Why 'golf is f....d' in the US, yet world-class courses are still being built in Tasmania

Picture: Ratho

“Golf is f….d.”

That very frank statement startled me for two reasons. One, that it came from the mouth of a guy who has designed, and continues to design, golf courses. Very good golf courses, someone reliable told me.

The other reason it startled me was that he made the call at the launch he had been invited to of a mildly audacious project to revive Australia’s oldest golf course.

Business Insider has visited Ratho, a 145-year-old farm in the middle of Tasmania, before. That was last year, when we joined a group of techies who needed a hideaway to test their prototype for a giant drone which they hope will be the base model for a new league of high-speed drone racers.

At the time, Ratho’s owner, Greg Ramsay, was keen to get me back once he’d “put the finishing touches” on the homestead’s charming paddock-to-putt layout.

Ramsay is exactly the kind of entrepreneur Tasmania needs – a believer. He was the guy everyone called a madman when he convinced Bridport farmer Richard Sattler that the Bass Strait dunes bordering his property would make a world class links course.

Ramsay was right. Barnbougle immediately shot up the lists to become Australia’s top public course, the 12th best links course in the world and the 35th best course in the world overall.

Right now, it sits second in Australia’s public course rankings. It was overtaken just a couple of weeks ago by Cape Wickham, Tasmania’s new course on King Island. Third in Australia is Barnbougle’s second development, Lost Farm, and rounding out the top four is King Island’s other big play, Ocean Dunes.

All are world-class and bring in world-class revenue, because they offer world-class experiences like this:

There’s a great interview here from Wandering Golfer with Ramsay about Barnbougle’s extraordinary evolution. But right now, Ramsay’s investing money and time, often riding the mower himself, to build, maintain and keep the sheep off his own 18 hole course.

Yet Ramsay himself nodded when the course architect – let’s call him Hamish – from the US he invited to the launch told us all golf “was f..ked”. Admittedly, Hamish was a little bit down from the moment of his arrival in Tasmania, having travelled all the way from the US to play four of the most celebrated public courses in the world only to learn that Qantas had lost his clubs.

But there was another reason his view that golf was on a one-way ticket to obscurity caused me some concern. I love golf.

I can’t deny it’s a little bit sexist; I just hope people who genuinely want to will eventually find a way to work through that.

I don’t care that it’s badly out of fashion and favour with the modern C-suiters.

For me, there is simply no better way to mix business and pleasure than a seven-odd kilometre walk around a jaw-droppingly well-manicured inner city parkland or windswept ocean dunes. A round of golf means time to get seriously stuck into an issue or shop an idea.

There are brief moments of genuine admiration, well-intentioned advice, sympathy and ribbing to smooth relations while you do it. If you can tear your eyes away from the scenery:

Picture: Ocean Dunes

But the latest participation figures from Golf Australia are sobering. It found in the year to July 2015:

– A 0.5% decline in memberships
– 66% of clubs across Australia recorded a drop in memberships
– Of the 397,063 golfers, less than 80,000 were women. Less than 14,000 were under 18
– Clubs have lost a cumulative 11% of their memberships over the past 10 years. In the same period, Australia’s overall population grew by 6%.

If you need a picture, here’s how memberships are faring in Australia:

Image: Golf Australia database

Cameron Wade, director of Golf Development at Golf Australia, put the best spin on it he could:

“The 2015 outcome is the smallest annual membership decline recorded since 1999.”

The “we’re failing slower” line isn’t exactly inspiring, but a 0.5% decline would be music to the ears of our new international friend. In the decade to 2015, more than 800 clubs shut their doors in the US, and yes, more are closing than opening.

Five million players left the sport in the same timeframe. In England, half as many 16-25 year olds are now playing the game as there were in 2010.

Business Insider recently explored two closed golf courses in northern New Jersey, both of which are being turned into housing developments, to see firsthand what courses across the country look like as they become abandoned:

The Apple Ridge golf course. Picture: Sarah Jacobs

We have more images here, but golfers be warned – they’re not for the fainthearted.


