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Reinventing the Game of Golf in Sweden

A Swedish entrepreneur responds to an industry crisis: Balancing environmental, economic and lifestyle issues in the golf industry.


Golf fits the Swedish national character — it is played outside, often in beautiful surroundings near parks, forests, lakes and seacoast sites. It involves exercise — it is a walking sport with very limited availability of golf carts, and Swedes play the game at a reasonably fast pace. And yet, the game of golf had a slow start in Sweden. As late as 1960, the Swedish Golf Federation (SGF) had only 38 clubs with a total of 7,000 members. Golf didn’t gain popularity until the late 1980s. The number of golfers peaked in 2004, with 550,000 active participants, but has since declined to approximately 470,000 in 2013.
The global economic situation, environmental concerns, changes in consumer lifestyles, and difficulty in attracting new golfers to the sport has created a number of challenges for the world’s golfing industry. With its limited population and 473 clubs, many of which have financial problems, Sweden sees the challenges, too. A Swedish entrepreneur responded early on to the challenges: The Man Behind the Vision
The game of golf was invented in Scotland in the 15th century. Scottish fishermen brought golf to Sweden around 1830 when they played the game on natural links along Sweden’s west coast. The first Swedish golf course opened in 1888 by two brothers who became interested in golf during their student years in England, with the course located at their home near Jönköping. Though the brothers first only had six holes on their course, later they added three more holes with square greens, with the course only open to their guests.
In 1892 the Gothenburg Golf Club, Sweden’s first golf club, was founded, but for many years it remained an elitist sport. Over the last half of the century, however, the game has morphed into a favorite family pastime and attracted legions of talented youngsters.

Sweden’s herd or crowd culture
An interesting aspect of Sweden’s culture is that once something becomes fashionable, it does not take long before the “hot” item dominates the culture and a market saturation effect takes place. Sweden has only three large cities, so trends spread quickly, and golf was certainly an example of this cultural phenomenon. A Typical Day at the Golf Course
Once Sweden could boast of a number of top female international golf stars like Annika Sörenstam and a fair number of successful male golfers on the PGA and European tours (Jesper Parnevik, Carl Peterson, Henrik Stenson), it seemed like everyone was golfing. Sweden had a very small elite class and a large, homogeneous middle class so the trickle down impact of golf took hold very quickly.
At some point, interest and participation in the sport became less intense. The herd effect was shifting to other sports. In 2007 Sweden had only one true international golf star, Annika Sörenstam, who retired one year later. In 2009, no other top names were present in the sport, compared to the international reputation of the best soccer player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or the world class Alpine skier, Anja Pärson, in their respective sports.
A variety of other hurdles or challenges contributing to golf’s decline can be identified:
1. Dress Code
2. Swedish Golf Federation Membership
3. Green Card
4. Golf’s learning curve
5. Long/difficult courses
6. Length of play time; tee times required
7. Expense to play; cost of equipment, lessons, fees

Avid golfer Peter Hallberg took over the Malmö, Hylliekrokens Golf Center in 1993, in the midst of a huge swell of interest and participation by Swedes. A golf academy, a restaurant and snack bar, fitness center and golf shop selling clothing, equipment and accessories, are also part of the complex but leased to separate individuals who run them as their own businesses. Hallberg’s firm operated the driving range and the par-3 course plus the miniature golf course.
The centerpiece was the 9-hole “par 3, short course.” The short-hole course was well designed and a good test of golf with holes ranging from 80 to 160 yards in length.
When the decline in interest set in, Hallberg recognized the flat revenue growth from his Malmö Golf Center and began looking for new ways to build his golf enterprise. He realized the golfing industry was experiencing a number of challenges around the world. Nonetheless, Hallberg mused about the opportunities in southern Sweden for a new type of golf course, one that better responded to golf’s economic and environmental challenges as well as changes in golfers’ lifestyles and preferences. He reasoned that it might be possible to transform the industry crisis into an opportunity for his business.

Strength in southern Sweden’s golf market
Even with the evidence pointing to a fall-off in golf participation in Sweden, its southernmost province of Skåne is in a stronger position in terms of a demand for golf. Weather, as well as the large number and variety of courses, are major factors in Skåne’s favorable golf situation.
This province is where Peter Hallberg was building a new course. The most important indicator of the success of a golfing operation is number of rounds played each year. Some very busy courses could book tee times at eight to 10 minute intervals on a weekend day in mid-July, with each time slot sending out a foursome of golfers. Using the 10-minute interval as an example, each hour would have six time slots at four golfers per tee time, or 24 golfers per hour. If tee times are made for 10 hours, this yields 240 rounds per day.

