The view of the 5th hole at the Okanagan Golf Club's Bear course.

Growing the Game of Golf: Kelowna Courses Open For Season

Great conditions, new and old partnerships and consumer-friendly deals abound as the local golf season opens

  • Sat Apr 20th, 2013 3:00pm
  • News

As the snow was melting earlier this spring and golfers across the Okanagan Valley prepared to dust off their golf clubs for another season, managers at Okanagan-area golf courses watched in anticipation of how their respective courses would survive the winter.

Snow had remained on the ground from November into March then had melted and stayed away, rather than a melt-freeze-ice scenario that can damage delicate golf course greens.

The winter may have seemed long for linksters looking to pull out their driver but the snow cover and melt was perfect for conditions, and across the board this season, local golf courses opened in excellent condition.

And while that’s good for the golfer and for the courses, the golf industry is still looking to rebound from a downturn that began in 2008. New partnerships are being formed and facilities are working together to increase the number of people playing golf in Kelowna.

“The good news is the golf courses around the valley wintered well and we’ve got the best conditions we’ve had in 10 years,” said Dan Matheson, general manager at the Okanagan Golf Club, which features the Quail and Bear Courses as well as Gallagher’s Canyon. “In the last two years there is a feeling amongst most of the golf courses that there has been a leveling off of the downward trend which gives us reason for optimism. We’re hoping we are about to enter a new phase in golf.”

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What’s clear about this phase of golf in the Okanagan is that golf courses in Kelowna and area are working together to grow the game. The most successful and longest running partnership between independently-owned courses is the Play Golf Kelowna (www.playgolfkelowna.com) partnership where golfers can purchase a value card that can be redeemed at Kelowna Springs, Sunset Ranch, Shadow Ridge, Shannon Lake and Two Eagles as well as three different driving ranges.

It’s a partnership that began in 1999 with three courses and earned about $58,000 and has seen huge growth up to last year when $1.5 million in green fees was split between the different facilities.

And the success of the program has led to other partnerships in the Kelowna golf industry. Twelve courses are into the third year of a program being run by Tourism Kelowna called Golf Kelowna, which is marketing the area as a destination for golf, hoping to attract tourists to the area and providing information and a general booking system for the local golf courses.

“I think that is the direction we had to go in,” said Matheson. “Golf Kelowna is doing as much as they can to enhance the golf climate in the Okanagan. The entire golf community has to work together to get more golfers out.”

And it seems to be working. So far in 2013 bookings through www.golfkelowna.com are up 36.3 per cent over the same time in 2012. Golf Kelowna is reporting a much higher volume of information requests and quote requests from tourist golfers with the Alberta market leading the way early in the season with many golf courses in Edmonton and Calgary yet to open.

“The last few years with this Golf Kelowna partnership we have been making steady gains,” said Catherine Frechette, communications manager at Tourism Kelowna. “But we have been coming out of the recession. We are still in that situation where we have an economic factor as part of people’s travel decisions. We’re still trying to build people’s trust in the product Kelowna has to offer.”

Kelowna Springs general manager Ian Robertson, who sits on the board of Tourism Kelowna and who started the Play Golf Kelowna program, says the Golf Kelowna partnership is extremely important to the area.

“It’s very important that it survive,” he said. “The irony is the timing was not ideal. We started putting this program together three years ago so we were trying to ramp up a successful program in a down market. In hindsight, if we had that program started in 2006, we would be in a better position. But we’re here and we’re doing it now. The more people coming into Kelowna and golfing, the better for everybody.”

Ironically Robertson’s Play Golf Kelowna partnership used to be called Golf Kelowna. When the group added Two Eagles and Sunset Ranch three years ago it changed its name to Play Golf Kelowna and sold the domain name of www.golfkelowna.com to Tourism Kelowna for one dollar. Robertson’s group also no longer markets its program outside of Kelowna, leaving the regional, national and international marketing to Tourism Kelowna.

Robertson routinely speaks at golf conference’s across the province and country about the success of Play Golf Kelowna and says those in the industry are usually amazed it has worked.

“I’ve had several calls from as far away as Colorado and across Canada from people that have caught wind of what we do,” he said. “Some areas have tried it without success. Our success comes from trust. We are five independently owned golf courses and we get along and stick together. We’ve built a legitimate brand and we’ve sustained it for all these years.”

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During this off season, golf managers from the Okanagan Golf Club, Tower Ranch, the Harvest, Black Mountain and Gallagher’s sat down to discuss another partnership.

The topic of conversation was the future of the game of golf, specifically junior golfers and the general lack thereof.

Tower Ranch general manager Neil Schmidt was one of the guys around the table. Born and raised in Kelowna, Schmidt remembers the days when he would kill an entire day at the golf course as a junior player, hitting range balls, playing a round, hitting some more balls and heading home.

In this modern era of video games, ipods and electronics, those days seem gone forever. But it didn’t stop the five facilities from starting a new program aimed at junior golfers. Called Grow Through Golf (www.growthroughgolf.com) golfers aged 12 to 18 can purchase a membership that allows them to play at any of the facilities.

“We haven’t promoted junior golf enough,” said Schmidt. “Most courses are cart mandatory so it makes it tougher for juniors to play. Back when I was a junior the country club had 250 juniors and there was a waiting list. I just think there is so much more to do now. You have lacrosse, baseball, soccer, spring hockey, you have so many more things for kids to do that I think golf has suffered.”

At Black Mountain, general manager Eric Thorsteinson agrees and adds there is going to be some large issues for golf courses in the future if they don’t start working to increase the number of junior players.

“The five of us sat down talking about doing things together not only to grow the game but to grow our business,” said Thorsteinson. “What we found was that we had less then 40 junior members combined. We thought ‘this is ridiculous. How do we get this generation playing golf more?'”

The Grow Through Golf program will hold clinics at each of the five facilities and is sponsoring two players from the Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs, all in an effort to grow the game.

“We’re really excited because it’s based on grassroots,” said Thorsteinson. “If the game is going to grow and if we are going to grow our businesses we are going to have to do it at the grassroots level. We have to spend time to make sure it’s successful.”

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Whatever the recipe for success is for the golf industry in Kelowna and area, the one thing that is for certain is that the golf consumer is well served in Kelowna. There are more men’s and ladies nights being introduced at various clubs like at Black Mountain, which added a membership-driven ladies night and already has 40 new players signed up. League’s that cater to non-traditional golfers such as the Okanagan Golf Club’s Monday Molson Tour—which has grown from 30 players in its first year to close to 100 in its fourth—are another area of growth and a way for recreational golfers to get out and enjoy the game. There are mid-week and twighlight deals on green fees like at Tower Ranch where Tuesdays and Wednesdays have become popular with players. And much like the successful Play Golf Kelowna model there are more loyalty cards coming out all the time.

“It’s about drawing out the non-traditional golfers,” said Matheson at the OGC. “If things are fun, people will come out and play.”

“Back in the day there wasn’t the variety there is now,” added Schmidt. “There is more competition but it’s better for the consumer. There are a lot of golf options. It’s not realistic to expect someone to play the same course seven days a week when you have so many to choose from.”

“I think this area is tremendous for golf,” said Robertson. “We have one of the longest golfing seasons in Canada and the concentration of golf courses is unique. There is so much in town that is attractive to the consumer.”