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The business of golf: New books by Mark Fagan and David Hueber provide insight

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail - book cover
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Mark Fagan's new book on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is a how-to for building a golf tourism destination. (Courtesy of NewSouth Books)

It has been a turbulent year in the golf business. Nike dropped a bombshell when it announced that it was getting out of the golf equipment business to focus on its traditional strength in apparel and shoes. At the same time, Adidas is trying to find a buyer for TaylorMade, and the golf retailer Golfsmith has declared bankruptcy.

A few beacons of hope can be seen shining through this shroud of gloom, though. Acushnet, parent company of Titleist, FootJoy and Pinnacle (to name a few), just went public with a $17/share IPO. Televised golf coverage has expanded tremendously, with NBC/Golf Channel in particular bringing professional and college events to viewers around the world. And let's not forget the world-wide exposure that golf received as an Olympic sport in Rio.

In fact, golf as a sport has been around for several centuries, and odds are good that it will continue to delight and frustrate players of all levels for the foreseeable future. The question central to the health of golf is really about how it can be marketed to successive generations of players effectively enough to keep courses open, equipment companies afloat and pros employed.

Two new books offer some profound insight into the business of golf, with an eye toward building courses and businesses that turn a profit by growing the game.

"The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact"

"The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact" by Mark Fagan is a meticulous account of how the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail -- Alabama's largest tourist attraction by far -- came to be. A chapter is devoted to each of the 11 RTJ Golf Trail sites. From inception to design to the legal and environmental hurdles overcome in development, each chapter is a case study in golf-course development.

Equally impressive is the wealth of information and analysis of how the RTJ Golf Trail has benefited the state of Alabama. Fagan summarizes the profound contribution of golf to the state's finances as follows:

"My book on the history and economic impact of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama details how a public pension fund invested in 26 golf courses and eight associated resort hotels around the state, which led to the construction of 8,300 houses and 5 million square feet of commercial space. The total cost for construction of these courses, hotels, houses and commercial was $4 billion, which had an economic impact of $8 billion. These courses and their promotion have helped increase tourism spending from $3.3 billion in 1990 to $12.6 billion in 2015. The golf courses have an initial economic impact and then a perpetual economic impact as long as they are bringing in travel golfers."

A public pension fund investing in a project that generates profit for the fund? This sounds like something a number of states might consider exploring. (Illinois, are you listening?)

"In the Rough: The Business Game of Golf"

"In the Rough: The Business Game of Golf" was written by David Hueber, whose career includes positions as CEO of the Ben Hogan Company and Ben Hogan Properties, which owned Pebble Beach, and then with Cosmo World Group, the Japanese firm that bought Hogan (and Pebble Beach). During his time with Hogan, Hueber was instrumental in founding the Ben Hogan Tour, which has grown into the Web.com Tour and which now enjoys high-profile television coverage on the Golf Channel.

Hueber's book is fascinating in that it offers an intimate, multifaceted window into the heart of the golf business. From getting drunk with Hogan to boardroom negotiations with Japanese businessmen, Hueber's prose reads almost like a novel, with characters like Hogan, Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Ely Callaway drifting in and out of the scenes. Whereas Fagan lays out a blueprint for how golf can transform the economy of an entire state, Hueber weaves together anecdotes and observations from which lessons can be inferred: how to treat others, how to make golf more enjoyable, how to navigate cultural rifts in an international market, how to balance innovation and tradition.

If I were to teach a course on the golf business, both the Fagan and Hueber books would be required texts. Both of them are honest about the difficulties inherent in the business of golf, which requires copious land and resources on the part of courses and companies, and excess time and money on the part of players.

At the same time, both authors show how golf, and those who wish to make golf their business, can move forward profitably.

As Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein told Forbes in a recent interview, there are 7.5 million "dedicated" golfers in the U.S. who are willing to spend money on golf equipment and travel. Golf has always been a "middle-class game," so common sense says that if you grow the middle class, you grow golf. The unexpected revelation found in these pages is that this works the other way, too: if you grow golf, you grow the middle class.

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In The Rough - book cover

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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