Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.
We’ve all sung that song at least once, hoping our chants would part the clouds and allow for fun outdoor activities. Like golf.
Persistent rain dampened the golf course business last year, which saw total rounds played fall by 1.8% vs. 2007, the biggest decline in play since the 2002 recession, according to Golf Inc./Datatech.
While we don’t know the full impact the current deep recession will have on rounds played in 2009, we have a clue: December 2008 rounds were off a massive 6.8% year-over-year.
No one’s saying it publicly, but 2009 is shaping up to be an ugly one for the golf world. Private courses are having trouble retaining members, let alone attracting new blood, and public courses privately owned as well as muni tracks face a drop in play. Some courses are taking drastic action to entice golfers by slashing green and cart fees, a move a few experts suggest is well overdue anyway, as the cost of a round of golf has moved out of the reach of casual players. But that’s another story.
For the tire industry, reduced rounds and struggling courses mean fewer outlets for golf course cart and maintenance equipment tires. After all, fewer rounds mean less wear and tear on cart tires and wheels and fewer new carts sold, and aside from needed cuttings and must-do work, course maintenance may also decrease.
“Replacement tires are still necessary but, as fewer units are in use, the demand for golf tires will decrease,” said Brian Preheim of Carlisle Tire & Wheel Co.
Hank Chang, manager of marketing and product for Kenda USA, concurs. “Golf car vehicle production is down and with Kenda being the preferred tire on over 65% of the golf cars at the OEM level, it has impacted our sales. We hope that our presence at the OE level and with the development of radial cart tires will translate into additional aftermarket sales for the coming season.”
That’s right. Chang said “radial.” That’s probably the biggest technological change this segment has seen in decades. And they came about because golf carts are not just for golf course use, Chang said.
“Golf carts are being used more and more as personal transport vehicles in golf and retirement communities,” he pointed out. “They are being used on paved surfaces, so the ride characteristics of the cart are becoming a real issue to the owners.
“Much of the ride characteristics on a golf cart are determined by the standard bias 18×850-8 tire, which was primarily built for turf use. We saw the need for a tire specifically designed for golf/retirement communities, where a smooth ride and long tire life have become paramount. We developed a true radial and low profile tire in sizes of 205/50R10 and 205/35R12, which correlates to the same cubic space as the 18×850-8. The Kenda Pro Tour radial tire has a ‘highway’-style tread pattern and has been well received in the market to the point that it is now being offered as optional equipment by some of the OEMs.”
While new radial technology gives dealers another way to approach the golf course market, it’s the tried-and-true “blocking and tackling” of products and timely, complete service that will keep tire dealers in the game.
“Dealers really need to focus on product availability and service,” said Carlisle’s Preheim. “Carry the tires that offer the best puncture resistance, turf preservation and stability.”
“Choosing golf cart tires and wheels is no different than choosing automotive tires and wheels,” suggested Chang. “OE replacement is a key to the aftermarket because it has been tested and approved by the golf cart makers. The reliable quality is what customers are looking for. People play golf during the weekend to relax and have fun. Golf courses do not want tires and wheels to have problems or cause an uncomfortable ride to ruin their customer’s enjoyment.”
From the customer’s point of view that is, the golf course operator tires and wheels are not their primary business. Courses sell fun, as Chang said, and operators and players alike don’t want anything to interfere with that premise.
“The three key things golf course tire buyers look for are price, durability and aesthetics for the cost savings,” he said.
Preheim has a similar take. “Initially, the key attributes are puncture resistance to eliminate downtime and inconvenience, turf preservation to protect the course, and handling for golf cart stability. Then, of course, if a flat were to occur, product availability and service become important.”
This is where the dealer comes into play, so to speak. Servicing golf course accounts is not an equipment intensive proposition, unlike, say, deciding to enter the giant OTR tire business. But it is a matter of having the right products tires and wheels available, and delivering needed tire service quickly and efficiently.
A lot of the tire and wheel availability issue can be addressed up front by working closely with the course operator’s maintenance team to determine the desired tires and a forecast of how many will be needed, based on past history. If a large number of tires and wheels need to be changed out at one time, then it is a matter of scheduling service for the course’s off hours. Setting up a regular service schedule to check tire wear, inflation pressures and to spot any damage issues should also be part of the game plan.
If you want to do more than settle for par in this segment, plan on outfitting a service vehicle with the necessary tools and equipment to handle tire and wheel replacements and service.
Wheels are an important part of the equation in the golf course tire segment. Whether it’s a golf cart or a piece of maintenance equipment, wheels can get dinged. It is usually best to simply replace them rather than trying to do a field repair.
“Wheels don’t need replacement nearly as often as tires,” said Preheim. “Dealers should manage wheel inventory accordingly or just carry tires and complete tire/wheel assemblies.”
“Obviously, wheels do not wear as fast as tires,” said Kenda’s Chang. “Most of the time a customer will either need tires only or a complete tire/wheel assembly.”
Some course operators still prefer to handle their own tires and wheels, and only want to have the dealer serve as the supply of new tires or tire/wheel assemblies. “In many cases, the customer will purchase the complete assembly in place of a tire only or a wheel only so that he doesn’t go through the labor of taking the old tire off the wheel and installing the new, which is not an easy thing to do unless you have the proper equipment,” Chang said.
Dealers who are serious about building a profitable golf tire business will want to sell course operators on the value of their services, focusing on expertise, timeliness and cost. After all, having a tire professional handle the service side makes more sense and dollars and cents than leaving it to an overworked maintenance crew who is juggling countless vehicle upkeep issues.
Just as the economy will surely get better, so too will the golf industry. Preheim feels “certain international markets have the most growth potential,” and that “our domestic markets will likely remain flat or down in the near term.”
“The market will follow other industries as far as the economy goes,” said Chang. “We all feel that tomorrow will be better and, therefore, demand will be stronger in the future.”