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The changing face of golf

As the sport enters a transition period, Sea to Sky courses take a swing at new markets

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As soon as he learned to sit up as a baby, Stewart Walker would bat balloons around the house with a wooden spoon. When he was two, he spent the whole summer at Qualicum Beach whacking plastic golf balls with a toy set his great grandma bought him at Walmart.

By age three, he told his parents he wanted to be a golf pro. The Whistler resident is well on his way to making that dream come true — and he's just 12 years old.

Walker has played some of the best-known courses in the world with his Scottish-born father, whom he starting beating on the links when he was four. He began playing — and walking — 18-hole courses by the time he was eight. Last year alone, he played 106 rounds at Big Sky Golf Club. Now a member at Nicklaus North, he's heading into Grade 7 as a golfer to watch.

"He's just a pure, pure natural," his mom, Rhona Walker, says. "He's so passionate about it. He loves the focus and the challenge of getting the ball close to the pin. He enjoys the accuracy of the game. He can't get enough of it."

Routinely hitting 200-yard drives, "straight, like a machine," his mom says, the junior golfer may well be the next Rory McIlroy. Although his level of play is rare, Walker is but one member of the next generation of golf, his promising career a bold contrast to any doubts about the sport's very future.

News stories and anecdotal reports have been floating around over the last few years about the sport's decline. In many places across the country, courses have been forced to close, including Victoria's Royal Oak; Chilliwack's Aquadel; and Aurora, Ont.'s Highland Gate. Some say interest has dwindled because people — especially debt-laden Canadians who are working full-time and then some to make ends meet — increasingly lack the kind of time and money that the diversion demands. Then there's the notion that screen-obsessed, app-savvy millennials simply aren't interested in pursuing anything for four hours at a time.

Nationally, statistics related to golf's standing paint a somewhat murky picture.

According to the National Allied Golf Associations (NAGA), golf is the top sport in terms of participation rate in the country. Canada's participation rate of 20 per cent — representing nearly 5.7 million golfers — eclipses all other sports in the country, including hockey.

Canada is home to 2,298 golf facilities, second in the world behind the United States (15,014) and just ahead of Japan (2,290), according to the 2017 edition of Golf Facilities in Canada, a report by Golf Canada in partnership with the PGA of Canada and the National Golf Foundation. That same study found that Canadians play more than 60 million rounds annually.

NAGA research from 2012 found that the number of people entering the game is equal to the number of people leaving it (18 per cent, or approximately 1.026 million people).

However, the number of annual rounds played dropped about 14 per cent between 2008 and 2013, according to NAGA. And there appears to be limited interest in the sport outside of those who already play it. Roughly 73 per cent of the Canadian golf-aged public don't play the game.

If there is, in fact, any real threat to golf in Canada, B.C. appears to be holding its own.

"According to our research, 680,000 British Columbians played at least one round of golf in 2016," says Kris Jonasson, executive director of British Columbia Golf. "There was a substantial decline in participation when the economy turned down (in 2008-09). The numbers today bring us back to where we were before the downturn." 

The sport contributes $2.08 billion to the province's Gross Domestic Product annually and employs 44,000 people, according to Allied Golf Association's British Columbia chapter.

"I don't believe golf is on the decline," says Woody Bishop, general manager and head professional at Pemberton's Big Sky Golf Club. "What I do see is that golf is going through a transition period."

The days of golf being a gentleman's game are long gone, he explains, but there's still a need for clubs to cater to entire families, something Big Sky strives for. A father of two young kids himself, he says children are allowed to bring their bikes to ride on course paths alongside their golfing parents or older siblings. The club also offers Paint N' Sip nights, which involve fun painting classes with wine and appetizers and help dispel the notion of clubs being stuffy, intimidating, male-oriented places.

To help teach kids a game that can have a steep learning curve, the club uses SNAG — a program that stands for Starting New at Golf. Using colour-coded dots to help players form the proper grip, participants strike at balls resembling tennis balls that stick to various above-ground targets. It makes the game fun and approachable for new players.

"The clubs that are doing everything they can to get women and younger people comfortable at a golf club are the ones that are being successful," Bishop says. "So are places that are flexible and willing to accommodate people's changing needs. If someone says 'I've got an hour,' we're not going to say you can't play; we're going to say we've got some options. It doesn't have to be four hours. You could play six holes, 12 holes, nine holes; play whatever you want.

"On the other side, nowadays, with how busy parents are and kids are, how often do you get the chance to say, 'Let's go spend four hours together without cellphones and have a conversation?'" he adds. "It's a great opportunity to shut off social media and connect with your kids. I see this transitioning as an opportunity to do things differently."

Padraic O'Rourke, golf operations manager and head golf professional at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Course, says he has seen little sign of a downswing in interest among players in general or younger ones in particular, though he acknowledges that courses can never become complacent or comfortable when the industry is so tied to the global economy. Whistler has other challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining young players with so many other diversions available: "Kids want to be out on their bike or in the lake," he says.

