Playing the percentages

The other day, I was playing a round as a guest at a local club, where I was paired with a member of the club’s golf committee. During the round, I noticed that the course had been set up in a rather “challenging” way, with the tees set back, pins tight, speedy greens, rough grown high, etc.  In truth, I found myself struggling to record a good score throughout the front nine, despite playing some quite decent golf (for once).

Now, for those of you who regularly read my column (I thank you, by the way), you will almost certainly be able to predict one of my first questions to the committee member as we made the turn.

“So, is the course always set up this tightly, or do you have a club championships or special event coming up?” I asked.

Without batting an eye, the committee member proudly stated “It’s always set up like this. The members like a real challenge.”

“Oh?” I responded, intrigued.  “So you’ve…sent a survey to the membership, or something like that?”

“No,” he said. “But we generally know what players want.”

“Ah,” I said, puzzled. “So how do the B and C-graders do out here?”

“Well, it’s not easy for them, but we really try to accommodate the A-Graders and visitors, and give them a challenging experience,” he replied.

“OK,” I said, even more perplexed, before asking “And what percentage of the membership—and visitors—play at A-Grade level here?”

Though he didn’t know the exact number offhand, the committee member indicated that the number of A-Graders at the club—as well as those of visitors and guests—was a much smaller percentage than that of the other grades—he estimated it to be around 25 per cent. This makes perfect sense to me, as according to Golf Australia, around 70 per cent of registered handicaps fall in the B and C grade category.

What doesn’t make perfect sense to me, however, is setting up a golf course to cater to the smallest percentage of the golfers playing it. Even worse: why would you go about this without surveying the golfers (or members) to see what THEY want?

Let’s not forget that club golfers, by and large, are the ones that pay the bills. And these golfers, as I note above, are generally in the B and C-Grade category (obviously this depends on the club and location, etc).  As for visitors and guests, it’s generally assumed that you’d want them to walk away from their round with happy thoughts and memories, versus the feeling that they have been punched in the stomach (and thus no desire to return). Personally (and I’m an A-Grader, by the way) I’ve played many courses across Australia (and the world) that I consider to be “One Hit Wonders” (i.e. One hit, and you wonder what the fuss is all about.) I’m sure that many of those courses are doomed to struggle in the future.

So why would any committee/club intentionally set up a course that would purposely punish the players every week? Wouldn’t it be better to soften the course for regular play, and keep the members happy? Wouldn’t that, in turn, lead to a higher member retention rate, or repeat visits?  And let’s face it, if an A-Grader wants a challenge, then they can go play from the tips, or find any number of other ways to challenge themselves.

I understand that it is a balancing act for most courses and clubs to try and keep all members happy (but, as we all know, you can never please 100 per cent of the people 100 per cent of the time). But I believe that too many committees or greenkeeping staff (or whomever makes the usual setup decisions at any particular club) generally put far too much emphasis on “challenge” over “fun”, and too much focus on pleasing the wrong segment of members and guests.

So, to any committee people out there – the next time you discuss setting up the course, please keep in mind that golf is, after all, a numbers game. And it’s in the best interest of your club to play the percentages.

As always, I’ll see you on the fairways


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