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Online golf bookings are taking hold

Dennis Griffin was talking tee times. Some afternoons, he can slip away for a quick 18 holes. "The sweet spot in Brigantine for me is around 1 in the afternoon, when you have a 60 percent savings," the long-term-care insurance salesman said.

©iStockphoto.com / lujing
©iStockphoto.com / lujingRead more(stock photo)

Dennis Griffin was talking tee times. Some afternoons, he can slip away for a quick 18 holes.

"The sweet spot in Brigantine for me is around 1 in the afternoon, when you have a 60 percent savings," the long-term-care insurance salesman said.

At his Little Egg Harbor home, Griffin, 60, logged on to the website for Comcast Corp.-owned GolfNow and browsed tee times for that day at Brigantine Golf Links, about 40 minutes away.

He read off the possibilities: a 2 o'clock for $46.48; a slot at 1:52 for $35.98. Griffin finally got to a 12:56 slot for $30 - more than 50 percent off Brigantine's full price. "Now I'm giving away all my secrets," he said.

Comcast, as part of a business diversification at its 24-hour Golf Channel network, is attempting to do for golf what Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline did for travel: take the reservations systems online, so that golfers can comparison shop.

With operations in the United States, Canada, Wales, Britain, Scotland and Ireland, GolfNow (www.golfnow.com) expects to book 15 million rounds at 9,000 courses this year, and it expects big growth in coming years as younger generations of golfers conversant with technology and mobile apps flood the links, putters and drivers clanging in their golf bags. Though more than 50 percent of hotel and plane reservations are handled online now, only 15 percent to 20 percent of golf bookings are made that way.

"We believe there is a lot of runway," said Jeff Foster, a senior vice president of new media at Golf Channel.

But Comcast's welcome to the industry hasn't been an altogether warm one. Some golf course operators fear that the disruptive online technology and GolfNow's daily "hot deals" could lead to price wars.

Discounting "would be attractive to the golfer. But at what cost to the course operator?" asked Jay Karen, who will become CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association on Oct. 1.

At the same time, Karen noted, "one of the pros that GolfNow is bringing to the industry is the marketing muscle of the Golf Channel and NBCUniversal."

Golf Channel promotes the GolfNow website directly to golfers through commercials that also run on Comcast's regional sports networks and NBC. "Don't Be a Golf Dinosaur," the current spots urge viewers, referring to booking tee times the old-fashioned way: by phone.

Karen also believes that GolfNow's easy-to-navigate user interface could prompt golfers to sample different courses - and that, he said, would be good for the industry.

A search of Philadelphia-area tee times on GolfNow listed more than 80 options over 40 minutes early Wednesday afternoon, with prices ranging from $13 for a round at Linfield National Golf Club in Montgomery County to $125 at Edgmont Country Club in Delaware County.

GolfNow's top executives say the goal is to boost golf participation and encourage more rounds, not hurt the game or its operators. One GolfNow study, they say, indicated that golfers who reserved through the service played an additional 14 rounds a year because of its ease and pricing.

Golf Channel launched GolfNow in 2001 and expanded it with an acquisition in 2008. Today, the business employs more than 400 at Golf Channel headquarters in Orlando, Fla. - as many workers as the cable channel itself - and has been growing rapidly. A video screen there tracks in real time the tee-time reservations made online.

GolfNow earns bookings fees for the online reservations - $2.50 a golfer. The projected 15 million rounds this year will be booked directly through GolfNow's website or through search engines at local golf courses powered by GolfNow.

In addition, golf course owners relinquish one or two tee times a day to GolfNow as barter payment for being part of the online reservation system. GolfNow discounts these tee times and markets them as its daily "hot deals" so that they sell. The 12:56 p.m. tee time at Brigantine Golf Links for $30, for instance, was the slot GolfNow controls through the barter-payment system and prices as a hot deal.

Golf Channel's Foster said there was an "overabundance of tee times in the late afternoon and [golf course operators] were willing to trade for them. There is no exchange of payment, so there is no exchange of invoices. We call it seamless."

GolfNow is considered the largest of the online tee-time reservation systems, but it faces competition. One rival, Golf Pipeline, says it stays away from discounting and instead collects a 5 percent to 10 percent commission on tee times booked on its online system.

"This pushes back against all of the business models prevalent today that deal in Groupons, coupons, deals, and discounted barter times, and is something the courses have been requesting for 10 years," Scott Merchant, founder and sales director at Golf Pipeline, said in an emailed statement.

Nathan Robbins, general manager of the city-owned Brigantine Golf Links, is a fan of GolfNow, though he noted that many in the industry consider it a "necessary evil." Golf course operators would have to invest tens of thousands of dollars, or more, into developing their own technology for booking online tee times, while with GolfNow they can barter for the service.

In the last five years, more U.S. golf courses closed than new ones opened, which was a welcome "market correction," Robbins said.

"Golf is very addictive. So if a golf course closes, the golfers there won't quit the game. They will find another course," he said.

At the same time, the number of U.S. golfers seems to have stabilized at about 25 million, he said.

Robbins believes that surviving golf courses should thrive within a few years because of an equilibrium of golf courses and golfers.

"Talk about a perfect marriage," he said of GolfNow and Comcast/NBCUniversal. "It's a pretty good business model."

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