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GreenCast in UK and Ireland - Getting to know what your players want

Player Survey

Results of a detailed questionnaire of golfers at the prestigious St Mellion International Golf Club in Cornwall has clearly highlighted that course condition is the key priority for their members. It has also provided some key pointers regarding turf management practices and priorities for investment in the future for Course Manager Mike Bush MG.

Presenting the results to BIGGA members at the Devon & Cornwall Spring Seminar, held at the Club, he identified that the condition of greens was consistently the highest importance for members across the Crown Golf-owned Club's two 18-hole courses; The Kernow - designed primarily as a resort golf course - and the original championship Nicklaus Signature Course.

The condition of fairways and tees were also of very high importance across the courses, although tees were of slightly less importance to lower handicap players on the Nicklaus Course, noted Mike (above). Design of the course and aesthetics of the playing environment were also ranked highly for importance to players.

"Pleasingly for the greenkeeping team, the satisfaction with the condition of most aspects of the playing surfaces was high, especially the greens and fairways that are of greatest importance to them," reported Mike. "However, the slightly lower satisfaction of the tee conditions has indicated we will need to focus more attention on those areas to bring them up to the same high level as the rest of the course."

He added that the price of membership was listed as the second most important factor on both courses. "It is a factor that had to be acknowledged and faced in the current economic climate. We have to manage our costs more effectively to ensure our membership price remains competitive, and to recognise that we don't havecarte blancheto spend on areas that won't give members a valued return." 

The St Mellion Player Survey was developed and tailored to the Club's specific needs by Syngenta, based on the company's original Golf Player Survey, which looked at general trends and demands among the golfing public across more than 300 courses in 2011/12. The findings from the 260 St Mellion members who took part in the on-line questionnaire over the early part of 2013 were remarkably consistent, adding a level of detail that will enable Mike to consider future action plans. 


Managing to players' demands

The survey did throw up some fascinating differences between the Club's two courses and the golfers that play them; Mike says that using the results could now help the team to tailor management of the two courses more effectively to cater to the different players' average abilities and meet required criteria of levels of importance.

On the Kernow course, which is predominantly played by golfers with relatively high handicaps, for example, the most important factor for fairway playability was to have the ball sitting proud on the turf surface, with tight mown turf far less important. On the Nicklaus Course, however, where the majority of players surveyed had a handicap of less than 15, tightly mown fairways were rated as far more important. "That has implications for height and frequency of cut and other practices that we can use to help present the sort of playing surfaces that better meet the different demands of players," he added. 

Ironically, all the players rated a dense fairway sward as of low importance, yet that is the very feature that delivers the ball sitting proudly they wanted; which he believed highlighted the need to phrase any survey questions in a way that players would understand them and around the features they are looking for. "Having an external consumer market research company prepare the survey ensures questions are geared towards the customer, rather than a greenkeeping approach," he advised. 


Smooth greens

Another fascinating finding for Mike and the team was the fact that players' response to questions about the greens identified overwhelming demand for smooth and even paced greens, with fast ball roll lower than the ranking for greens condition - with very similar results across both courses.

"That goes against the typical car park comments and the frequent calls we hear for the need for speed. This now gives us the evidence to discuss with members what they really want, and explain what we are doing to deliver it. It doesn't mean that we will slow greens down - since smooth consistent surfaces will almost always be quick - but does change the emphasis of what we are looking to achieve with cutting heights and management for dense, smooth surfaces."


Rough challenge

Mike reported that across the courses there were adverse comments about the density of the rough, which the team are going to work to redress over coming seasons. "It may be that we have made the rough just too challenging for players, to the point that it is spoiling their game.

"With relatively low scores for satisfaction in aspects such as finding their ball and the ability to play out of the rough, we clearly need to look at ways to open out the rough and encourage a higher proportion of finer, wispy grasses. It shifts the balance between what we see as providing a golfing challenge and defining aesthetically pleasing hole designs using the rough, with the need to maintain playability and enjoyment."

The St Mellon greenkeeping team had already been trialling the use of Rescue to remove coarse grasses in the rough and leave desirable finer fescue species, in an effort to reduce time players spend looking for balls and to speed up play - which was a key area of dissatisfaction for some players. The survey results will further help to justify the expense and put greater emphasis on the programme.


Mowing matters

The carefully manicured and beautifully presented courses at St Mellion come at a cost of time and effort to hand cut greens, tee's and approach's. The fairways are carefully striped and clippings boxed throughout the playing season, maintaining very high presentation standards. It's an attention to detail that gives Mike and the greenkeeping team immense pride, but the survey revealed is largely overlooked by players. More surprisingly, players on neither The Kernow nor the Nicklaus Course placed much importance on striped and well defined fairways.

"That raises questions about how we manage mowing in the future, which might possibly release time and budget to spend in other areas that members want to see addressed." However, Mike remains reserved and would like to raise with members first before introducing changes, as well as repeating the survey to check responses and pick up any drop in satisfaction.

"It would also appear that they are not concerned that the greens are cut with pedestrian mowers - it came bottom in importance among The Kernow respondents and very low for players on the Nicklaus. However, they both rated smooth ball roll and even pace among the most important factors - which are both enhanced by the accuracy of pedestrian cutting; that possibly highlights we need to better explain the link between our greenkeeping activities and the resulting playing quality." 


Ageing golfers

Mike acknowledged that the survey highlighted the issue of an ageing of golf population, especially in the south west region where there is a higher proportion of retired - more than 70% of respondents on both courses were over 50 years old, with around 45% more than 66.

"We know that we need to be doing more to attract a new, younger generation of golfers to the game; having greater feedback from them would possibly enable us to do more to meet their demands - whether that be in specific playing conditions, or the format of the game where they would want to participate in more," he said.

The survey responses did positively identify that an internet-based questionnaire could reach the older generation, but it maybe that the survey format for younger players needs to be tailored to fewer, shorter questions directly related to topics that may interest them, which they could answer quickly. A social-media Facebook or Twitter style delivery may also encourage greater participation.


Attractive proposition

The survey also looked at what specific factors attracted players to a different course - providing a valuable insight into what might tempt members away, as well as elements that could be enhanced to bring in new players.

Across the full spectrum of players the design of the golf course unanimously came out as the top factor that attracted them to a course, followed by the aesthetics of the course and the quality of greens, in that order. Turf quality on the rest of the course and a friendly atmosphere in the club ranked lower.

Mike believed these results demonstrated that investment in new features on the course and in improving the quality of playing surfaces was always going to prove a key factor in attracting new players, as well as maintaining the interest and satisfaction of existing members.


Justifying investment

Mike reported that the findings of the survey could prove valuable in helping to justify investment and expenditure in key areas of the course where they now know that members will welcome improvements. "We have been looking to do further work on the drainage across the course to improve year-round playability, and which was really put to the test last year. The fact that members have identified this as an area of low satisfaction adds weight to the need for action. I am keen to do more to further improve the tees, which again we now know is an area to prioritise with a re-levelling and drainage program.

"General Managers and Directors all love data and make their sound business decisions based on stats. We now have a wealth of data to influence what we do and why. It also gives us greater opportunity to discuss issues with members and to demonstrate what we are doing for their benefit," advised Mike.

"We now have a benchmark on players' needs and satisfaction with the Club and the courses, which we could refine and repeat in the future to ensure we are pre-empting changing demands and meeting what the players want."


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