Full Swing: The Golf Season of 2023

Sep. 10—TRAVERSE CITY — As summer winds down across Northern Michigan, the region’s golf industry is one sector that will be sorry to see it end.

Golf facilities throughout the area report a continued upswing in play across the 2023 season, as the the golf industry continues its remarkable surge that started during the COVID-19 pandemic more than three years ago.

“It’s been an incredible summer,” said Tom McGee, director of golf operations at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme. “Every month we’re breaking records for the numbers of rounds played.”

McGee said the resort, owned by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is projecting 67,000 rounds of golf to be played this season across its three courses that include the Jack Nicklaus-designed The Bear, The Wolverine course designed by Gary Player and its original course called Spruce Run. The play is up more than 6 percent from the 63,000 rounds last year, which was also an incredibly busy year for the complex, he said.

The pandemic, which created problems and challenges for so many businesses because of lockdowns, closures and social distancing recommendations, was actually a boost to the golf industry because it was among the recreational activities that was allowed to continue because it’s played outdoors and players could safely stay separated from each other. That helped open the game to a whole new set of participants, while also enticing former players back to the links.

“The pandemic introduced — or re-introduced — a lot of people to the game, and the numbers have been going up since,” McGee said.

The golf industry also took strides to make the game easier for lesser-skilled players — and less time consuming. The United States Golf Association’s national “Tee It Forward” campaign encourages players to play from shorter tees to make the game easier for part-time players. There’s also been a growing emphasis on playing 9-hole rounds instead of the more-traditional 18 holes, and the USGA now allows 9-hole rounds to be used to help determine a player’s handicap.

It’s a formula that’s worked for smaller courses like Bay Meadows Family Golf Course in Garfield Township, which features a par-32 executive course and a 9-hole par 3 layout. Bay Meadows owner Mike Husby said course revenue is up 12 percent this year from last, and the course expects close to 22,000 rounds to be played this season.

“We’re up considerably this year — once the good weather kicked in, it’s been very solid all summer,” he said.

The trends toward less-challenging layouts and shorter golf outings is a perfect fit for Bay Meadows’ business model.

Husby estimates that about 65 percent of his clientele is made up of senior citizens, who can find it difficult to play some of the region’s championship courses.

Both 9-hole layouts can be played in under two hours, and its proximity to downtown make it convenient for a quick golf getaway.

“You can get here at 5 and you’re home by 6:30 to see the family,” he said.

Husby’s also found success in developing the youth golf market. Bay Meadows is home to the growing Traverse City Junior Golf Association, which annually brings thousands of young boys and girls to the course for lessons and tournaments for participants as young as five years old.

Husby says the success of its Junior Golf program is not only creating a new generation of golfers who can enjoy the game for rest of their lives, it also generates more of the family golf experience that his course aims to attract.

“We’ve kind of found a niche in the market that’s been very successful for us,” Husby said.

The golf industry is also raising its game in terms of marketing and promotion. Both individual courses and those connected with larger resorts are expanding their digital marketing efforts to connect with golfers on their mobile devices to supplement the more traditional advertising avenues of print and broadcast media.

Charlie Olson is the executive director of America’s Summer Golf Capital, a group of Northern Michigan resort properties that operate more than two dozen golf courses in the region. Olson estimates that at least 70 percent of the golf trips planned to its member courses are researched and scheduled through mobile devices, driving more golf courses and resorts to direct their promotional efforts toward digital marketing and golf-related apps.

“Digitally, people are on their phones non-stop and that’s not going to change,” said Olson, who was a three-time all-state golfer at Suttons Bay High School and played collegiate golf at Bowling Green State University.

America’s Summer Golf Capital, which includes the Grand Traverse Resort, Crystal Mountain Resort, Boyne Golf, A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort, along with Treetops Resort and Garland Lodge and Golf Resort in Gaylord, also teamed up with the Pure Michigan campaign this year to boost marketing efforts across the country. Olson said the group put up $150,000 that was matched with state dollars from Pure Michigan, resulting in a $300,000 advertising and marketing blitz targeting the 17 destinations around the country that offer direct, non-stop flights at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City.

“They’re coming together to promote the entire region,” Olson said of the member resorts.

Lindsey Southwell, the long-time director of marketing at Shanty Creek Resort in Antrim County, also expects play to be up at their resort’s five courses this season if the weather remains good going into the fall season. Shanty Creek has also seen a surge in the number of golfers traveling in from southern states, taking advantage of Michigan’s long summer days and milder weather as golfers — and tourists in general — have flocked to Northern Michigan to escape the extreme heat that’s baked much of the country over the late summer.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen a big surge in traffic the southern states,” she said.

She’s also noted an increase in female golfers this season, as the resort increased the number of golf clinics designed for women.

“Just in general, it seems like there’s been a lot more women golfers this year,” she said.

The regional golf sector is also benefitting from its growing role on the national stage, where popular digital media operations like Barstool Sports and the No Laying Up golf podcast have highlighted some of the region’s top golf destinations.

The Barstool Classic, a national golf tour designed for common players sponsored by Barstool Sports, held a qualifying event at the Grand Traverse Resort’s The Bear course in early August, drawing in more than 100 golfers from throughout the Midwest.

“It sold out in 15 minutes,” McGee said. “It was a phenomenal event.”

While the onset of winter will soon send the local golf scene into its annual hibernation, golf industry leaders said the sport is well positioned to continue its upward surge in 2024 and beyond.

“The golf industry hasn’t been this hot since the mid-90s,” Olson said.

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