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Change of Course (Posted On: Saturday, September 20, 2014)

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Does golf have a future? That's the big question every publication from Golf Digest to The New York Times and the Globe & Mail has been asking for the past several years.

On the surface, the facts look bleak: golf has lost five million players worldwide since 2005, and some estimates claim players are continuing to walk away at a rate of one million per year. About 18 per cent of the 5.7 million golfers in Canada take up the game and then quit in a given year. The reasons boil down to cost, time, difficulty and elitism: golf is too expensive, it takes too long, it's too hard to play and has too many annoying rules.

To tackle those perceptions, some courses in the U.S. and Canada are introducing drastic and bizarre variations on the game, from 'foot golf' - a blend of soccer and golf - to quadrupling the size of the hole.

But are gimmicks like pizza-sized holes and soccer balls on the fairway simply digging golf a bigger hole (both literally and figuratively) by eschewing the game's rich history and mystique?

Our local course executives seem to think so. None of the managers and pros we interviewed plans to introduce foot golf or start hacking away at the holes on their courses. Instead, they are addressing the barriers to entry head-on, with lower prices for both memberships and greens fees, 9-hole options, more practice facilities and lesson packages, and a focus on families, women and juniors.

The new owner of OslerBrook Golf and Country Club, Bill MacWilliam, says golf saw "one of the most serious declines in some time" after the recession hit in 2007. However, he adds there is plenty of reason for optimism looking forward.

"I'm not stupid enough to buy something that's on a downward trend," he chuckles, adding firmly, "We're past that." MacWilliam, who recently purchased the bankrupt OslerBrook along with a group of investors, bought his first golf course in 1981. He built St. Andrews East, a private club in Stouffville, which he later sold to the members but continues to run. He also owns St. Andrews Valley, a public course in Aurora.

"There is an upturn in the industry; we have seen it both at the public course and at the private club," he asserts. "The comeback has been quite dramatic over the past year and a half. You’re going to see slow and steady growth, and I feel that with OslerBrook we're going to be part of that story."

MacWilliam says about 200 of OslerBrook's former 230 members have already re-joined the club, and that number continues to climb. "It's off to a good start; we're very pleased. However, it will take a number of years to see ourselves above water. We know that and we're willing to do what it takes to get us there."

Sandy Higgins, director of member services at Mad River Golf Club, also sees a brighter future ahead for golf in our area, but acknowledges it’s not without its challenges. "Golf is alive and well here in Southern Georgian Bay. If you think about how quickly OslerBrook sold once it was put on offer, it proves that investors are confident in our area," says Higgins. "However, it is a tough business to be in, no doubt about it. In our region there are too many good golf courses to choose from, forcing each club to create their own niche market. The pressure is on to create not just a good golf experience, but a spectacular one each and every day for members and guests."

Public vs. Private
When it comes to golf, membership definitely has its privileges. Private club members enjoy social and networking benefits along with perks such as preferred tee times, golf club cleaning and storage, practice facilities, luxurious locker rooms and gourmet dining … not to mention the caché of belonging to a particular club.

Read More of Change of Course in the latest edition of On The Bay Magazine by clicking here.

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