What Does the Golf Customer Want -- and Get


Sometimes I wonder: Does golf give the customer what he or she wants, or does it tell the customer?
Before we get too judgmental, lets agree that modern marketing is as much about creating desires as it is about catering to them. I had no idea I needed a new sedan until that cars manufacturer informed me I did. (Upon further research, I decided I didnt need one as badly as all that.)
Golf is not different from other discretionary-purchase industries. Did we know we needed Pro-V1s before they appeared on the front page of USA Today? Could Ely Callaway have sold us that newfangled Big Bertha ten years ago without convincing us that we couldnt live without it?
Theres nothing wrong with this approach, so far as it goes. And in this information-drenched age, companies simply cant compete on product merit alone. The best whatzit wont sell if we dont know what it does, and why we might want it.
That said, I wonder if desire creation sometimes crosses its own wires. On a very large scale, the Industrial Revolution solved a lot of problems (employment of a lot of people, uniform product quality, accumulation of funds and time to spur research). By the same token, it created a number of problems (workplace safety, separation of craftsmen from the entirety of a product, a generation of labor unrest). On a smaller scale, desire marketing may have created some unintended problems in golf.
These arent insurmountable problems, but they have created perceptions that arguably have stunted the growth of the game. Lets review a few:
Speeding technology. Perhaps no sport has better research and development talent than golf. Once the aerospace industry cooled off with the end of the Cold War, a lot of top scientists went to golf. (Much of defense aerospace was in the San Diego area; so is much of golf equipment; it made sense.) After all, a driver is a streamlined mass speeding through the air, so of course these guys and gals could contribute.
But are they too good? They move so fast that there is always unbuilt technology waiting in the pipeline. Be it through business pressure or the desire to compete, companies bring out driver after driver, sometimes every year or so. Whats an avid player to do? Budget $600 per year for a new driver and $6,000 for marriage counseling? What chance does a club have to become a cherished old friend that carries ones game over decades before being passed down to a child?
Of course, the aerospace-golfer-geniuses mean no harm. They want us to have their best. But golfers I meet often complain to me of a mild form of computer obsolescence disease. You know the symptoms: You bring home the latest computer, driver, juicer, you name it, feeling as if youre on the cutting edge ' and six months later you see something that claims to better. The cutting edge no longer cuts it.
Here, quite innocently, the customer has been told what to want ' and just as unintentionally, he ends up feeling at least a little dissatisfied.
(In fairness: One good step to counter this has been trade-in/trade-up programs, such as Callaways.)
Speeding to be important. Its hard to class up a pickup soccer game. The grass on the field may be a little thicker in New England than in New Mexico, but what it boils down to is a bunch of kids running around and having a good time.
Not so golf. The sports history offers a fertile field for perpetuating ' or eschewing ' elitism. We see it every day in the persistence of single-gender clubs or the over-the-top opulence of some upscale daily fee courses. On the flip side, we see no-frills municipal tracks where regulars play hardscrabble golf on turf they are proud to endure.
Somewhere along the line, aided by well-produced television broadcasts of the turf paradises demanded by modern pros, many in the hardscrabble crowd came to believe they were playing some sort of substandard golf. (Last I checked, a stroke is a stroke anywhere). Then the disease spread like poa annua to people whose courses had admirable turf throughout, although it may have been brown around the edges or damp over there by No. 15 where weve always hade trouble with those fairway drainage tiles.
Bottom line: Someone always thought the grass was greener, and someone felt a little dissatisfied.
Of course, one bears a lot of the responsibility for happiness with what one has. And nobody is trying to upset anyone by building nice courses. But for every guy who says (and means it), I like my courses rustic look, there are 10 who say (at least to themselves) I wish our course was more like Augusta National.
Speed of play. Time to face it: This problem is unsolvable. Mainly its because of an unwillingness of the games chief example-setters to set the right example. To that, touring professionals say (and its hard to argue) that theyre making their livings, and they cant afford to rush a stroke that could cost them thousands, even millions.
But whatever the reason, pro behavior gives many the impression that slow is the way to play golf. Many U.S. golfers will never get to Scotland, where speed is nearly religion, and where visitors realize that the game is better when played at a healthy clip. (Their pleasure in the surprise is always fun to see. Turns out that what my editor at Golfweek told me before my first trip was true. Youll hit your ball, he said, and as you bag your club, shoulder your bag, and take a step, youll hear a ball landing behind you.)
So we have the game divided into two camps in this country: The leisurely (or in some cases, downright rude) crowd, and the jackrabbits. There is only one first-group-out time per day per course, and oh, how those slots are coveted by those who want to sling it around in 150 minutes.
But the lingering dissatisfaction arising from the now-entrenched custom of slow play is this: Newcomers think golf is slower (read: more boring) than Major League Baseball (regardless of whose fault that might be), and avid players think a quick, exhilarating round is a thing of the past. Either way, you have dissatisfied customers who have been conditioned to expect other than what they got.
These are just a few examples, and of course they arise from my view, not necessarily gospel fact. But what we should take away, agree or disagree, is an unerring customer focus. Because in this day and age, there are too many other choices to allow folks to be dissatisfied, no matter what the reason.
Email your thoughts to Adam Barr