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Par for the course: the business of golf

B.C.’s golf industry has weathered a rough patch, but must continue to adapt

In the rough, or on the green. So it goes for the nearly 300 golf courses across B.C. either open or are about to open for another season of birdies, pars, and in my case bogies and double bogies.

"The initial indications are an awful lot of people are anxious to get their clubs out," says Kris Jonasson, chief executive officer of British Columbia Golf, who notes that before snow and cold swept through the province in February, courses in the Victoria and Vancouver regions enjoyed their best-ever January.

However, the business side of golf isn't for the faint of heart. It requires patience, long term vision – and deep pockets.

A recent Golf Canada report suggested that between 2015 and 2017, over four dozen golf courses closed across the nation, 19 in Ontario.

"There certainly are challenges from a business perspective," says Jonasson who readily admits his sector is a difficult business to make money in:

"We're talking about everything from the price of land, the cost of erecting a modern club house, and its also difficult to make money in the food and beverage business because your clientele is limited to people playing."

Jonasson also points out that while many golfers complain about high fees, those same players demand manicured conditions, and many fail to consider rising labour costs including a higher minimum wage, and most recently the costly impact of B.C.'s new employer health tax.

"It is in every sense of the word, a good-sized small business that you have to manage," sighs Jonasson.

One such individual learning to manage the business of golf is Bill Amy, who recently spearheaded a community effort to purchase the Sun Rivers golf course in Kamloops, now called Big Horn.

Amy, who had no previous golf management experience, says after his first year, he quickly realized that the key to success is understanding who your customer is.

“The key to survival is changing demographics,” says Amy, pointing out that Big Horn’s persistent marketing of family memberships, which cover parents and all of their children under 18.

Like any business, golf has also seen its share of ups and downs. Jonasson laments that while the industry was on a rapid growth trajectory in the late 1990s, after the economic downturn in 2008, the entire business hit the "rough."

"We've spent the last 10 years trying to get back to where we were 15 years ago," says Jonasson.

Like Amy, Jonasson also notes the importance of recognizing the sport's changing demographics. Citing the latest B.C. Golf participation report, Jonasson notes that last year, nearly 900,000 British Columbians claimed to have golfed as least once.

Interestingly, golf is soaring in popularity on B.C.'s First Nations. Jonasson says that Aboriginal participation shot up 100% in 2018, which B.C. Golf considers a particularly important statistic, a B.C.’s Indigenous communities skew very young.  It's also worth noting that 17 of the province's golf courses are owned by First Nations.

While admitting that golf has yet to shed its reputation as a sport for the rich, Jonasson says the vast majority of course owners are focused on affordability. He also points to research conducted by the U.S. Golf Association which has helped develop programs to reduce the cost of maintaining courses to keep fees in check.

However, despite its many economic challenges, Jonasson contends the future of golf in British Columbia and Canada is bright with rising participation and rising stars such as Ontario's Brooke Henderson, and British Columbia's Adam Hadwin and Nick Taylor.

Clearly, British Columbia is above par.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticism on Twitter: @kammornanchor

Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.