At the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., golfers now can choose between a cart, bike, Segway or golf board to get around the course. The nearby Boulders Waldorf Astoria resort has added special "pebble tees" that make nine of the holes on one of its championship courses an easy, quick par-three course.
And golf resorts around the country are experimenting with everything from 15-inch holes to soccer-style golf as they look to attract new players to a sport that has seen steady declines over the past decade.
"The golf industry as a whole has its challenges right now," said Scott Ashworth, director of golf at the Four Seasons Lanai in Hawaii. "It's not like the old days, where you just show up at 6 a.m. and say, 'Let's play.' You have to be more creative."
According to the National Golf Foundation, a nonprofit research group, the number of recreational golfers in the U.S. fell from 30 million in 2005 to 25.3 million in 2012, and 20% of those 25.3 million are expected to quit the game within the next few years.
The foundation also reports that the number of rounds played dropped from 518 million in 2000 to 465 million in 2013.
Resorts, particularly in retirement havens such as Arizona, haven't been hit as hard. In fact, golf tourism is one of the few parts of the golf economy that was still growing slightly when research firm SRI International conducted a comprehensive survey of participation in the sport in 2011.
Still, attracting families and young players is top of mind at golf resorts around the globe as younger baby boomers and subsequent generations of travelers shun the typical three- to four-hour round of golf for family activities or more rigorous sports like biking.
"The days when dad got up and went to the golf course for four or five hours on a weekend day while mom took care of the kids, those days are gone," said Gail Wargo, director of golf at South Carolina's Westin Hilton Head, whose sister course, Port Royal, offers FootGolf, a hybrid game of soccer and golf, for part of the year. "Families are more cohesive than ever. They can all go out in an hour and play nine holes of FootGolf. Everybody can do that and do something fun."
A costly pastime
The investment required to play golf is not trivial, a fact that has been cited among the reasons for the sport's dwindling popularity.
The equipment needed to get started, including clubs, bag, shoes, gloves and clothes that meet the dress codes of top resorts and country clubs, can run into thousands of dollars. And on top of that, a travel case for a set of clubs is essential.
Then there are the greens fees. Rates vary by resort, the day of the week and time of day as well as by the season. During the off season, for example, a full round at the Twin Warriors course at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya in Bernalillo, N.M., is $79 plus tax. That goes up to $127 on weekends in peak season.
At the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, rates range from a low of $115 to a high of $190 for resort guests. At the Boulders, a round during peak season is more than $200, though it's only $60 to play nine holes on the "pebble tees."
The Boulders Waldorf Astoria resort near Scottsdale, Ariz.
What's more, the cost of a golf vacation has climbed even higher since airlines began charging for checked bags. Today, traveling with clubs on a golfing vacation is going to cost between $25 and $75 each way, depending on the airline and whether the golfer is also checking an extra suitcase to hold proper golf course attire.
Ashworth said he thinks baggage fees have had a big impact on destination resorts, particularly among golfers who were planning to play only a round or two.
"If it gets to be $35, $70 or $100 per roundtrip, I think a lot them decide, 'Maybe I just won't play golf this time,'" he said.
Even when golfers are willing to play without their own clubs, rental sets generally cost $50 to $75 per day.
Serious golfers can find discounts through agencies that specialize in golf trips. Many offer nightly rates that include greens fees, and most also offer special rates for shipping clubs to avoid airline baggage fees.
Biking: The new golf
Family time and cost aside, many younger travelers are also opting for more intense fitness options, recently prompting some to declare that biking is the new golf. In fact, Todd May, an avid fan of both, is working to merge the two instead of keeping them mutually exclusive.
May, the president of Higher Ground Golf Co., designed the Golf Bike, a $995 conveyance that courses in Arizona, Florida and Vail, Colo., and one individual in South Carolina have been testing over the past year.
"Our motto is fun, fitness and speed of play," May said.
Golf Bike users at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa.
The Golf Bike has seven gears and a small, soft tire that makes it easier to climb hills and is grass-friendly. It has racks on either side to hold two golf bags, along with a bag in the middle. The bike cuts the time of play over a cart because each player can follow only his or her own ball. May and the courses testing the bike report that most people can play nine holes on the bike in about an hour.
"It's a great workout," said Nancy Dickens, director of golf at the Westin Kierland, noting it's a fun alternative to riding a stationary bike at the gym.
May said the rider/player can get as much or as little exercise as he or she wants on the bike.
"You can hardly break a sweat or you can push harder," he said. "It's tailored to the individual."
He said it is also great for helping courses attract people to early morning and evening hours.
"Traditionally, that's when people might go to the gym and not have time for golf," he said.
With the Golf Bike, they can "go out in the morning, play the game they love and get to work," he said. "Same thing in the evening. They can get a quick nine holes in before dinner."
Dickens said the bikes have been popular at her course, requiring advance reservations. The course has four and intends to order four more this year.
A golfer on a Segway at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz. Golfers at the resort can also navigate the course via cart, bike or “golf board.”
