The Pirate League has transformed Monday nights at Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, California, where locals gather for a weekly nine-hole team scramble event that’s more about fun and socialization than who actually walks away with prizes at the end of the evening.
In a society where the demands of work and family can put a crimp on free time, some golf courses – like Goat Hill – are turning to “appointment golf” in the way of leagues. For many facilities, it’s proven to be a successful way to fill the tee sheet in off hours while boosting engagement, a feeling of community and camaraderie, and the bottom line.
“It’s very reasonably priced, we have great participation, plus they drink beer,” says Peter Speirs, the General Manager at Goat Hill Park. “It’s definitely worked to bolster our Mondays. Monday went from one of our worst days to sort of the third or fourth-best day of the week.”
The latest NGF research indicates about 13 percent of all golfers play in a league. That breaks down to roughly 3 million league participants across the U.S. – of which approximately 2.5 million are adults.
Goat Hill Park’s Monday night league is unique in that its format also appeals to casual golfers. Overall, approximately 90 percent of league participants categorize themselves as avid golfers, according to the NGF’s engagement segments, while only 9 percent are casual golfers.
Avid golfers indicate golf is a favorite activity and describe themselves as “golf nuts” or say they are “hooked” on golf, whereas Casual golfers are considered more recreational golfers even though 96 percent say they will continue to play in the future.
Adult league play represents a significant upside opportunity for the industry, which has been seeking ways to stimulate participation and deepen engagement.
There are 6.5 million adults who are interested in playing in a league but don’t currently participate. About half of those interested in league play are casual or recreational golfers seeking to capitalize on the social aspects of the game and the opportunity to play more often.
At Raritan Valley Country Club in New Jersey, more than 100 golfers signed up for the men’s league played every other Thursday. It too is a nine-hole league that starts at 5:30 p.m. during the summer months and the bi-weekly competition is typically followed by drinks, cigars and dinner back at the clubhouse, where fire pits were installed on the back patio along with outdoor seating, an 80-inch television and a 50 x 100-foot awning.
“It’s putting something on the calendar and getting guys engaged,” RVCC General Manager Ryan Dionne says of league play. “The leagues are the leagues, but it’s how you tie it together with the other stuff – the camaraderie component.”
Dionne says he’s heard and encountered many instances of facilities attempting to start a league but giving up if it isn’t an immediate success. Raritan Valley also has a women’s league and is gearing up to start its fall league immediately after the conclusion of its summer session.
Those most interested in golf leagues tend to be under the age of 40, with almost 40 percent of participants falling in the 18 to 34 age group.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is that leagues represent a great vehicle to deepen engagement among golfers – younger and older, casual and avid players alike. NGF research finds that league participants play over twice as many rounds (an average of 40 rounds annually) as non-participants (17). While those who compete in leagues make up just 13 percent of all golfers, they account for approximately one quarter of total rounds-played and spend.
On Wednesday nights at The Ranches Golf Club in Eagle Mountain, Utah – about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City – golfers combine a lesson and league play. The cost for a clinic and the nine-hole competition is just $30, while nearby Thanksgiving Point Golf Course runs the same type of league event on Thursday nights.
Converting interest to participation is crucial to capitalizing on opportunity when it comes to leagues. David Emerick, the pro at Goat Hill Park, stumbled on a way to boost involvement when parents dropping their kids off at the course’s PGA Junior League program saw flyers posted about the Pirate League. Rather than leave and find some other way to kill 90 minutes while their kids went through the program, some opted to play themselves.
“We’re trying to promote the family aspect of the game anyway,” says Emerick. “This worked out perfectly.”
The Pirate League was designed to create a fun, no-stress environment and as many as 50 people will turn out late Monday afternoons at Goat Hill Park to play nine holes for just $15 per player, a cost that includes the green fee, a cart and entry for prizes.
The handicaps change every week based on the results of the week before and the winners of each event get a gift certificate from a local tap house. The second-place finishers and low gross winners are given a free round of beer, while the season-long winners get a foursome at Aviara Golf Club outside San Diego. At the end of the day, however, the club’s GM says most of the participants don’t really care about the prizes.
“We find it makes a lot of people’s Mondays,” Speirs says. “They’ve got something to look forward to on the first day of the work week. It’s actually quite a good day for it because most people don’t have much going on Monday – it’s sort of drag-your-butt back to work day.”
For the other 6.5 million adults interested in joining leagues, it might just be the type of recipe that gets them playing a little more often.
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