After 5

On the Upswing

Five reasons why the golf scene in Minnesota is coming back from some time in the recessionary bunker.

By Elizabeth Millard

A recession feels particularly dreary when it affects an avid golfer's game. Clubs languish in the car trunk or even - worst of all horrors - tucked into some cobwebby corner of the garage.

The recent economic downturn created a pall across most industries, but travel and leisure took a particularly hard hit as discretionary spending dwindled, belts tightened and luxuries got curtailed. For golfers, that translated into fewer rounds of play. Business meetings once held on the courses or in club banquet halls shifted to in-office talks, where executives sighed under artificial lighting, reminiscing about lush fairways and "19th hole" camaraderie. Sound familiar?

Well, clear some time on your calendar this summer, because golf is back, baby. Here are a handful of reasons why the game is on:

The economy is slowly crawling back upward

There are numerous, eloquent ways to describe the recent economic downturn and its effects, but let's be realistic: the past couple years were downers.

Not only did businesses have to consider or implement layoffs, but also spending for once-standard perks like conferences, parties, training and travel got axed. Executives fond of ducking out early once or twice a week to play rounds of golf, instead saw their time compressed into rounds of meetings about wearying topics like expenditure cuts and hiring freezes. In turn, the golf courses suffered, too.

"We've just been through the worst two years in the industry that I can recall," says George Carroll, General Manager and COO at Interlachen Country Club in Edina. "We saw a large amount of fallout in terms of memberships." The club usually carries a waiting list of about 50 to 60 people, and last year, that list dwindled to just two potential members. And Interlachen was one of the fortunate ones - many private clubs that usually have waiting lists didn't have anyone on them for the past few years.

The banquet business at clubs was affected as well, Carroll adds, but that's starting to bounce back, just as the waiting list is beginning to grow again. He says, "The economy is improving, everybody feels that they've weathered the storm. So, now they're waiting to get back out there and enjoy the short season that we have. It looks to be a good golf season coming up."

Nothing beats golf for proper business relationship building

Sure, you can Skype, text, Tweet, email, Facebook message and iChat, all with the aim of getting to know your business contacts better. How's that working for you?

Here's the thing: technology might make us more available, but several studies have shown that it can decrease the ability to forge meaningful, real connections. Truly, nothing beats in-person meetings, and for a stellar way to get to know someone else, spend a few hours walking with that potential pal, outside in the fresh air, and perhaps using a well-engineered metal stick to hit a little ball as far as you can.

"I'd play golf even if it didn't have a significant business benefit," says Sue Holden, a partner at law firm Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey. "But the fact is that it's a great way to establish and maintain relationships." In her litigation practice, Holden relies on referrals from attorneys and other professionals, and she finds that golf is ideal for creating a social atmosphere while still occasionally talking about business.

"How you develop relationships depends on the seriousness with which you approach the game," she notes, "but if you're golfing to network, you can't beat the relaxed atmosphere, the ability to joke about your shots, and the chance to get to know someone on a personal level." As an added bonus, polite golfers turn off their smartphones and turn their attention to the game and the other players. That means uninterrupted time with a contact - a precious commodity in an age of fractured attention spans and multi-tasking.

Similar to Carroll, Holden has noticed that she and her colleagues have played fewer rounds over the past few years, but that the game is sparking more interest now. She says, "In May, I start to line up golf dates with people I want to network with. This year, there are a lot more people receptive to doing that. I'm not sure if that's a function of the economy, or if people are sun-starved, but either way, I think it'll be great for the season to come."

Golf makes for the perfect staycation

The economy may be returning to a simmer, but that doesn't mean that flights to Europe and the Caribbean are packed with Minnesotan vacationers. With rising gas prices, more intensive work schedules, changing school calendars and skittishness about big-ticket trip prices, the staycation has become more popular in recent years.

That means more local travel, and although some resorts are reporting that visitors are staying for shorter amounts of time - long weekends instead a week - it's made for a good environment for resorts that offer golf and other activities.

"There are more golfers now than ever before," says Brian Thuringer, Owner and President of Madden's on Gull Lake. "But for us, it's tough to know whether people come here because they're golfers, or whether they decide to golf because they've come here. Either way, we're glad they're here."

Madden's was founded in 1929, and has been through numerous depressions and recessions, he adds. The resort offers different types of courses, from one designed for laidback golfers who just want an easy day, to a more masochistic, 86-bunker course meant to make a golfer miserable, Thuringer says with a laugh. "People just love that course; they can't wait to get on it," he notes. "I don't know why people are so fond of punitive courses where they just get beat up, but that's the one everyone wants to play."

