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June 2016

Running is the New Golf

runningisthenewgolf.jpgWhen Mike Bylen learned race running was one of the country’s fastest-growing sports, he refused to accept it as one more nail in golf’s much-talked-about coffin. Sure, he admits he was blown away by the numbers. “They went from something like 5 million to about 20 million in about 15 years,” he says. “I mean, who gets that kind of growth?”

But instead of joining golf’s chorus of lament, Bylen, who owns and operates three semi-private courses in southeast Michigan (Pine Trace, Cherry Creek and Shepherd’s Hollow) saw opportunity. He drove to some competitive races. “I didn’t lace them up,” he laughs. “But I did watch what happened, who was there, what they did.” Then he talked to runners. Interviewed them, really.

The upshot is The Runner’s Fairway Series, now in its second year, in which Bylen hosts competitive foot races on his courses. He charges $45 for one 5km run, or $80 for two, and $15 for a buffet lunch with live entertainment and craft beers in a festival-like setting also open to family and spectators.

Bylen’s program has the backing of The Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports and the Michigan Fitness Foundation. Ultimately, he envisions a national series with heats at golf courses in 15 to 20 cities with finals at his facilities.

“I’m in Michigan where two of the largest employers in the country went bankrupt,” he says. “We were already feeling the effects of a saturated market at that point. So I’m used to looking at my assets and finding ways to make them work harder for me.”

Bylen is not alone in thinking some golf facilities can no longer live on just golf. Halfway across the country in Houston, Texas, Scott Dawley, known for his work with Speedgolf, founded LinksRun that offers a network of courses for foot races. “I was looking for a way to attract non-golfers to the game,” he says. “After a while it dawned on me—let’s just take the club out of their hand.”

Runners were a logical demographic to pursue, he felt, because they favor grass as a running surface over all others. Runner’s World describes grass as the “purest” and “best training surface,” giving it a 9.5 out of 10 rating.

Dawley’s program devolves the Speedgolf concept by including access to the driving range, and even clinics, for runners before they head out to race. It’s a gentle introduction to a difficult game coming as an adjunct to an activity they are already very familiar with. Dawley hopes it will be enough to entice some to explore the game further.

Where Bylen’s races are in late fall when temperatures and play drop in Michigan allowing daytime starts, Dawley’s events are at dusk, requiring runners in longer races to bring headlamps. That may be cumbersome to the uninitiated, but each of the first three events attracted between 100 and 160 runners.

While he isn’t a course owner–Dawley describes himself as an entrepreneur–he wants golf to succeed because he loves the sport. Running races during periods of low play “and inviting everybody to come out” could “shift the paradigm,” he says, to where courses are “viewed as a recreational facility for the whole community.” Perhaps golf course owners included.

“For some courses, they are going to have to try whatever they can because they are going out of business,” he says.

—Trent Bouts

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