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How Golf is on the Upswing

Golf has always been a major part of Edmonton’s community building. How is it changing to keep up with a changing city?

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In 2014, golf brought an estimated $2.88 billion dollars into Alberta. It was just as the price of oil was falling and, since then, the sport has not been exempt to Alberta’s economic struggles. The sport, however, and its many clubs in the Edmonton region, have fared better than many other similar businesses. For the people in the industry this didn’t come as much of a surprise, because of the special place golf holds in the hearts of Edmontonians.

“Golf is a significant outdoor activity in the area,” says Renée Williams, director of international market development for Edmonton Tourism. “We have stunning courses right in the heart of the river valley and expansive ones on the outskirts. They are all unique in their makeup and design. Local golf enthusiasts and tourists have plenty of options and experiences throughout the area.”

One reason locals love the sport may be because they know time on the links is a rare commodity, with a season that lasts much, much shorter than most in the nation. The variety of golf experiences certainly helps, especially as Edmonton boasts an unusually high number of courses for its population, but the main reason for the love of golf may be, curiously, the winter.

“I think when you live in a city that has snow on the ground for six or seven months of the year, you look forward to doing something outside,” says Jason Hnatiw, head golf professional at Windermere Golf & Country Club. “In some cases, golf can be affected by the economy. I’ve been in the industry for 18 years and you see things ebb and flow a little bit, but we are fortunate that we have seen minimal effect to this point.”

Jim Hope, general manager and COO of The Derrick Golf & Winter Club, agrees, saying that weather especially gets people looking forward to the next season. “We’re cooped up a lot in the wintertime,” he says. “So, when we get an opportunity to spend three-and-a-half or four hours walking some pristine land with some friends, laughing and giggling and having a beer, I think we enjoy it.”

That social sense, the meeting up with friends and enjoying the outdoors, is key to golf’s success in any region. Since its very early days, the sport has been associated with community, and Edmonton’s golf scene has plenty of close-knit clubs.

“Golf builds communities,” Hnatiw says. “The membership here at the Windermere is a big family. There are so many members here that became friends. Over time, they move into the same areas and even travel together. That sense of community is a major part of why people join a private club and a big reason why our members stay with us.”

As the economy changes in Edmonton, however, clubs both public and private have had to adapt to keep their communities thriving. Whereas clubs could be a place to talk business on the weekdays and retreat to on the weekends, today’s clubs are thinking about how to keep up with the times.

“The days of dad playing a round on a Sunday and staying at the clubhouse until the evening playing cards are over,” says Hope. “Today, we offer a full family experience. Our median new member today is 38 with two kids. They have to be able to make a day of coming to the club and bringing the whole family. That’s what we’ve created here for our members.”

In response to the changing demands of its members, The Derrick has also changed, offering year-round experiences for the entire family. Activities include an indoor pool, a gym, an indoor golf practice area and more. By offering year-round activities, The Derrick helps curate that sense of community that is integral to golf in general. “By being a year-round club and offering activities for the whole family, we’ve strengthened that sense of community here,” says Hope.

Creating that sense of community for its members is key to Windermere’s success as well. The course itself is hailed as one of the best in the area and the venue is highly sought after for weddings and celebrations. Investing in the community is part of the course’s success and long-term strategy.

“The community is an important part of the future of this golf course,” Hnatiw says. “We are in a strong position, membership-wise, and I truly believe that is because of the community that has built up around us.”

Like The Derrick, Windermere is seeing a change in their membership, with an increase in young professionals and families. The club has grown its practice facilities and junior programs as a way to foster that community and invest in its future.

“We have a great juniors program and the best practice facility in Edmonton,” says Hnatiw. “We’re catering to existing members and the future members as well, including the next generation of golfers.”

As courses like Windermere and The Derrick adapt to meet new expectations and demographics, the City of Edmonton is changing how people find golf activities with the introduction of U-Trip, an artificial intelligence-based online system that helps people plan their visit to the city.

“U-Trip uses AI to build customized itineraries based on when you arrive, your interests and the kind of traveler that you are,” Williams explains. “So, if you are a golf lover, you can get a list of all the golf options in the city and plan a trip.”

U-trip was designed by Edmonton Tourism with people coming to the city in mind, but locals are using it to discover new activities as well. It can also be a useful tool for people getting clients into the city. Golf, after all, remains the sport of wooing clients.

“A round of golf gives you a guaranteed three or four hours alone with your client enjoying some weather and some friendly competition,” Hope says. “There really isn’t anything else like it. With a round of golf, especially at a private club, you have the chance to give a client a unique experience and keep their attention for a few hours.”

Although the sport has had to change to meet new demands, both in price point and in service, golf not only survives in Edmonton, but thrives. Even if its budgets are a little tighter, Edmonton’s love for the game is stronger than ever.

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