However, summertime is busy with junior camps. O'Rourke says that one of the club's key strategies for maintaining high participation rates is straightforward.

"We make sure everybody has a great time," O'Rourke says. "We're not going to be the facility that turns people away; we're going to be the facility that turns them onto it. I think the problem is that people are getting to some facilities and really not having that good of time; they're spending a lot of money and only having an OK time. We're making sure they're having a good time and have awesome service. We valet people's cars, take your clubs right out of your trunk and put them right on the cart; it's a good pace of play; it's a beautiful facility. Your whole day is pretty seamless."

At $199 for a round of golf on summer weekends, playing at the Fairmont course isn't cheap. However, O'Rourke points to options and discounts that make it more accessible: twilight rates ($139), which kick in at 3 p.m., for example, and locals' rates, for anyone from B.C. ($169 daily or $129 twilight). "Date night" happens every Wednesday; $155 per couple gets green fees and a two-course meal for two. ("You could go out for a good meal and spend $150 right there," he says.) Guests can also opt to play nine holes if they prefer a quicker outing than a round of 18.

Then there's the Whistler Passport, a pass that allows people to play four Whistler- and Pemberton-area courses for $449 during summertime, a savings of 40 per cent.

Nicklaus North Golf Course general manager Jason Lowe says that any reports of the industry being in the rough are exaggerated, just one more example of the media sensationalizing things. A contributing factor to courses closing down, he notes, is not a lack of public interest but rather oversupply — too many courses built too close together. "People didn't do their homework," he says. "Industry made a mistake by relying on destination golfers as their bread and butter. You have to have enough local players.

He also believes the way courses were laid out hasn't helped matters much.

"There have been a lot of mistakes with golf course design," Lowe says.

"Some of them were built more like a Disneyland tour than actually playable — where it's golf-cart only, where you can't walk the course. For me, that makes no sense. How do you look after your future market when juniors can't drive a golf cart? And some courses are way too challenging and don't have enough tee boxes."

Golf's public image needs work, too, Lowe says, especially when it comes to attracting young players. Legends like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer remain inspirational but are hard for youngsters to relate to, while Tiger Woods' talent will forever be overshadowed by his salacious personal history. Up-and-coming players want to see more role models like former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Rickie Fowler, who has his own distinct sense of style and identity.

Lowe says Nicklaus North works hard at getting people out to play and coming back by fostering golf's social aspect and helping players feel successful on the course. "One reason people find golf satisfying is when they hit good shots," he says. "Lessons play a key role. When people are getting some regular lessons but not taking themselves or the game too seriously, but striking the ball, it's going to be more fun. You can't expect people to pay money to be frustrated.

"If we don't get people playing often enough between 19 and 39 they simply won't play much golf when they get older."

Whistler Golf Club general manager Alan Kristmanson agrees that lessons — the right ones at the right times — are crucial to introducing people to the game and keeping them interested. At the course, kids aged four to six can attend a half-day camp called Tiny Golfers; teenagers who show obvious talent and interest can sign up for a high-performance program. "Our junior golf camps continue to sell out every year," Kristmanson says, noting that the lessons cover more than just swing fundamentals. "A key is to teach kids how to conduct themselves at a golf course, how to be comfortable on a golf course, and how to be safe on a golf course — that's a big part of it, too. There's the social side of golf: golf is a game of playing with people you don't know."

Staying on top of technology is a must for clubs, Kristmanson says. Whistler Golf Club has a free app that has proven extremely popular; it allows people to track shot distances and keep scoring stats. Plus, its golf carts are equipped with phone chargers. "Younger players love that," he says. "They're on Instagram, and a lot of them have the music on."

The most effective way to keep the sport alive is simple, Kristmanson adds: make sure new players want to come back. "You need to teach them how to enjoy the game," he says. "If you're having a hard time, don't feel like you have to keep shooting the ball. Pick it up and throw it on the fairway or take it up to the green. There are so many ways to enjoy the game."

GOLF AS TOURIST ATTRACTION

Destination BC recently recognized the province's golf industry as a "pillar and motivator" among tourists. Nearly one million Americans make overnight trips to B.C. every year, while Canadian travellers spend $585 million on golf-related travel. B.C. has 300-plus locally owned and operated courses.

"Golf is a big reason why some people travel to B.C.," says Maya Lange, vice president of global marketing for Destination BC. "It's one of the passions we've identified that we help promote. It's definitely an important product for us."

Just as wine lovers head to the Okanagan to experience the province through its award-winning vineyards, golfers come to B.C. to see this part of the country through its fairways and greens. Among the key target markets are California and Texas, Lange says, places where golfing may be great but summer temperatures make it less so.

"People come to B.C. for nature and wilderness, and the nature surrounding the golf courses in B.C. is incredible," Lange says. "I remember when I went golfing in Pemberton, and when I think about how beautiful that location is, with the mountains, it's the epitome of world-class golfing. We have so many golf experiences in B.C., and the scenery really motivates people to want to come here."

