise — that eBay sales of golf merch will be slower — I actually even question that one. Maybe new sales will be slower — but I’d be betting that used sales could even be stronger in a market that’s more price conscious.

Anyway, as I often see in journalism these days, this one is just another example of the comment, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have been a Copetown regular since it opened. This is a business model that gives the public a first class facility at a reasonable price.I judge all the courses I play by the treatment I receive at Copetown.Keep up the good work.

  • “Rounds were flat at most Toronto-area courses last year, …”

    Really? Where did you get that stat, RT? It rained like heck all last summer here in TO.

  • Good point Henry. Can’t even say I was hung over — just flubbed that one. It is correct now — some courses made a big comeback with the solid fall (I heard of several doing a few hundred rounds in November, and October was solid), but I think the year was lost with all the rain.

  • Robert … as a follow up to my quotes in the article … you are right that revamping does not mean discounting. We will keep the same prime time rates that we have had for the past 2 seasons in 2009.

    We will be launching a new website in a couple weeks with some of the new ideas that we will be working on for 2009 (things are still being ironed out at this time).

    Robert you will be the first to know, so I will contact you hopefully in the next week to discuss what I am eluding to, which you can then pass on to your readers.

  • The courses may keep the base rates for green fees the same as last year, but, if they don’t have very good deals, they won’t get the rounds they need to stay alive.

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