It takes so long

Golf takes up too much time? Maybe. Even Jack Nicklaus thinks three hours is enough.

But consider this – a member is generally on the tee by 8am Saturday, and back in by 2pm. A casual golfer will play once a month, maybe, with the odd hour at the driving range.

I have plenty of friends who surf. There is no such thing as a casual surfer.

Surfers will ditch their non-surfing friends, their wives, any evening plans, watering their dog and the only weekly game of canasta their bedridden grandparents can rely on for a clean left-hander going off at the point right now.

They’ll ask you to come to a barbie breakfast at the beach in the morning, then just duck out for “one or two waves” while you’re in charge of the bacon.

If the surf is even moderately good, you won’t see them till sunset. And they’ll do it several times a week, telling themselves the conditions just aren’t that good often enough to pass up.

Surf and turf. Picture: Cape Wickham

The same applies to cyclists and triathletes, who, if it looks like a single weekday will pass without an hour spent pounding the road, will collapse into a chair moaning about how they’ve stacked on 200 grams and now have to detox for a week. They too will spend at least half a Saturday out with a bunch of likeminded enthusiasts.

All the above sports are going gangbusters, and actually yes, they all harbour their own particular form of elitism.

And like golf, the more you’re into them, the more expensive they get.

This was also discussed back at Ratho, where Hamish shared an interesting story. It went something like this:

“I was picked up in an Uber a couple of weeks ago and the driver told me he’d had a great night, had just been to ‘Top Golf’ with his mates. I asked him what ‘Top Golf’ was and he told me it was this thing where you hit golf balls at targets and lights go off and it was like darts or something. He said it was awesome and couldn’t wait for Saturday so he could go back. I asked him if he played golf and he said no, he’d never played in his life.”

Top Golf?

So this guy, a very well-respected golf course architect, has to sit at a table of strangers and admit his future is clouded for reasons he can’t fathom.

He knows golf is a great game, and he even just met a random stranger who was hooked the moment he hit his first golf ball. Yet that first-timer never has and probably never will visit a golf course.

But he loves “Top Golf”. First of all, it’s actually spelt “Topgolf”.

And this is what Topgolf looks like:

The ball is microchipped and does the scoring for you. You get points instantly for length and accuracy as you aim for 11 giant dartboards.

You get top-shelf drinks and live music.

Worldwide last year, 30 venues hosted 12 million guests for 45 million games. That’s about 4000 games a week, per venue.

That doesn’t sound like people don’t want to play golf any more. And this year, it’s coming to the Gold Coast.

There followed some soul-searching and another bottle of Ramsay’s red.

Nature provides the obstacles at Ratho. Picture: Peter Farquhar

Short pitch

Our architect friend mentioned talk of “six-hole” golf courses in an attempt to capture the short attention spans of potential next-gen golfers. (They would call themselves “time-poor”, which is, of course, rubbish.)

In fact, when his latest project launches, it will feature two versions of the sixth hole – one that leads to the seventh, and one that leads back to the club house. Neat.

You also might pay up to $100 a round to play, but juniors can have the course after 2pm for $5.

Someone mentioned they’d heard of a “dog-walking” membership, and yes, our architect was actually working through the technicalities of hosting that very feature.

For some reason, these ideas were bounced off me, maybe as a business journalist, maybe as a golfer.

But they quickly learned the person they should have been talking to was my wife right next to me. She’s a consultant who basically specialises in ensuring sports facilities and stadiums are built with maximum usage in mind.

And she’s well-versed in the problems golf courses face, especially urban ones such as Sydney’s own Moore Park, both under enormous pressure to give up their unique CBD fringe green space to real estate developers.

It’s just not cricket. Picture: Getty Images

She quickly reeled off several unconventional ways a golf course could be used for purposes other than golf – without ruining the facility for diehards – and the mood lifted. I was dumped as talk turned to frisbee golf, footgolf, SpeedGolf and GolfXtreme, along with non-golf associated activities such as scavenger hunts, augmented reality and yoga.