Efforts to speed up the game
In order to overcome golf’s challenges and jump-start the worldwide golfing market, a fair number of innovations in the game were taking place (albeit at a snail’s pace). First, although regulation golf courses always had 18 holes, the total length of the courses varied widely. An average 18-hole course of about 6,200 yards played longer or shorter for golfers depending on the tee boxes that one played from. Most courses have several different tee off areas that result in holes that are at least three different lengths — blue tees are the longest and used by players who could execute very long tee shots with drives of 250 yards or longer; white tees are of intermediate length for average golfers playing drives of 180 to 240 yards in length, and red are the shortest on the course. Naturally, one way to speed the play on a course is to have golfers move to the shorter length tee boxes. Some authorities, like champion golfer Jack Nicklaus, stress more tee box options and encourage people to play the tees that are appropriate for their skill level.

Why 18 holes?
Nicklaus is an advocate of building golf courses with fewer than 18 holes. He feels time, money and skill hurdles are too high for many prospective new players. He believes 12 holes might be perfect for the recreational golfer and result in more players joining and sticking with the game. He said, “… We should consider making 12 holes a standard round. It might mean breaking up 18-hole facilities into three segments of six holes. Of course it would meet resistance, but eventually it would be accepted because it would make sense in people’s lives.”
A 12-hole round might be completed in about two and a half hours by an average foursome. The cost of the land and constructing a 12-hole course would be cheaper and these savings could be passed on to golfers in the form of lower greens fees or membership costs. Golf also might see less criticism from environmentalists with smaller course footprints.
The creation of shorter 9- or 12-hole courses is of growing interest among investors, golf course designers, and state and national golf associations. Courses such as Scotland’s Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club and Toronto’s Derrydale Golf Club are two of the most heralded 12-hole golf operations in the world, with similar courses in the U.S., like Sheep Ranch (Oregon) and Aetna Springs (California).

Artificial golf greens and tees
Maintenance of a synthetic turf costs very little compared to real grass, and the necessity of hiring a professional greens keeper is eliminated. Hallberg felt in some respects that if he was going to build a “new” type of golfing experience that was both economically and environmentally sustainable he needed to think through the costs and benefits of the synthetic turf option.
It is known in sports like football and soccer, and it is already used in a number of golf applications such as driving range mats, miniature golf courses and putting greens for homeowners. Artificial turf has also gained some favor in places where real turf has difficulty growing, as is the case in very warm or very cold climates.
Cost data is available for both real or synthetic greens, and studies show the life cycle costs of maintaining a green shifts after a few years in favor of synthetic grass, even if it is of the highest quality available.
Tee boxes are not so difficult to construct with either natural or artificial grass — the differences here rests with the impact on player’s ball striking, durability and maintenance costs. Real greens and tee boxes require on-going labor, equipment, watering, aeration and fertilizer. Tending to greens is a labor-intensive activity. The maintenance for artificial greens is low; a worker just needs to brush them off and change the hole location occasionally. The synthetic surface material does need replacement after about 15 years.

The vision for a new course in southern Sweden
Behind Peter Hallberg’s vision for a new kind of golf experience in southern Sweden was the removal or reduction of many of the hurdles or barriers that golf currently presents to golfers. In addition, Hallberg wanted to maximize the benefits of the golf experience.
Of course, he could not directly impact the negative “herd effect” nor alter the cultural shift in sports participation. Four core concepts shaped Hallberg’s vision for a redesigned golfing experience:

Concept #1: Golf that fit Swedes’ lifestyles.
Hallberg was interested in designing a natural, links-style course. In addition to links golf, which appeal to the Swede’s environmental sensibilities, he was focused on the time it took to play a round of golf, noting that a number of golfers recently dropped out of the sport because they did not have the time to spend six hours on their typical golf outing. Some of the dropouts were new golfers who needed a challenging but less time-consuming experience; some dropouts were older, senior golfers for whom playing and walking 18 holes was becoming a chore.
In Hallberg’s estimation, many of these people wanted to play “real” golf, not miniature or par-3 golf, which was offered at his other location. He also felt that playing a round of nine holes might not be a complete golfing experience. Having a course with fewer holes might fit well with his current operation of a par-3 golf course and training operation in that novice or senior golfers could “move up” to a more challenging golfing experience, yet not have to encounter the cost or time involved with 18-hole courses.
Hallberg made another interesting observation on the golfing habits of the younger, new breed of professionals playing the sport. “It used to be that a golfing group would meet in the club and have lunch before their round. Nowadays they communicate about where and when they will play by mobile phone; someone books the tee time online; then they all meet in the course parking lot before they rush off to the first tee,” he states. They want a streamlined golf experience, saving time and allowing the use of technology to arrange golfing excursions.
Moreover, Hallberg was seeking to reinvent golf course design in several other ways. One was to make the course very “user-friendly” with a course layout requiring minimal walking from one green to the next tee box. He wanted to keep these distances short, taking just a few minutes of walking.
His plan was to “make it easy and make it quick” even though he would not have motorized golf carts on his new course, as they did not fit with a links golf experience. In keeping with his user-friendly design, golfers could walk on, sign in, and by placing a golf ball in a rack their order of play would be determined. It would be “first come, first served.” Pay and play golf or greens fee golf would be available for those who had no interest in a membership since they might only play at his new course a few times a year.
Memberships, of course, would be available. Alliances with other courses would be built so golfers could play different courses for reciprocal greens fee deals. Annual members would be SGF members and have access to any of nearly 500 other courses in Sweden at a reduced rate. There could be many different categories of memberships with packages varying in cost for adult and junior golfers, partial and full memberships (no additional fees each time one played), and single (his new course) and both courses (his par-3 and new course) memberships. Finally, Hallberg thought that relaxing the dress code seen on most courses might appeal to more golfers.

