Same as any business, a golf course wants happy customers. Range balls stacked in pyramids, rolled towels in the cart cup-holders, a starter who embraces breath mints--but despite all these efforts great and small, there is only so much management can control. It's the nature of the game that golfers will often walk off the last green feeling a mix of regret and loathing. Just imagine the arguments if green fees were paid at the end, like bar tabs.
Of course, most golfers aren't so small-minded as to evaluate a golf experience based solely on how they play. Or are they? What makes golfers happy? Given a recent economic climate that has seen some courses scramble for ways to fill tee sheets, we thought we'd help course operators by uncovering the real reasons that keep us coming back.
To do so, we enlisted the help of Dr. Dan Sachau, professor of psychology at Minnesota State University at Mankato, and Dr. Luke Simmering, a consultant within the global organizational effectiveness department for Walmart. Smart guys like Dan and Luke help businesses create what's called a "strategy matrix," a set of priorities that mirrors the priorities of its customers or workforce. For example, "If a golf course is doing a great job maintaining a lavish locker room, but that's not hugely important to the people who play there, that's wasting employee time and wages that could be better allocated elsewhere," Simmering says.
Working with Golf Digest, Sachau and Simmering devised a survey that asked respondents to recall their last "away game"--a round played not at their home course.
Respondents rated their overall satisfaction with the day and their satisfaction across a variety of factors, such as the weather, pace of play, ease of scheduling the tee time, quality of the practice facilities, score and so on. Then respondents were asked how important each aspect was to them. Out of 2,434 respondents, the median profile was a 58-year-old male who plays seven rounds a month and pays $62 per round.
Sachau and Simmering traced the correlations between overall satisfaction and each individual factor. "Asking golfers to state what makes them happy, and then seeing what actually makes them happy--that's where it gets fun," Sachau says.
The contradiction between what people say and do has long served much of that wide field of study called the humanities. In this instance, respondents said pace of play was their top driver of satisfaction, when in actuality it was the least. "It's possible the great majority of people who took the survey happened to have a last round where they felt neither impatient or rushed," Sachau says, "but more likely, this is an aspect that assumes great importance only when others are constant." In other words, pace of play matters a lot at your home course because you already know exactly what to expect in the other areas. When you're a regular, it's more likely the foursome ahead or the kitchen staff comes under your cross hairs than the superintendent.
But with this study we targeted road golf. Our thinking was the singularity of the experience lent itself better to a survey, and that the venturing golfer is the consumer courses want to understand better in today's market. Only 17 percent of the rounds analyzed in this study were played at country clubs. And whether home or away, another point to consider, Sachau says, "is that while a slow round has a large effect on making you dissatisfied, a fast round has only a small effect on making you satisfied."
Still, we've all encountered the early-morning rabbits for whom the term "course record" has nothing to do with strokes. Pace of play is such a hot-button issue that surely there must be more to explain the disparity of our results. Well, there is the dearth of obligations we enjoy when traveling. After a round at home, you've got errands to run and kids' sporting events to attend. But if you're road-tripping with old pals, or a business traveler anticipating a solo dinner, so what if a round lags a bit?
"Far and away, course conditions proved the most important driver of satisfaction when golfers travel," Sachau says, "much more so than the pace of the round or the cost of the green or guest fee, both of which golfers stated as more important." Specifically, in ascending order golfers value the conditions of the bunkers, the tee boxes, the fairways and, most of all, the greens.
Who cares if the staff wears name tags, or the shop has a nice collection of shirts--just provide greens that give me a chance to make putts. That's the resounding echo of our survey. Mark Krick, superintendent at Homestead Golf Course in Lakewood, Colo., isn't surprised his role is deemed most valuable, but adds, "I find it's generally the better players who get that a good putting surface means a consistent roll, not necessarily how fast or perfectly green they look." But not even the scratch golfers among us are total purists. Inferring from food & beverage's jump in the charts, the tastiness of a hot dog at the turn influences our perception of a place more than we think.
In a given parking lot, half the golfers are returning their clubs to the car with an overriding sense of contentment. Of 2,434 surveyed, 155 placed themselves on the right half of a satisfaction scale, meaning they believed they got a good deal. There were 1,065 respondents who thought they paid exactly the right price for the round, and 1,214 who thought they paid too much.
But how much of that dissatisfaction is colored by bladed wedges and pull-hooks? The answer is some, but not much. Respondents said their performance was the eighth-most-important factor of their day, when in actuality it was the third. "If two golfers are equally dissatisfied with the conditioning of a course, the one who scores well above his handicap range will believe he overpaid by an average of $3 more than the golfer who played decently," Simmering says. That golfers are more critical when they perform badly is statistically significant, he says, but the primary driver of satisfaction is definitely the course conditions.
"Before you tee off, half of your satisfaction has already been decided by the price you paid and your expectations of the course," Simmering says.
So by a certain logic, the most satisfying round possible is to shoot a career round on a diamond in the rough--a course you thought was going to be in terrible shape, but wasn't.