There was so much good stuff at last week's PGA Show, so much to celebrate and about which to feel good.
However, a couple of industry analysts weren't buying all the hysteria, saying golf still has a long way to go before it can relax.
The contrast is stark. On the exhibition floor of the Orange County Convention Center, the hum of activity was so persistent and vigorous, a layman walking the aisles would undoubtedly believe the industry exhibiting its goods and services that week was in rude good health, if not booming. Upstairs in Room 309 A, however, Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp. and Stuart Lindsay of Edgehill Golf Advisors painted a slightly different picture.
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," said Koppenhaver. "The industry powers and PGA of America start each season breathlessly trying to shape the dialogue for the upcoming year although, like the Chicago Cubs, the math more times than not catches up with them as the season gets underway."
Based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Koppenhaver's Pellucid Corp analyzes the golf industry. Koppenhaver, a former officer in the Marines who held various sales and market-research positions before founding Pellucid in 2001, has something of a reputation for being a little negative -- pessimistic even.
Those that have previously heard him address course operators and media at the PGA Show, however, know he is more realist than pessimist, and that his research and the solutions he recommends are to be trusted. Dozens of successful client case studies attest to this.
And though his talk last week illustrated where the golf industry is still going wrong, he did at least try to end on a positive note.
"I don't want to be a doom merchant," he said. "The fact that the numbers have been mostly flat for a few years is better than huge decreases."
Inevitably though, there was a "but."
"But we certainly aren't out of the woods yet by any means. Golf hasn't emerged from the recession as well as some peer industries, like hospitality. Yes, the major manufacturers are still spending big money on R&D, but they can't afford not to. They have to spend to innovate and try to lead consumer interest. They don't have the luxury of backing off during or immediately after a recession, so I don't think the amount they're spending should be seen as an indicator of recovery."
Lindsay, principal of Edgehill, which has assisted Pellucid in nearly every one of its research projects, likewise warned those packed into the room not to jump to any conclusions about the apparent new-found health of the golf industry.
"We've 'weathered the recession' without additional losses in rounds played which sort of qualifies as a positive," he said. "But the stability in rounds played last year was heavily influenced by the generally good weather, and the fact that aging baby-boomers played more golf."
The problem, both Lindsay and Koppenhaver said, will come in about 10 years' time, when many of the boomers are no longer playing, and there just aren't enough golfers to replace them.
Lindsay pegged the current number of golfers in the U.S. at 22 million current, a drastic loss of 8 million or so over the last 15 years. And, before long, that number will likely drop below 20 million for the first time in three decades.
According to Koppenhaver, nearly a quarter of all late-teen to 30-year-olds played the game when he was in that age bracket.
"But the number has dropped to roughly 12 percent," he said. "There are 4 million fewer people of that age playing golf now than there were 20-25 years ago."
In 2013, Time Magazine defined a millennial as anyone born between 1980 and 2000. Raised in the digital age, millennials have a very different view of the world and how it works than the previous generation. Golf for them simply takes too long and doesn't, according to Koppenhaver, offer the type of experience they desire.
"Research has shown that, relatively speaking, millennials tend not to spend a lot of their income on big-ticket items such as houses or cars," he adds. "But they will spend a lot on experiences."
Millennials, it seems, want to see the world and are interested in a much wider range of activities than their parents and grandparents were.
"Courses and equipment manufacturers," Koppenhaver said, "have to offer better experiences to capture and keep new golfers."
To be fair, equipment manufacturers are doing their part by introducing ever more attractive, high-tech products, but the degree to which they are allowed to innovate is restricted by design limitations enforced by the USGA and R&A. Old-school golfers will tell you manufacturers have actually been allowed to innovate far too much, however, and that new products level the playing field too much, particularly at the professional and high-amateur level.
The truth is that millennials probably won't spend any significant time learning the game and will only agree to play if they have equipment that enables them to achieve decent results quickly. And they'll only patronize a particular golf course if they feel comfortable and welcome there.
The subject of customer service is crucial to prolonged success, Koppenhaver and Lindsay said loudly and in unison, and it is a skill golf has been failing at for too long.
"Something like 85 percent of tee times are made in-person or over the phone," said Koppenhaver. "If the course employee making the reservation isn't efficient and friendly, it reflects badly on the course, and the relationship between golfer and course is obviously off to a bad start."
"Golf is losing the customer service battle every day," he continued. "A few years ago, 59 percent of people said they would walk out of a business or never go back if they had a bad experience. Today that number is 86 percent. Golf courses have got to train their employees. A lot of good customer service is innate certainly, but it can also be taught."
So what does good customer service look like?
"It starts with identification and recognition," said Lindsay. "Most golf courses do not use technology well. They need to be able to identify customers immediately so they can welcome them appropriately, have a meaningful conversation and tailor the experience accordingly. Technology can certainly help with that."
"The onus," said Koppenhaver, "is on the last course at which the golfer played. It has to do everything to ensure he has an enjoyable experience and comes back."
But it's not just about knowing the customer's name and remembering something about them. Courses should also be maximizing good-weather opportunities, said Koppenhaver, presenting the course in the best condition possible, making it playable and accommodating (do courses really need thick rough, forced carries from certain tees, and tough pin positions?) and offering good value and accurate pricing.
Golf could take a page from skiing. By improving the way facilities interact with participants and customers, and getting the details right, skiing has increased its revenue by 40 percent in recent years according to Pellucid, while tennis has banked a 30 percent increase.
"Things like good communication and valuable instruction programs play a big role in determining a sports facility's success," Koppenhaver said. "Golf certainly has the potential to achieve good numbers, but it first has to improve customer service and also make the game more relevant to millennials."
Another industry expert keenly aware of golf's communication and customer-retention shortcomings is Zeb Welborn, co-owner of consulting and marketing firm Welborn Media, and author of "The Social Golf Course." which highlights the importance of utilizing social media effectively. A member of the Chino Valley Chamber of Commerce in California, Welborn says he has seen a number of fellow members take up or return to the game after seeing his online posts and following his interaction with other golfers in a Twitter community called #golfchat.
"Something as small and simple as that can have a big effect," he said. "Golf courses just aren't as proactive on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as they need to be. And they neglect any kind of digital advertising and marketing while other industries are investing heavily online. Thus golf courses miss a huge opportunity. Today, people spend so much time looking at their smart phone, so that is where golf courses need to be."
Clearly, golf can learn from other industries and is not doing what it can or should be doing to attract new customers and avoid losing those it already has. Golf has reached a stabilization point that should last for a while, Lindsay said, but fails to engage customers correctly, and what small gains the industry recorded last year (equipment spending, rounds played) will disappear all too quickly.
As for people who think the game has made a complete post-recession recovery, Lindsay advises them to remember the increase in rounds played was almost entirely the result of improved weather, and that the rise in equipment sales was meager.
"Roughly 10 percent less gear was sold last year compared with 2007," he said.
"I know it's very tempting to look out over the exhibition floor and feel encouraged," Lindsay adds. "There are obviously a number of good signs. But as Tom Petty once said 'You can believe what you want to believe.'"