Is golf at mercy of economy?

IAN HUTCHINSON -- For Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:56 AM ET

Depending on who you listen to, Canada's economy is either humming along, facing leaner times, on the edge of a recession or actually in one, which makes the near future an uncertain one in terms of discretionary spending that includes golf.

It's just too early for the golf industry to get a handle on how its patrons will react this year, but the economy is definitely a topic of consideration.

"Any economic factor that might have a negative impact on rounds of play is a concern," said Ted Manning, president of Acushnet Canada, which handles Titleist, Cobra, FootJoy and Pinnacle golf brands.

"It's the middle of the winter," added Gary Pollock of Waterloo-based Tournament Sports, which handles products such as Tour Edge, Nancy Lopez, Bridgestone, Precept, Etonic, Antigua and Slazenger.

"I think if it was the middle of summer and guys were worried about their jobs, there might be a different mentality," he said.

That could very well be the situation six months hence, especially in Ontario where the strong Canadian dollar has had an impact on the manufacturing sector. If that should be the case, it's then a matter of what gets trimmed from the family budget in terms of spending?

"I suspect that participation could wane, certainly if we get the recession.

That puts a crimp on disposable income for a lot of Canadians," said John Sibley, general manager of Nike Golf Canada, adding that tough decisions will be made on personal preferences.

"I'd like to think that the golf industry, certainly while not immune to any economic downturns, may be a little farther down on the pecking order (of household budget cuts)," Sibley said.

"Each family is going to make their own decisions. For some families, it maybe means nothing. For a lot of families, it probably means significant change," he added. "I'd say, for the most part, golf is a passion among the consumers and, if affordable, people will continue to (play)."

Pollock agrees: "I think the hard core golfer is still going to be out there because it's his leisure time. Whether or not he's playing three times a week or twice a week, that may be the thing. Maybe, he goes and practises once a week instead of playing," he said.

Manning maintains that he still is optimistic about the Canadian economy, but adds that the strength of the Canadian dollar has inadvertently put golf club manufacturers into a good position in terms of affordability if there is a downturn.

"The dollar has gained so much strength relative to the U.S. currency over the last several months. That has had a pretty significant impact on the pricing of equipment. We expect that to fuel increased sales," Manning said.

"All the equipment has definitely come down in price and probably making it more attractive for those core, avid golfers, who represent most of the spending, to go out and purchase new equipment," he said.

"We've made several price adjustments that recognize the strength of the Canadian currency," Sibley said.

Affordability has been an ongoing issue in golf, even in the good times, so falling prices on golf equipment in Canada is good news. "Then, where are (golfers) playing? Are they playing the expensive courses anymore?" Pollock asked.

As president of Angus Glen Golf Club, the site of last year's Canadian Open, Kevin Thistle relies heavily on corporate golf and tournaments at his high-end establishment and says the key word is value, whether it's a $30 green fee or a $150 green fee.

"So far, we're rebooking our tournaments at a greater pace. If you ask me how our year looks, our year looks great," said Thistle, adding that top shelf service helps make a business recession-proof.

CUT BACK ON ROUNDS

"People still have money, but they're not going to play 100 rounds of golf.

They're not going to go to 30 Toronto Maple Leafs games, so you're competing for the discretionary dollar against not only golf clubs, but the Blue Jays, the Argos and fine dining," Thistle said.

"Service is the No. 1 thing. You have to kill them with kindness," said Thistle, adding that he remains optimistic about this year like the rest of the above-mentioned gentlemen. However, there is a sense of hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst and that's just sound business.

"You've got to make sure that, if you're a good operator, you can go through the highs and the lows," said Thistle and he is echoed by Pollock.

"It's a time when everybody has to sit down and actually make sure they've got a business plan for the good times, but also when the good times fade away for a couple of years," he said.


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