There is a difference between not having time to play golf and not making time to play golf.
When he flips on the TV to watch a tournament, or reads about the ratings of televised golf, Andy Mears sees evidence that there are plenty of people who have an interest in the game, but, according to industry statistics, have quit playing or never started. Mears, the president and chief operating officer of Island Hills Golf Club in Centreville, Mich., believes factors such as time, difficulty, cost and a core audience that doesn't take kindly to newcomers all have conspired to divert occasional golfers and would-be players toward other activities.
Mears wants to change that, at least in Centreville.
Since 2011 patrons at Island Hills have had many options beyond playing a traditional 18-hole golf course. Five shorter routings within the 1999 Raymond Hearn layout, called Quick Courses, feature their own scorecard, and are designed to give golfers a chance to play without devoting five hours - or more - to a round of golf. The Quick Course concept is ideal for newcomers and high-handicappers as well as the scratch golfer who is challenged for time, Mears says.
"We have to get people to understand that golf doesn't have to be played in traditional sets," said Mears, 52. "In an 18-hole round of golf, you leave your house, play, probably socialize a little bit, then you return home. Before you know it, you can be talking about a six-hour day.
"During the past several years, there has been a huge adjustment in the way we think about our lives. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but we've changed how we look at what we do in that time. For some people, six hours out of the day to play golf is fine. For most of us, that' s too much time."
Island Hills owner Bob Griffioen came up with the idea for Quick Courses after reading about a seven-hole tournament at Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. The Quick Course options at Island Hills include a five-hole course, two seven-hole routes and a 12-hole option. All routes, Mears says, begin on Nos. 1 or 10 and end on 9 or 18. Each route was chosen specifically to minimize the distance golfers must travel from green to tee, and all can be played for a fraction of Island Hills' rack rate. For example, the five-hole Quick Course, named Honeybee Cove, includes Nos. 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9, and golfers can play it for 15 bucks. Fees for the other Quick Courses increase slightly depending on the number of holes.
There are few rules regarding the Quick Course program. Those playing the regulation 18-hole course always have the right of way on the tee, and play is not permitted on weekend mornings. Otherwise, ensuring that golfers play only the route they've paid for basically is left to the honor system. Next year, golfers playing a Quick Course will have a color-coded pennant on their golf car so traditional golfers and club employees can easily identify them.
Many players have readily adapted to the concept and appreciate the opportunity to play at least some golf and do so in less time than it takes to play 18 regulation holes, while there are others for whom the idea has been a tough sell, says Mears.
"Golf is a slow-adapting industry, including among those who play a lot of golf," he said. "For hundreds of years we've been playing 18 holes. Anything other than that is a strange concept to people.
"We want people to know they can get their fix in an hour-and-a-half."
Like most people in the golf business, Mears is troubled by the numbers passed along each year by the National Golf Foundation. Trends he finds worrisome include the 6 million people who have left the game since an all-time high of 30 million people played golf in 2002, or the net loss of 516 18-hole equivalents since a steady diet of negative growth in new course construction began in 2006.
Located between Chicago and Detroit in rural southwestern Michigan, Island Hills relies on city-dwelling tourists who are drawn to the region by Lake Templene, a 1,000-acre lake that is popular for boating, skiing and fishing. Although he acknowledges an oversupply of golf courses, Mears doesn't want his course to be the next statistic, so he and his staff go to great lengths to accommodate golfers. The Quick Course system is just one example.
At Island Hills, there is no charge for the use of top-of-the-line rental clubs, nor is there a fee for lessons. And golfers can play for free after 4 p.m. on Sundays. Mears, who took his first job in the golf business at age 13, figures easing entry into the game for new golfers today might lead to loyal customers tomorrow, or the day after.
"All I can control is here at Island Hills and getting people in our community to play and getting people outside the area to come to our course to play," he said.
"We're not trying to make a dent in the bottom line with this. We're trying to get people to realize that golf can be part of their lifestyle, and it doesn't have to take six hours to do it."
Since implementing the system, Mears says he has received phone calls from golf course operators around the country who are interested in adopting similar programs locally to drive interest. Many ask Mears whether the Quick Courses have increased revenue at Island Hills. Those people, he says, don't get it. The goal of the program is to create long-term interest in the game, not short-term revenue at the cash register.
"We are here to help and to drive interest in the game and hopefully build some customer loyalty along the way," he said.
"The thought process is to get people engaged at some level, then the interest will come. We can't put our needs ahead of the needs of our customers. It doesn't work that way. I see too many who do that, and they can't see the forest from the trees."