Golf Gets a Makeover

The ancient game of golf has become thoroughly modern. Nearly 26 million Americans play the game with some degree of regularity and evident enthusiasm and spend billions of dollars each year on gear and travel to do so. Small wonder that destination resorts and high-end golf courses are trying harder than ever to woo players who have great expectations and the means to have them fulfilled.

The result can be seen in the latest array of golf trends: more technology on the course, more amenities off of it, fitter golfers, more flexible courses and increasing clout wielded by women players.

Getting Around the Course

With greens fees at the best courses reaching stratospheric levels, players naturally expect some help from a higher power, in this case a satellite-driven global positioning system. A GPS unit attached to a golf cart eliminates the guesswork about distance and tells golfers exactly how far they are from the pin. Some come with software that even suggests which club to use.

GPS-equipped carts also give the clubhouse an overview of where everybody is on the course, enabling it to monitor the pace of play. (Too slow and you might get a move-along message.) Players can also use the system to order up refreshments (burgers and beers at the seventh tee, please), check the weather (lightning and golf don’t mix) or get news updates (if you’re feeling too relaxed). Of course, cart computers are also an opportunity for courses to advertise amenities to a captive audience.

If the cold brews you ordered from your in-cart communication screen don’t keep you cool enough, you can look for a course with air-conditioned carts: Coolwell Inc., an Arizona company, makes a device that mounts behind the seats and converts hot air into cold, blowing it onto passengers’ necks. When winter comes, it reverses into a heater.

Segways are a common sight at Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.

For golfers who prefer to travel the course upright but don’t want to walk, the Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale has the solution: a Segway, those gyroscopically balanced two-wheelers that look like a cross between a lawn mower and a bicycle. Kierland’s Segways are rigged to carry your clubs sidesaddle.

On some courses the original golf transportation technology remains in fashion: your feet. At Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula, the majority of players walk and use caddies and Pebble does not offer GPS or handheld yardage devices, says R. J. Harper of Pebble Beach Resorts. Other courses ban carts altogether. The Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the central Oregon coast allows only walkers on its three courses, Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails.

Old tech meets new on the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club near Scottsdale. This club encourages pedestrian players by offering a battery-powered cart to lug your bag. You push rather than pull the Sun Mountain Sports cart, which can move as fast as 90 yards at a time.

Service from Tee to Toe

Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled.” But with so many golfers riding these days, the spoiling now is all about the players. Many courses have begun to pitch themselves as “your country club for a day,” with amenities such as post-round cold (or hot) towels, valets who clean and return clubs to your car, personalized bag tags, accessible beverage carts and great course conditioning. This standard of service, once found only in country clubs, is now commonplace on the upscale daily-fee and resort courses that abound today.

Moreover, industry experts say there’s a new breed of player who views golf as more of a social outing than a competition or chance to improve one’s handicap. These people put a round of golf on a par (so to speak) with a fine dinner or a pampering spa treatment. Nobody strives to meet the demands of this customer more than Troon Golf. The leader in luxury golf travel and the world’s largest golf management company, Troon oversees more than 185 private, daily-fee and resort courses in 22 countries and 30 states, including nine in Central and Southern California. Its resorts offer unlimited golf and reward points for frequent players. Forgot your clubs? And your socks? No worries: Troon has a special that equips you literally from toe to head.

Getting Fit for Golf

Once the only thing golfers got in shape for was the size of their clubs. Tiger Woods, with his buff body and power game, changed all that forever. Indeed, only the physically fit can manage the four-and-a-half-mile walk required for 18 holes and still play well. Among the pros—who must walk on the PGA Tour—fitness is the rage. Woods travels with a personal trainer and other players are doing likewise.

Full-service golf resorts have taken the hint and are offering average golfers the chance to tone up while tuning up their games. Spa options might include a “golfer’s massage” for loosening tight muscles before or after a round. Resorts like the Kierland in Scottsdale even have full golf fitness programs designed to boost accuracy and distance capability; intense 90-minute training sessions emphasize flexibility, golf-specific strengthening and aerobic conditioning.

“Golfers want to be able to play years longer, so they need to improve strength and flexibility,” says Jim McLean, founder of a chain of golf schools bearing his name. “Golf fitness is now an important component of our teaching system.”

McLean, instruction editor for Golf Magazine, has worked with many Tour pros, including Tom Kite, Peter Jacobsen and Cristie Kerr. Training programs at his schools have changed dramatically over the years, he says. Today they use biomechanics to diagnose conditioning, athletic ability and range of motion for shoulder and hip turns and other parts of the swing. A prescription for improvement usually includes fitness routines, power exercise drills and overall strengthening.

Course Design

golf course

Robin Nelson’s recently renovated Kaanapali Golf Course on Maui.

Stronger players and more powerful equipment means today’s golfers are hitting the little white ball farther than ever—and golf course architects are scrambling to keep up. Robin Nelson, a Mill Valley course designer who works mainly in Hawaii and Asia, says it’s a “balancing act” to create courses that can entice better players but are still playable by the everyday duffer. “We might have to lengthen the course to challenge the low handicapper,” he says, “yet at the same time work to satisfy high handicappers and resort golfers who play infrequently.”

Making a course longer or shorter by moving the tee boxes is sometimes a a safety issue. On an older course, today’s booming (or errant) drives might be landing on fairway houses that were once safely out of range, so it’s time to back those players up. Modern, high-end courses generally have from four to six tee boxes per hole. When Nelson recently renovated the two Kaanapali Golf Courses on Maui, he repositioned the tee boxes to be more in line with where people are hitting, paying special attention to the forward tees for high handicappers. The current trend in course architecture is remodeling, he says, especially for courses built during the big golf boom of the 1980s and ’90s.

Gearing the Game to Women

Although the number of women golfers has remained fairly steady in recent years, their influence on the golf market is growing. In response, many courses are making efforts to attract more female players. The National Golf Foundation puts the number of serious female golfers at 2.3 million, about 18 percent of the 12.5 million core golfers who account for 87 percent of golf-related spending.

Inspired by the success of high-profile LPGA stars like Annika Sorenstam, these more visible and influential female players are mimicking male counterparts by using golf as a business venue. Companies accordingly have created more fashionable women’s golf apparel, offered customized club fitting and sponsored women-only golf trips.

A battery-powered cart is popular on Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club.

The Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA), a network of women golfers with chapters across the country (including one in Marin and Sonoma counties), launched a program this year that encourages golf facilities to earn the designation “Women-Friendly.” The EWGA grades courses on playability—the course should present a fun and challenging option for women of all skill levels—and on customer experience: women should feel welcome both in terms of atmosphere and physical needs. Each category lists specific requirements to be fulfilled.

The first golf company to receive EWGA’s women-friendly stamp of approval was Troon. Thirteen of its courses passed muster, including three in Southern California: Escena Golf Club in Palm Springs, Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point and Classic Club in Palm Desert.