None of which have ever been seen on a golf course in Tasmania.

But the talk, as it always does when golfers talk about how to save their clubs, turned toward what sharing their club would do to their memberships.

And as always… inconceivable! The members wouldn’t stand for it.

The cold fact is that the members simply aren’t keeping the courses alive. They may actually be keeping people away from their course.

Here’s another uncomfortable fact about Topgolf. It looks like it was made for Vegas, but Topgolf was actually created and launched in Watford, UK, by Steve and Dave Jolliffe. It was, of course, embraced by Vegas and 27 other locations in the US, whereas it never grew beyond more than three venues in the UK.

In the US, you pay by the hour to play Topgolf. In the UK, you need a membership.

Does somebody have to paint it on a garishly lit giant dartboard?

Golf isn’t f….d. Its membership model is.

World’s biggest tee party

New Zealanders claim their country has the most golf courses per capita in the world, at one course for every 10,300 Kiwis.

They’re wrong, as Kiwis often are in matters of claiming world-firsts, world’s biggests and world’s wooliests. Scotland, for starters, has one course for every 9400 people.

In Tasmania, there are around 70 golf courses. That’s one for every 7000 people – more than the home of golf itself.

Simon Weston, head of marketing for Golf Tasmania, said he’d heard a stat recently that a golf course closes in the US now every “one to two days”.

“In Tasmania, we haven’t heard of such a thing for maybe a decade,” Weston said.

Yet the latest survey shows Tasmania recorded the largest membership drop by far, of 4%, in the year to July 2015. No other state or territory recorded a drop of more than 0.6%.

But Tasmanian courses are hanging in there. Weston says he knows of one club on Tasmania’s west coast which survives on nine members.

Golf Tasmania is targeting the 40-50 somethings, now divested of young children (and perhaps no longer chained to their desks), and seeing interest once again rise in the game they flirted with 25 years ago. Golf Australia’s research shows it’s a worthwhile strategy – 38% of new members in the year to July 2015 were aged between 35 and 54.

‘The golf course is underused but the golf club is a very important part of that town’

At Ratho, I was partnered with the president of Rosny Golf Club, Nick. He said it was down to 38 members two years ago, but “small tweaks” have got numbers back up above 100.

It doesn’t hurt that the kind of golf clubs run by nine volunteers are also becoming a small town’s only licensed venue as country pub after country pub goes to the wall.

“Many of them don’t have any staff, they’re basically dad’s army that maintain the course and have a volunteer behind the bar,” Weston said. “And it’s the only way they survive.

“Their club has quite a few uses; it’s a social club where people can come and have a drink and a barbecue. The golf course is underused but the golf club is a very important part of that town.”

But the other positive for the Apple Island was that while member numbers dropped by 4%, the amount of rounds those that remained played was up by 5%. Only the NT and WA had bigger increases in the amount of golf played, and it wouldn’t be too long a bow to draw to assume falling employment had some impact on that.

In fact, Tasmania, NT and WA provided the only good news in Golf Australia’s latest report. Overall, they pushed the increase in games played in 2015 to 1.9%, and regardless of what falling participation bodes for the future, games played is what helps the bottom line right now.

That bottom line is healthy enough for several more moonshot golf developments to be on the table right now in Tasmania, including a Greg Norman designed course on the East Coast, and two oceanside courses just out of Hobart, including Ramsay’s own vision for another links development.

Paddock to putt

Picture: Peter Farquhar

First, Ramsay needs to get Ratho under control. Or not under control, because Bothwell Golf Course is a uniquely charming challenge just as it is, sheep, fences, rusty farm machinery and all.

Ramsay’s vision to make his family homestead a stopover for golf lovers since before he even got involved in Barnbougle, more than a decade ago.

“The earliest records we’ve got of the golfing layout is turn of the century but the earliest written records we’ve got of golf at Ratho is 1850,” he says.