CONNECTING WITH KIDS

As with any sport, keeping golf alive means looking to the future and getting younger people involved. But not everyone has a child like Walker, who was practically born with a set of clubs in hand, and who has an inner passion for all things links-related.

To get young ones interested early on in life, Big Sky Golf's Bishop suggests parents find and focus on whatever it is that makes their kids want to be at the course — even if it's not golf.

"Maybe it's looking for golf balls or riding in the golf cart, or maybe they like having chicken fingers and fries; stick with that just to get them interested," Bishop suggests. "We have live music on the patio, and my daughter loves to dance, and now she'll say, 'Let's go to Big Sky; I want to dance! The biggest thing is, you can't force them."

Bishop has fond childhood memories of summer days spent looking for golf balls in the woods while his father and grandfather played in his native Cape Breton, N.S. He also recommends getting a set of plastic clubs for very young kids and, for older ones, enrolling them in stress-free junior clinics and camps.

Parents of more mature players who are serious about the game may want to seek out a course such as Nicklaus North or The Fairmont Chateau Whistler that have teaching technology. Computerized programs do technical analyses of players' swings and offer video playback, which O'Rourke says are ideal for tech-savvy teens and visual learners.

Walker's mom emphasizes the importance of not pressuring kids when it comes to golf, or any other activity for that matter. With Stewart showing such talent, Rhona says a lot of people assume that she and her husband have been pushing him too hard. That's hardly the case, she says; rather, this is a kid who asks to go to the driving range after he's already played a full round.

"Whistler is very competitive," Rhona says. "Some people see that a child has got potential skiing or something and they take them to the next level, and two years later they're burned out. It's crucial for them to have downtime.

"Stewart is just a boy; he's so young still," she adds. "For me as a parent, the most crucial thing is to keep him humble and grounded."

To get kids interested in golf, Rhona, who also has a daughter, recommends taking them to the driving range for short periods — maybe 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Those who seem to enjoy the sport might like having an indoor putting carpet at home.

"It's so important not to push your child," she says. "Let them enjoy it. I still focus on that. As long as he's having fun, enjoying it, and wanting to go, that's the main thing."

Whistler Golf Club's Kristmanson encourages younger players to keep it short at the start as well. "Don't feel like they have to play 18 holes; that's a long time when kids are first learning," says Kristmanson, who didn't start pursuing golf seriously until after his pro basketball career ended in his early 30s. "Come out and play one or two holes in the evening; that's a great time to play."

The club also offers the highly popular 5 after 5: an option for people to play five holes after 5 p.m. It also has junior tees, which makes a big difference for young players. "Some parents throw their kids on the ladies or forward tee; that's still way too far for them," Kristmanson says.

Then there are more formal opportunities to get kids playing.

Golf Canada, for instance, runs the Golf in Schools program (using the SNAG system) throughout the academic year, while the National Golf Course Owners Association's (NGCOA) Take a Kid to the Course usually takes place during the first week of July. The latter lets junior players play for free with a paying adult. This year, 121 golf courses in B.C. participated, up from 100 last year.

"The most important thing with kids is to make sure they're having fun," says Erica Beck, NGCOA's regional director for B.C. "When I first took my daughter to the driving range when she was five or six, she hit a ball and it only went five or six feet (two metres), but to her it was so exciting. As long as you're having fun, building their passion, the skills are going to come."

Then there's the PGA of B.C.'s Canucks Junior Golf Week program, which started in 2014 and also takes place in July. For $20, participants get instruction from PGA of B.C. professionals, rental equipment, and goodies like a T-shirt with the Canucks logo and a sleeve of golf balls. Of this year's record turnout of 800 participants, most of whom were aged six to 12, about half had no previous golf experience.

"The intent is to get kids out to the golf course who maybe have never picked up a golf club before or have limited experience with the game," says Eric MacKenzie, communications and marketing manager for the PGA of B.C. "It's encouraging to see so many kids getting their first taste of the game at a young age.

"If kids get an early introduction, the more likely they're going to run with it," he adds. "Golf is one of those life sports. For a lot of families, it's provided another outlet to forge bonds and connections... Even a bad day at the golf course is better than a good day sitting in front of the computer."

With local courses constantly adapting to players' changing needs and demands, the idea of golf landing in the rough seems unfounded. Even in the era of Spotify and Snapchat, Whistler is doing more than its fair share to keep the sport on the upswing.

For more information, visit the links below to the following Sea to Sky courses:

The Big Sky Golf Club:

www.bigskygolf.ca.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club:

www.fairmont.com/whistler/golf.

The Meadows at Pemberton:

www.pembertongolf.com.

The Nicklaus North Golf Course:

www.golfbc.com/courses/nicklaus_north.

The Whistler Golf Club:

www.whistlergolf.com.

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