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April 2018

Going Back to (Golf) School

At resorts, golf instructors can take advantage of the vacation atmosphere with superior amenities to bolster revenues

By David Gould
In the beginning, there was Tommy Armour at Florida’s posh Boca Raton Club, giving golf lessons for $50 a half-hour during the Great Depression. Instructors flourished in the ensuing decades, but no true marquee teaching pro followed Armour onto the resort landscape until the early 1980s, when Jimmy Ballard hung his shingle at Doral Resort & Country Club in Miami.
Golf at the time was riding a participation wave, on track to expand from 15.1 million players to 23.4 million in that decade. So, along came The Golf Digest Schools to monetize it. With its stable of highly visible teachers — Bob Toski, Jim Flick, Davis Love Jr. and others — the Golf Digest brand became a heads-in-beds phenomenon at resorts from coast to coast.
Even resort golf schools that lacked the marketing power of a famous magazine were able to thrive in that era. The influx of new golfers, the arrival of video as a teaching aid, and the latent demand for improvement produced a potent business-builder for resorts.
Teaching professional Keith Lyford lived through that era and remembers, “At the Stratton Golf School in Vermont we had 800 students my first year. By my 12th and final year we taught 2,700 students. In one 20-week season we produced $1.3 million in instruction revenue. There were 15 Stratton instructors teaching 60 students a day.”
In the winters Lyford would relocate to the McCormick Ranch resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, filling his school schedule with snowbird golfers from the Midwest. Resorts built learning centers that were profit centers.
Unlike lessons at the daily-fee or municipal where Joe Golfer plays most of his rounds, the resort version of golf instruction — then and now — has the advantage of a vacation atmosphere with superior amenities.
“The golfer who decides to commit to real improvement and is looking for a place to do it would strongly consider the resort environment if he or she felt welcome,” said Dan Sniffin, director of instruction at Omni Interlocken Resort in Broomfield, Colorado. “That golfer will figure, ‘If I’m going to sweat it out hitting balls and practicing bunker shots, I might as well do it someplace pretty, that offers a high level of customer service.’”
All well and good, but wouldn’t this student have to be from nearby, commuting a modest distance for a golf lesson? Absolutely, and that’s the formula for successful golf instruction at U.S. resorts — serve a local market and build a lesson-and-clinic business on repeat visits.
“Reorienting this resort’s teaching amenity toward area golfers and away from serving the transient clientele is basically how I got this job,” explains Sniffin. “I told management there was a pent-up demand among our local golfers for game-improvement services like lessons, clinics and clubfitting. My predecessors all tried to work the stay-and-play market, and no one who’s here year-round even knew the names of those teachers.”
Sniffin got the job and, in short order, he had doubled instruction revenues, lifted golf equipment sales by 400 percent, and helped increase food-and-beverage business through higher foot traffic.
Clubfitting also is fertile ground for top resorts. Because it doesn’t require lots of return visits, it suits either the local player or the fly-in visitor who gets dazzled by the technology. Famed instructor Kip Puterbaugh at the Aviara Golf Academy in Carlsbad, California, took the plunge on a $50,000 piece of teaching technology. With it he can produce a NASA-level sophistication in diagnostics and data that fit clubs to golfers as precisely as possible.
A resort like Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, California, with a global clientele, will nonetheless make sure it serves the local community of golfers. Glenn Deck, a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher, has a lesson book representing golfers in 13 countries and 31 U.S. states — he is personally responsible for many a room-night booking. But as for the instructors he manages, Deck said, “their clientele is 80 percent local.” Pelican Hill’s organized golf schools, as a percentage of the overall instruction business, is quite limited.
“One weekend a month, year-round, we run a golf school,” Deck says. Even at that, the school curriculum breaks into four units plugged into the morning and afternoon sessions allowing locals “to pick and choose.” According to Deck, “A student will come for full-swing work one weekend, and a month later come to a session devoted to putting.”
The nationally known “destination” golf school with a steady fly-in business and lots of revenue from corporate budgets is more myth than reality these days. Even the Pinehurst Golf Academy, overseen by Director of Instruction Eric Alpenfels since 1984, has a different model than most people imagine. Yes, 90 percent of the 500 golfers in the schools are hotel guests, but most are from the Carolinas region. Very few are part of a corporate group.
“That’s one reason we’ve been able to maintain success over such a long period,” says Alpenfels. “We were never the beneficiaries of much corporate spending.”
Harking back to the Toski-Flick era, there remains a star system in teaching. As a result, you find short-game guru Dave Pelz, author of so many books and articles, and veteran of so much TV airtime, booked for short stints at resorts across the U.S. The resorts that Pelz parachutes into have their own instructors, but this is a chance for in-depth work on scoring skills with an expert. It reinforces the perception of each resort as a place to learn and improve year-round.
Creativity in programming is on the rise and “golf school” can mean any sort of format in which students gather in groups. A training component most teachers call “supervised practice” now takes up a fair amount of group time. The teacher is there as golfers do the equivalent of homework, so that techniques they’ve been taught can be mastered through sufficient reps. These sessions include games and skills challenges and often give way to post-session socializing.
That creativity extends to on-course instruction. The classic “playing lesson” is more in favor among leading instructors and academies than ever before. The Vision54 academy at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, run by the award-laden duo of Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, teaches not only golfers but also golf instructors. A steady stream of teachers comes through for training and certification.
“More and more we are getting past the practice range as a setting for improvement,” says Nilsson. “We encourage the instructors we train to adopt that approach. Certain things are best-suited to the range, but our strong preference is to work with a student out on the golf course.”
Another reason for the move to on-course training involves “teaching-tech” gear like the Trackman system, which is now widely in use and well understood by skilled instructors. Swing diagnostics and mechanical changes don’t take as long or require as much repetitive practice as in the past, so getting onto the actual field of play — thereby solving the problem of an improved “range swing” that never makes it to the course — is what top teachers now prefer to do.
Instruction is arguably the golf industry’s most dynamic facet of late. Research reveals that lessons, golf clinics, training sessions and skill-development are “sticky” activities that lift the spend-per-golfer metric.
Still, golf instruction is an opportunistic enterprise. Wherever a teacher or even an academy sets up shop and delivers highly superior service in a suitable setting, they seem to prosper. Resorts have advantages in the programming and marketing of game-improvement services. Tommy Armour recognized that long ago. It’s all the more true today.


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