Local Upswing


Golf Gains Ground as It Plays To Captive Washington Fans

Tennis has, for years, been coach Kathy Kemper’s job, whether it has involved teaching Georgetown University undergraduates or members of the Senate.

Her self-described passion, though, is golf. The Washingtonian took up the game on a lark a few years ago and can now be found chipping and putting at every free opportunity. In between, the well-known coach started up the Institute for Education, which promotes civility and leadership in politics, business and the media. It also spends time taking ambassadors and federal government honchos around the most glorious greens in the area to share insights on how to behave more sportsmanlike, so to speak, in the professional arena.

Golf has been gaining speed among Washington’s elite and well connected, and is often seen as a means to mingle while discovering a new past time, in Kemper’s assessment.

“It’s a way to be outside. Most don’t care at all what the weather’s like; they’re just happy to be away,” she said. “They like the camaraderie of spending four or five hours with people who are important for them to know in an environment that is not forced like a cocktail party.”

For years, members of the city’s political, diplomatic and business communities have made golf a part of their busy routines, making the sport a thriving venture for local entrepreneurs. Programs like Kemper’s are why those in the industry told The Washington Diplomat that despite nationwide trends to the contrary and a crippled economy, the sport is, in most regards, on the upswing in the metropolitan region.

There are no official counts on the number of golf players in the Washington area. But across the country, there were nearly 30 million golfers in the United States ages 6 and up in 2007, according to a survey by the National Golf Foundation. But the group also found that the total number of people who play golf has declined or stayed flat since 2000, with close to 4 million fewer people now playing than at the start of the decade.

Not so in the nation’s capital and its suburban surroundings, say area course managers.

Michael Williams, marketing director for Golf Course Specialists, Inc., which runs three public courses in D.C. and one for the government in Fredericksburg, Va., said that the game is as popular as ever among clientele.

East Potomac, an 18-hole championship-style course, generally sees the most rounds played among Williams’s courses, with Langston and Rock Creek following just behind. All three have an ongoing rewards program that doles out prizes for play. Currently, not even a year into the program’s start, the courses have well over 2,000 members involved who have received more than 1 million points in rewards for items like golf apparel.

“Satisfaction across the board has been very high,” Williams said.

Golf Course Specialists has also made strides to expand game participation among nontraditional demographics such as women and youngsters through special features like “Take your Daughter to the Course Week” and military month. The idea is to embody the spirit that the game is for everyone and in many cases, to make it more affordable through discounts and lowered green fees.

For school-age children, there is a local version of First Tee, a program that provides instruction and financial assistance to help bring in new blood to the sport early on. Meanwhile, for adults there’s an instruction program that lets them get “golf ready” in five days for less than 0 with loaned clubs included. Williams said the deal is designed to help participants save money during this tumultuous economic period. Similarly, the month of May marked Play Golf America Day, which Golf Specialists celebrated with free clinics and a host of other activities.

“Golf is a sport that relies on people playing versus people watching,” Williams explained. “And if you can get them playing by helping them make a connection, you can keep them playing for life.”

Golf’s popularity locally has also been boosted by the sport’s biggest name, Tiger Woods, who started the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. In late April, Woods announced that not only would the prestigious event stay in Montgomery County this year, but that he’d be returning to play after skipping the previous year. Expectations are naturally high for this year’s turnout over the July 4th weekend, as well as the residual effect of inspiring local Tiger fans to become players themselves.

Another big name, this time in the real estate world, mogul Donald Trump announced in April that he’d purchased a golf course in Virginia’s Loudoun County and would rename the riverfront property Trump National Golf Club. Trump, in discussing the deal, spoke of Washington being the center of power, which is why he snatched up the property.

Bob Swiger, general manager and part owner of Raspberry Falls Golf and Hunt Club in Leesburg and Old Hickory Golf Club in Woodbridge, both in Virginia, said he expects Trump’s new course to spur new interest in golf around the area.

“He made a good purchase in a down economy,” Swiger said. “It will definitely draw even more attention to Northern Virginia in the world of golf.”

The Washington region also boasts the highest number of high-powered government officials and federal contractors, many of whom can often be found on the links trying to escape the daily bureaucratic grind. Williams, for one, counts Foreign Service officers and U.S. government representatives as players on his D.C. courses.

Swiger said he gets some business from private companies that contract with the government or are in well-connected social circles. Overall, he said his two courses — Raspberry Falls, designed by Gary Player, and Old Hickory — have been thriving, save for the murky weather early this spring.

“If it’s not raining, we’ve got golfers,” he told The Washington Diplomat, explaining that April business took a bit of a hit because of widespread storms. “If the sun is shining, there’s a pent-up demand to get out of the house. With the added pressure of the economy, people have got to have something to get rid of stress. Golf’s a good release.”

Still, the tough economic times have clearly taken their toll. Swiger said one impact of the nation’s financial crisis is that he’s welcoming more families that had previously been members of pricier private clubs. “They’re not rejoining [those clubs], and they’re saying that it’s cheaper to play here rather than pay monthly dues,” he said.

Echoing Williams’ sentiment about hooking players when they’re young, another key to survival and ultimately growth for the industry will be enticing a new generation of golfers.

This past year, Raspberry Falls started a golf academy to cater to the growing group of newcomers eager to learn about the sport, Swiger said, noting that the club also hired a well-known instructor, Pat Maguire, to help players improve their skills.

Interestingly, so far the largest increase has been among young girls wanting to take a swing at the game. “We’re probably seeing more young girls than young women,” Swiger noted. “There’s been an especially big interest from the high school-age crowd, which is encouraging.”

That’s hardly the typical face of golf. But then again, the shift may reflect the sport’s evolving and enduring appeal, which in turn may signal greener pastures ahead.

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.