Golf in the Gulf

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Ask John Edwards or Bernie Madoff; when people think far better of someone or some place than the facts warrant, there can be a gulf between reality and perception. But what happens when it’s the opposite, when people think far worse of some place than the facts warrant? In Mississippi, that’s the gulf they’re now facing on the Gulf.

This past April 20, when the oil spilled in the Gulf, the people who make their living off of golf on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast weren’t too concerned, at least not at first. After all, they didn’t have any reason to be. The oil wasn’t threatening their 60-plus miles of gorgeous beaches. The sport fisherman, seafood eaters and beachcombers who vacation in Gulfport and Biloxi who bring their golf clubs with them, had no reason not to come. 

But it wasn’t long before the folks who book golf trips in Mississippi began to notice that reservations for the fall, their big season, were down—way down. For a period in May, they went to zero. Zero – now that’s a problem.

Hard times are nothing new for the people in the golf business in Mississippi. Five years ago, Katrina devastated the golf business. Courses along the Gulf Coast, like Windance in Gulfport, and The Oaks in Pass Christian, lost thousands of trees and had to close for months just to clean up. That was the painful and costly reality.

But this go-around is something different, because there is no oil washing up on the beaches. They’ve seen few, if any tar balls. This time, they aren’t battling reality; they are battling perception. And that can be a bit trickier. Public Relations is the art of letting people know what is happening. What’s the best way to get the word out that something is not? 

In some ways, Katrina was easier to deal with, catastrophic, but straight-forward. Removing trees from fairways? That’s easy. Re-seeding greens? Easy. Rebuilding clubhouses? Costly, but easy. But the people in the golf business in Mississippi now have a different sort of challenge in front of them:  letting folks who would ordinarily be booking vacations there right about now know that what they think is a problem, isn’t an issue at all.

Talk about tarred with the wrong brush.