Ratho’s records, which formed the basis of the Clyde Company Papers and their record of the settlement of Port Philip Bay by Bothwell farmers, describe a 12-hole course first laid out by Scotsman Alexander Reid after he settled the property in 1822.

Ramsay admits “it’s fair to say in the early days you didn’t build holes. You just chose targets and hit to certain spots.” But the family still has scorecards and inscriptions of the original course as it was still being played in the 1930s. Three holes were abandoned after WWII “to conform with the country golf expectations”.

They’ve now been restored, and Ramsay has spent the past 12 months overseeing the addition of another six holes.

“It was always the plan,” he says, “but we needed 18 holes and the accommodation. We just got distracted by the food, beverage and accommodation side of the business for a while and the golf was on the go-slow. We started throwing back into that about a year ago.”

Last one to leave, close the gate. Picture: Peter Farquhar

The state government chipped in, so to speak. Ramsay said government support of Barnbougle and Cape Wickham showed it was “not really afraid of golf at all”.

“Tradition membership is under strain but the actual travel golf model is flourishing,” he says.

“Even in the US, travel golf is still growing. People are happy to travel a few times a year rather than pay to play every week.”

Cape Wickham – King Island – epitomises that statement. Battered on all sides by Bass Strait, it’s about as out of the way as you can get. More people have died in shipwrecks trying to land on it than live there today.

Developer Duncan Andrews, much like Barnbougle’s visionaries, was told he was a fool to think he could attract golfers from all over the world. But in the first year, 5300 rounds were played at Cape Wickham, and there’s barely 1700 people on King Island.

That figure is set to grow to 9000 for its first full financial year, and a “conservative” estimate has Cape Wickham hosting more than 12,000 rounds in 2018.

Barnbougle, being a private company, isn’t able to share figures, but six years after opening, it had created enough demand for a sister course in Lost Farm.

In 2014, Sattler said the pair drew 80,000 visitors.

You don’t have to search far to find comparisons with Pebble Beach and Royal Troon.

It’s so popular Andrews is walking away, putting it on the market and claiming it’s now beyond a golf course and needs to be run by people with proper resort experience.

Agent Michael Hede said there has been global interest in the sale and Cape Wickham will definitely be sold at the end of the month when all expression of interest are in.

And yes, one was sent to Trump Towers. We checked.

“We’re not expecting a reply,” Hede says. “It’s probably still sitting under a pile of papers on his desk.”

Picture: Greg Ramsay, hard at work. Picture: Ratho Farm/Facebook
You can still get a pretty spectacular bit of coastal golf property here for a fraction of the price of mainland.

Ramsay, too, is rolling on. He’s about to watch over the development of Arm End golf course, a links layout set on a 116-hectare peninsula in the middle of the Derwent River about 40 minutes drive from Hobart.

When completed late next year, Hobart will finally have its first public 18-hole course – and Ramsay promises it will be more than comparable to Tasmania’s other Big Four.

“As a property, Arm End is far more visually spectacular and the land form is just a dream, it’s got everything you could ask for,” Ramsay says.

It hasn’t been an easy run. Locals are still anxious about the extent to which public land will be reserved for “elite” sport, and negotiations for water have taken longer than anticipated.

But community support far outweighs opposition, he says. Arm End’s development will also include major rehabilition of the nature reserve to include weed control, native revegetation, walking and bike tracks, and a ferry service from Hobart to the South Arm drop off point at Opossum Bay.

But Arm End’s main advantage remains the same as every other travel golf destination in Tasmania – it’s in Tasmania.

“We have a major competitive advantage in that we’re able to grow true links turf for the bump and run game,” Ramsay says. “And we can maintain courses here for half the price of the mainland because we don’t have the same growth and disease problems the mainland has.

“In a temperate cooler climate, there’s a much lower threshold to break even.

“The other thing obviously is land costs. You can still get a pretty spectacular bit of coastal golf property here for a fraction of the price of mainland.

“You can secure the property and maintain the facility and you’re still only an hour’s flight from the market.”

