Why Canadian golf is dying
The culprits: greed, hubris and the demise of free time
There were already 11 other golf courses nearby when Don MacKay set about to build Muskoka Highlands in 1992. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether Ontario’s cottage country, two hours north of Toronto, could support a 12th course, but MacKay believed in his business plan-a low-key, public links-style facility-and convinced a cautious banker to loan him the money. It may have been the last time a proposed golf course received such serious scrutiny in Canada.
Since then, MacKay says more than 18 courses have been built-and bankrolled-within a few hours’ drive. But there aren’t nearly enough people to slice, hook and duff balls along all those freshly clipped fairways. Business is hurting and competition between operators is growing fierce. “If you talk to a golfer, he’ll say the game of golf is fine,” MacKay says. “But if you talk to a golf course owner, he will say the business of golf is suffering because we overbuilt.”
The numbers are stunning. There are an estimated 2,400 golf courses across the country, while Statistics Canada pegs the number of golfers in Canada at about 1.5 million. That’s one course for every 625 players, or 14,500 Canadians-among the highest number per capita in the world. Moreover, Canadians appear to be playing less golf than they used to. A recent study by the National Allied Golf Associations, or NAGA, found that the number of rounds played on the average Canadian course has dropped 10 per cent over the past five years, with the blame falling on everything from waning interest to the time commitment required.
WATCH: For a first-hand glimpse of Canada’s golf course glut, take a quick tour over Toronto using Google Earth’s flight simulator.
In the U.S., a painful industry shakeout is already under way. Equipment sales are down, closures of golf courses are commonplace and an estimated 400,000 players left the sport last year alone. In Canada, meanwhile, clubs are slashing fees in a bid to stay in the black, with some more successful than others. The award-winning Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club near Merritt, B.C., recently applied to put itself into receivership, following in the footsteps of others such as Tobiano (Kamloops), Tower Ranch (Kelowna) and the Rise (Vernon). In Ontario, the private York Downs Golf & Country Club north of Toronto put itself up for sale to developers (although the club says it’s not in any financial trouble), while a candidate seeking Toronto’s mayoralty wants to turn a money-losing municipal course in the east end into a park to ease the taxpayer burden.
How did the industry end up in such an obvious hazard? Overly optimistic predictions about how many retired Baby Boomers would hit the links was part of it. But the real culprit was golf’s unhealthy relationship with North America’s overheated real estate market. Developers can sell houses for far more money if they back onto a golf course and the fancier the golf course, the bigger the premium. But not everyone who wants to live next to a golf course plays golf-so many courses sit relatively empty. Egos also play a role. “I watched in astonishment as people poured tens of millions into a course that they probably knew they weren’t going to get their money out of,” says MacKay, who once worked for a company that built golf courses.
Now the industry is scrambling to find its way back out of the rough. Some operators have cut back on watering and maintenance, allowing courses to exist in a more "natural" state. Others are grasping for new ways to sell a centuries-old game to a time-pressed audience, experimenting with faster-to-play courses and pay-as-you-go pricing. One course in B.C. is using eight-inch cups on the greens to make putting easier, while others propose going as big as 15 inches, roughly the size of a large pizza. Golf Digest raised eyebrows this year when it featured a scantily dressed Paulina Gretzky on its cover-not because she’s a golfer, but because she happens to be engaged to one.
Perhaps the most desperate response is to lure people to use golf courses for sports other than golf. MacKay, for one, promotes something called footgolf, a sort of golf-soccer mash-up that involves kicking the ball down a fairway and trying to land it in a 21-inch hole. He’s unapologetic. “When 40 per cent of kids under 15 play soccer and [five per cent] play golf, you realize that you need to appeal to a different market,” he says. “We’ve got to put more people on this course. I don’t care if they’re flying kites or riding bikes. We have to get more people because golf is golf and there are only so many golfers out there.”
You can read more about it here www.macleans.ca/economy/business/the-end-of-golf/