Much like Madden's, the state itself offers a wide range of courses from the posh and difficult to the short and lowbrow. And all of them include the chance to turn off the Blackberry, stop thinking about economic woe and spend a few hours just watching a ball sail down the fairway.

Nearly everyone can play as long as they want

"If I'm going to ask someone to spend some time with me, I'm not going to suggest a game of basketball," says Thuringer, with a laugh. "I mean, come on, I'm 61 years old."

Golf is one of the few sports - indeed, perhaps the only one - where a long-retired senior can play with a high schooler. They might even get the same score. It's a game that unifies people, believes Thuringer, and for a long time, it's been misperceived by non-players as an elitist sport.

But Minnesota's golf environment is well-suited to people of all economic classes, notes Tom Ryan, Executive Director and COO of the Minnesota Golf Association. Because of the downturn, many courses are offering discounts, some on sites like Groupon, and Ryan believes that those types of efforts will create more interest among those who are new to the game, or haven't played for a while due to budget belt-tightening.

Beyond those short-term deals, the golf scene here is set up to appeal to a wide swath of golfers: only about 10 percent of courses in the state are private, compared to 25 percent in most other states.

Optimism abounds for golf to keep raising its profile among those who don't need to recall how many vacation homes they own. Thuringer notes, "For some reason, golf has been villainized by the media in particular. If state employees or a corporation send their people to a golf resort, for example, even if it's just for the day, the media acts like it's some huge waste of money. They portray golf as being only for the wealthy, so spending money on it is seen as a betrayal of the corporate trust or something."

Thuringer sees some improvement in the way that golf is seen by outsiders, and the way it's portrayed in the press. He's hoping that golf's ability to create relationships and reduce stress will become much better topics for conversation than the game's perceived costs.

We're a golfing state and always will be

Ask any golfer (we asked many) about playing the game here, and they get a certain spark to their expression. It's a combination of nostalgia, loyalty and wistfulness. Even if they don't own the bumper sticker, it's likely they have this phrase in their hearts: I'd rather be golfing.

They usually talk about how Minnesota has the highest per-capita number of golfers, although that's only partially true. The number fluctuates, according to Ryan, depending on year, and we often share that distinction with our neighboring states and other upper Midwestern locales. Still, Minnesota is a land of golfers, and not even a char-grilled economy can change that.

"My belief is that we're a place filled with people who love outdoor activities like fishing, boating, and hiking," says Ryan. "Golf fits into that perfectly.  "Many people feel locked inside from November to March, and when the grass turns green, they want to get outside and stay out for as long as they can."

The state also boasts a huge number of particularly enthusiastic golfers, he adds. Maybe, for some of them, the word "obsessive" might apply. Ryan says, "We have people using colored balls so they can play in the snow. My wife laughs at me when I head out to play and it's 35 degrees. But when you love the game, you love it."

Economic indicator? Golf ball sales

As odd as it might sound, one indication of an economic recovery is golf-related retail sales, particularly golf balls, according to a report from the National Golf Foundation. And it looks like Minnesota is definitely on the upswing, notes Matt Corey, Chief Marketing Officer of Golfsmith.

"Golfers are starting to spend money again, and we can see the result of pent-up demand," he says. "Core golfers are itching to check out the latest equipment, and we have several new products that are just killing it."

An example of economic health, he adds, is the selling-like-hotcakes new R11 Driver from TaylorMade. The club is zipping out of stores even though the retail price is $399, about a hundred dollars higher than the retailer's other high-end drivers. "To us, this shows that golfers are now willing to spend money, and they want new stuff after waiting for so long to get back to the game," says Corey.

Golf ball sales? They're up 30 percent this quarter. In general, the retailer reported a record first quarter at the end of April, for what is traditionally the slowest sales period of the year. Goodbye, recession and hello, new golf gear.

Looking Ahead: The Big Events

For longtime golf aficionados and new players alike, some large events on the horizon should prove exciting for the Minnesota golf scene:

2014: USGA Women's Mid-Amateur Championship. Created in 1987 as a way to provide a national competitive arena for amateurs age 25 and older. (site TBD)

2016: Ryder Cup. Held at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska. The competition is held on a biennial basis, and involves play between teams from Europe and the United States.

2017: U.S. Senior Men's Amateur Golf Championship. A national tournament for competitors at least 50 years of age. (site TBD)

2017: U.S. Open. Held at a public golf course in Erin, Wisconsin. Although this isn't a Minnesota event, it's just a short road trip.