Steady on

It’s important to note all the money-making courses in the headlines are public courses, moderately expensive to play (although locals get a hefty discount), and almost solely geared towards selling high-end, stay-and-play accommodation packages.

The angsty “golf is dying” headlines relate to those clubs determined to stick to a traditional membership model. It sounds like a great story, but with apologies to the haters and terminally uncoordinated, small ball is here to stay.

Weston says the popularity of Barnbougle and Cape Wickham hasn’t affected club membership in Tasmania either way, but it certainly didn’t hurt that some of those golfers “will also stay a bit longer and play other golf courses”.

Ramsay says it’s simply a matter of opening your doors.

“This has been the education process for myself here and Hamish across the US, explaining to the members that your only future here is to embrace daily green fee players,” he says.

“Telling them that every green fee player that comes along is basically giving the members some money to help them maintain their course.”

Will the tiny island state one day become the final resting place for one of the world’s few truly global sports?

The short answer is, well, no.

Where to from here?

Picture: Colin Butterworth

“Social” clubs, which give golfers an official handicap and access to a varying number of affiliated course, still account for a tiny amount – not even 5%. But their member numbers nearly doubled in Australia last year, showing there’s a definite shift toward a more flexible way to get into the game, along with the more established public courses offering what Weston calls “more relaxed, less formal forms of the game”.

“The clubs that are catching on to that are doing well. They’re offering what some clubs are calling quantum or lifestyle memberships where you pay a reduced fee for a certain number of rounds, say 12 rounds, and once you get through your 12 rounds you can top it up, as opposed to paying for a year and you only play three times.

“People just can’t justify that.”

And the game has only just begun to take off in China.

While 800 courses closed in the US over a decade, the number of golf course in China tripled in the same period. There were 170 golf courses in China in 2004. Now, it’s up to 600 or so.

(12 of them are at the world’s largest golf complex, Mission Hills, outside Shenzhen, and this account of what it’s like to play there is worth your time.)

“We’re not expecting a reply (from Trump). It’s probably still sitting under a pile of papers on his desk.”

That’s still a fraction on the USA’s estimated 15,000 courses, but in 2011, there were 358,000 golfers in China playing eight rounds or more per year. That figure is on track for 20 million by 2020.

India is also experiencing a boom in younger golfers taking up the game, but there’s a unique hurdle the game faces in China before it can truly reach its growth potential – it still bears the mantle of Mao Tse-tung’s label of being a sport for millionaires.

Communist Party members are banned from receiving golf memberships as gifts and, in some regions, banned from playing it during work hours entirely.

But as the popularity of the game in China grows, as both a pastime and a status symbol, there’s an almost comical tug-of-war between developers snapping up land and water rights under the guise of creating parks, and authorities shutting them down when they realise a private golf course has suddenly materialised.

If the forecasts hold up, Chinese golfers alone will have lifted the world’s playing stocks by some 20% in less than 10 years.

Golf tourism is also a $1 billion market, and while participation rates may be falling, sponsorship is still growing. IEG research shows that in 2015, companies piled more money into golf than tennis and baseball combined.

To say “golf is f….d” is valid for someone whose living depends on it, and that’s perfectly understandable. Hamish, it must be noted, is determined to make sure it’s sure as hell not his golf courses that are the problem, by doing what he does best – design the best new layouts in the US.

But just in case golf’s members can’t change, Bothwell has a lovely museum, just a few minutes away from Ramsay’s collection of 180-year-old fairways and square greens. It has an impressive collection of hickory sticks and feathered balls, archival footage and documents detailing the game’s origins in Scotland.

It was instigated by Peter Toogood, the Tasmanian champion who helped Australia beat the US in the first Eisenhower Trophy in 1958 and who once held the world record for the youngest person to score a hole-in-one.

Toogood proved that the US doesn’t own golf. It’s beautifully fitting that the town which celebrates that is also the birthplace of the game in Australia.

And home to a man who’s showing the world how it can survive and thrive without the Shooter McGavins and chauvinistic conventions.

Well played, Greg Ramsay.

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