The Westin Kierland also has Segways and just recently got golf boards, which Dickens compared to motorized snowboards on wheels that have an attachment so players can carry their clubs on the board.
"It's fun," she said. "You turn by shifting your balance on the board."
At the Four Seasons Lanai, Ashworth said he has been looking at adding the boards, as well.
"It works your core," he said. "It's like a combination surfboard/skateboard. It is so much fun. That would make me want to play more golf. ... I think of it as adding more excitement to the game."
The boards and bikes are designed to be as easy on the fairways as carts are. In fact, May said the Golf Bike uses course-friendly tires and is low impact, so it can get closer to the green than carts are allowed. But out of respect for the game, he said the company recommends that players follow a course's cart rules.
Ashworth said that the boards are friendlier to the course than carts.
Cutting larger holes
In addition to bikes, Segways and boards, a number of resorts are experimenting with larger holes, both to make it easier for rookies to sink their putts and to add FootGolf.
Omni Hotels & Resorts, for example, last year launched its For the Love of the Game program, which offers meetings planners a host of new alternatives to traditional golf tournaments. The options include short-course challenges, nighttime rounds, Frisbee golf and blackjack-themed games.
A FootGolf player at the Westin Hilton Head. FootGolf is played with a regulation soccer ball on shortened holes with 21-inch-diameter cups.
It also hosted a series of golf tournaments and events featuring 15-inch holes at nearly all its resorts. A company called Hack Golf introduced a 15-inch cup, more than three times the size of a traditional 4.25-inch cup.
Dickens says her course has purchased the cups and a tool for cutting larger holes but hasn't used them.
"That's a little tougher," she said, noting that traditional golfers are opposed to such changes. "It has to be a special event. I don't think that's sticking."
Even larger cups are required for the fast-growing sport of FootGolf, where players use their legs as clubs to sink soccer balls on shortened holes with 21-inch-diameter cups. The rules largely correspond to the rules of golf.
The American FootGolf League says that at the beginning of 2013, the U.S. had only two officially recognized FootGolf courses. It now has more than 300 in 43 states, including more than 50 in California.
And Mike O'Connor, president of the Federation for International FootGolf, predicts that in five years, every country in the world that has golf courses will be a member of the federation.
Wargo said the game is popular in Hilton Head when school is out, and it is also an option as fewer meetings and conferences automatically include golf.
"It's a better strategic use of existing facilities," she said. "When school is back in, the island transitions back into a place of meetings and conferences. For those meetings and conferences, golf tournaments have also declined. Maybe only a third to half still want to have a typical golf tournament. This has become an alternative team-building activity and wellness activity."
Shorter tees, social events
Even at courses that haven't adopted such significant changes, directors are constantly looking for new ways to lure new golfers.
At the Boulders Waldorf Astoria, “pebble tees” on nine holes create a par-three course that can be played in about an hour, and the greens fees are much lower than those for the course’s standard 18 holes.
At the Boulders, for instance, the course has installed the "pebble tees" on nine holes, creating a par-three course that can be played in about an hour.
The Boulders' golf director, Tom McCahan, said the shorter holes are key to nurturing the interest of new golfers and those who don't play often.
"We're taking the drive out of the picture," he said. "If I'm a new golfer and put the ball on the first tee at 450 yards, it's like, 'Holy cow, how am I supposed to do this?' By the time they get close to the green they are frustrated and exhausted."
Shortened alternative courses are a trend that is spreading. Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, for example, has forward tees on all nine of its courses. In fact, the forward tees on Course No. 4 were used last summer for the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship.
At the Boulders, McCahan said play is actually up 10% to 15%, so the forward tees are not so much about luring players as just making it easier for guests who are short on time or new to the game, or for pairs like husbands and wives, where one is an experienced player and the other a beginner.
Still, even luxury resort havens like Lanai are feeling the drop-off in their visitors' interest in golf.
"People are a bit more careful about their disposable income now," Ashworth said. "We have to be more creative in how we get people out. Some courses do things like [let golfers play] six holes, or take three holes and the driving range in the afternoon; really creative things like that you can do. And some resorts where you have to have a cart, they let people walk in the afternoon. That plays into the whole fitness movement."
At the Four Seasons, Ashworth said he added a "manager scramble" on Wednesdays where guests can play nine holes with a manager for free and attend a cocktail reception afterward.
"Our guests love it," he said. "Gets them out on the golf course, gives them a chance to see it. ... Then a lot of them end up coming back later in the week."
The course also offers a "wine and nine" event in which couples play nine holes while sharing a bottle of wine and cheese.
"A course like this is so beautiful, it's a cool way for couples to spend time together," Ashworth said.
For families, he said, juniors play free after noon for every paying adult.
"Then they can play all the holes or just a few holes," he said. "They don't feel like they are spending too much money, and it's just a great way for parents to spend time with their kids."
Ashworth said that except in places like Scottsdale and Honolulu, where resorts have been immune to the overall declines, course managers need to keep thinking outside the box.
"Just opening the doors and telling people to go play their 18 holes doesn't work so much anymore," he said.