PGA exec outlines course for golf resurgence

Ted Bishop graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. Yet, the only acreage he tends is on golf courses. His first full-time job, at age 22, was as superintendent of the Phil Harris Golf Course in Linton in southwest Indiana.

Bishop Bishop

Today Bishop, 58, is general manager of The Legends of Indiana Golf Course in Franklin and vice president of the PGA of America, where he oversees finances for the largest working sports organization in the world.

His lofty position—and his years of immersion in the sport—give him a unique perspective on the game. He needs it, given that after decades of strong profits and high public interest, golf has hit a prolonged rough patch, with too many courses chasing a dwindling number of dedicated players.

The PGA, Bishop asserts, has a plan to turn this around. But he’s far less sanguine about whether anyone, anywhere, can ever equal the star power that pre-scandal Tiger Woods brought to his beloved game.

IBJ: As a PGA executive, what’s your top-of-the-mind issue these days?

BISHOP: I think the top issue is player development, and trying to educate our PGA-member facility operators about the things they have to do to grow revenues.

IBJ: How badly has the recession damaged golf?

BISHOP: In my position as an officer with the PGA of America, I’ve been exposed to golf all over the United States. The only pockets that I would say have continued to prosper would be places in warm-weather climates, where you still have an influx of people during winter—though some of those properties suffered from the commercial lending climate. Overall, I think that every facet of golf throughout the United States has felt it—even the Northeast, which is loaded with high-end private clubs. They have seen their waiting lists dwindle, sometimes to nothing. And initiation fees have either been lowered or they’re not charging them.

IBJ: What’s the state of the game in Indiana?

BISHOP: We’ve all taken a beating. I don’t think there are too many private clubs in town today that have waiting lists. And everybody in the public golf market has faced hardships.

It’s the economy, compounded by the two years of bad weather we had in 2010 and 2011. We had over 40 inches of rain in 2011 from the first of March to the end of June, followed by severe heat. It made things difficult for everybody in the business.

The thing that everybody in Indiana faces is that we’ve cut our operational costs as much as we possibly can. Now it’s a matter of trying to generate new revenues. The problem is that it’s a very price-competitive market. It’s difficult right now to raise your fees to offset operating expenses. Here at The Legends, there was a point back in the early 2000s when our fee structure on weekends was $57 for greens fees and carts. This year we’re going to charge $49. So we’re $8 less than we were seven or eight years ago. Yet our expenses have gone up. You’re seeing the same thing with dues for private clubs. Nobody’s in a position where they are able to raise their prices. And when the volume doesn’t go up, it’s really difficult to manage your bottom line.

IBJ: Hence your interest in increasing volume by attracting more players. How does the PGA plan to do that?

BISHOP: PGA of America commissioned a massive study that delved into the mindset of the consumer, to find out why they weren’t playing as much golf as they once did, and what it would take to get them more engaged in the game. The barriers to entry were cost and time. And I think that time was more of a factor than money. We’ve identified three strategies to deal with that. The first was to retain and strengthen the existing corps of golfers, then to get “lapsed” players to return to the game, and finally to create new players with innovative training techniques.

The compelling thing that study revealed is that nationwide there were 61 million lapsed golfers who might still have an interest in playing. To take advantage of that we’ve created, for example, Get Golf Ready—a $99 instructional program where the consumer gets five 1-1/2-hour lessons from the PGA or LPGA professional. In that [90-minute] time frame, besides just basic practice instruction, there’s also an on-course component. So, at the end of five sessions, they’ve been on a course five times and we’ve run through all the various skills. After people have gone through the five sessions of Get Golf Ready, 84 percent of them stay in the game the first year, and will spend on average between $700 and $800 during that time.

Another new initiative launched in 2011 is Tee It Forward, in which we encourage players, based on how far they can drive the ball, to move up to a particular set of tees so that they’re getting to use shorter irons on par-4 holes. A study last spring compared the clubs that the average tour player would be hitting into the greens in a weekly PGA tour event with the same clubs the average amateur would hit. It showed that if the tour player was playing a 7,600-yard course, the amateur needed to play a course that was no more than 6,100 yards long to hit with the same clubs and, obviously, enjoy the game.