Concept #2: Green golf—an environmental theme.
Many courses in Sweden have been adopting sustainable approaches to course design, construction, maintenance and operation, using grasses requiring less water, organic fertilizer and employing more natural buffer areas.
Environmental concern and preservation of the environment comes naturally to most Swedes and is reflected in their lifestyles and conservation ethics. Hallberg knew that by using sustainable practices in his new course’s design and operations he could save money as well as fit in with the direction of sustainable practice seen in many parts of Swedish society, such as housing, transportation and education. He hopes to promote his course as a “sustainable golfing experience” that becomes “one of the most environmentally focused courses in Sweden.” He has thought about using a “green yet no chemicals theme” in his course promotion.

Concept #3: Push the envelope with a daring experiment.
One way the new course could save substantial money in course development and its annual operating costs could be to employ synthetic or artificial grass on tee boxes and on its golf putting greens. Many courses in Sweden have at least some artificial grass tee off areas because of the difficulty of maintaining real turf on very heavily trafficked areas in Sweden’s cool climate. On the par-3 course, players have the option of using artificial or natural grass on the course’s tee-off areas. Many choose to use synthetic turf tee areas as there is never a problem in getting the ball on a level lie.
Hallberg has also experimented successfully in using artificial greens on three practice holes at his Malmö Golf Center training area. The greens were much less time-consuming to build and require almost no maintenance. Advances in synthetic turf technology have produced greens that putt well, with all the bumps, breaks and nuances of real greens. A golf ball rolls fast on these greens, not unlike the green speed on championship courses.
Hallberg also knew that having artificial greens might lose some players. After all, having artificial greens is, in a way, inconsistent with an environmental golf course. However, artificial greens offer a decrease in powered maintenance equipment, water, and use of chemical fertilizers — all positive environmental features.

Concept # 4: Make it value-priced in all respects.
Hallberg’s approach to concept #3 was very simple. He wanted a golf operation that was priced below the going rate of membership and greens fee prices in Sweden. He wanted to be the low cost leader. Golfers paid per hole, so they could compare an 18-hole facility to his 12-hole facility. The term “value-priced” meant Hallberg’s course offered a quality and experience that exceeded the expectations of golfers.
He has ample experience in selling memberships and knows that a strong price positioning works. He has proven that golf memberships were price elastic and aggressive pricing works particularly in a very competitive golfing market like southern Sweden. He knows pricing is a critical factor in his marketing plans for his new course.

Location, location, location..
Malmö was pretty crowded with some 30 golf courses within 50 minutes drive time. These courses ran the spectrum from high-end membership courses such as Falsterbo, a links layout and one of Sweden’s oldest, most expensive courses, to a few low cost, 9- or 18-hole hole, pay and play courses. A good 20-25 percent were reported to have financial difficulties due to the shrinking number of golfers.
Hallberg discovered an opportunity to lease a parcel of land owned by Malmö and targeted for some type of community use. The land, once part of a farmer’s property, was on the outskirts of Malmö in an area called Oxie. The parcel contained about 67.5 acres — big enough to support a 12-hole track but not a full 18-hole course. Several natural hills on the property would allow for higher-elevation tee boxes and greens offering panoramic views of the area, which were very much in keeping with the beautiful rolling countryside of the Skåne province. Hallberg saw that the land might fit well with a links-style course design.
The 12-hole course, with 13 artificial greens (one practice green was needed) and 12 tee boxes, was built in two years. The “links style” course design favored using the land more in its natural state compared to the extensive earth moving found at many course creation projects. Sand traps, fairway bunkers and water hazards had to be created but Hallberg found some modular designs for small summer cottages that would easily accommodate a reception center with office, a players lounge area, an outdoor patio and toilet facilities.
The new 12-hole golf course based on Hallberg’s vision was opened in May 2009. Today, five years after the new Oxie Golf Course opened for play, membership and pricing arrangements are indeed the lowest in all of Sweden. The club has close to 4,000 members and roughly 25,000 rounds of golf are played every year — that’s close to 70 rounds per day every day, with 3,000 players using the Pay & Play system.

By Robert F. Dyer

The Seven Fs: Factors that Drive Sports Participation -
Fast: total time expended to play the sport per engagement, including travel, warmup and actual participation time
Fun: entertaining, satisfying experience
Frugal: the full costs for participation in a sport should be within reasonable budget constraints
Family and friends: peers, parents, significant others can be involved in the sporting experience
Fitness: the payoff for participation can produce health benefits to the player
Friendly to the environment: participants feel better about sports and playing areas that do not degrade the environment
Focus: on personal goals/challenges related to the sport


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