IBJ: So the goal is to get more less-good players onto the links, without upsetting the good players that are already there?

BISHOP: Absolutely. We need more players, and this is the only way we’re going to develop them. The thing I think that the PGA of America has learned and is doing a great job of trying to translate to our membership is that we need to do things that make the game fun. Because many of the new golf courses that were built in the last 20 years are really difficult and not player-friendly. We need to do things to ensure that people have fun playing or they’re just not going to come back. I think that if we’re going to keep today’s generation of players in the game, we’ve got to be less concerned about what score they shoot and what skills they have when they first start playing. Let’s put them out there on the course in such a fashion that they can succeed and feel comfortable. Then, hopefully, as they are exposed to some innovative instruction programs, their skills will improve.

IBJ: Speaking of developing new players, do you see anyone in the pro game with the potential to become as dominant—and as big of a media darling—as Tiger Woods in his pre-scandal days?

BISHOP: If you look at last year on the PGA tour, there were 11 players in their 20s who won events for the first time. I think the talent pool of this new crop of players is like we’ve seen in no other generation. But I don’t think you’re ever, ever going to see anybody dominate the game the way Tiger Woods did. It’s not going to happen.

IBJ: Will Tiger ever get his mojo back?

BISHOP: I don’t think you’ll ever see it like you once did. He’s four majors away from Jack Nicklaus’s record (for most PGA majors wins), and I think that’s going to be a defining point for his career if he can surpass him. I think we all thought Tiger was going to walk to the finish line, but it hasn’t happened. But I will tell you this. I was a rules official at the Masters last year and I was working the 10th hole. When Woods tied for the lead, you could feel the electricity all over the golf course. There’s no question that he’s great for the game. He’s great for fan interest. And you know, the guy’s a human being. We’ve all made mistakes. I think the public has proven this time and time again, that they can’t wait to tear somebody down, but then they’re always happy to help build them back up again.

IBJ: Would you like to see Indiana get a few more professional tournaments?

BISHOP: I’m working on an initiative with Crooked Stick and French Lick Resort. We’re trying to partner the senior PGA championship at French Lick and the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick into an initiative with the PGA of America. I think that it would be great to bring those two major championships to Indiana. And, in particular, the PGA Championship to Indianapolis and Crooked Stick. This city knows how to put on major events. I think everybody’s looking at the BMW Championship this September at Crooked Stick with a lot of interest, to see what the fan support is, and to see what the players say about the course. But I’d love to see that happen.

IBJ: Lots of golf courses were built during the 1980s and 1990s, but new starts fell off a cliff after the Great Recession. When do you think the construction boom will return?

BISHOP: I don’t see it happening again, maybe not even within our lifetimes. Back in the late ‘80s the National Golf Foundation issued a market study that said we could open a new golf course every day and not meet demand. We didn’t build them that quickly, but obviously there were a lot of new courses built in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it oversaturated the market. I don’t see any rebirth in new construction. If you talk to any of the renowned golf course architects, even Pete Dye, the bulk of the work that he’s doing right now is renovation and redesign on existing courses.

IBJ: If you could get the typical golfer one tip, what would it be?

BISHOP: Find a PGA professional and learn how to play the game. I recently had lunch with Mike Greenberg from Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio. He told me that several years ago he was a 24-handicapper and getting really frustrated with golf. He wasn’t getting any better and was about to quit the game. He was hitting balls one day at his club when the pro walked over and said, “You’ve got to be pretty frustrated with this,” and he said that he was, and that he wasn’t enjoying it or seeing a lot of value in his club membership. So the pro started working with him, and two years later he’s down to a 12-handicap and loves the game. So that’s the value I think that instruction brings. That’s true with either gender and any level of player.•

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