Washington’s golf industry is thriving, but its greatest value might be the deals brokered on the course

Any way you slice it — hopefully on the course, you don’t slice it at all — golf is big business. According to a Golf Economy Report commissioned by several major golf associations, golf was a nearly $70 billion industry in the United States in 2011, with a total economic impact of more than $175 billion. The industry supported nearly 2 million jobs with wages totaling $55.6 billion.

Washington’s golf industry had a total economic impact of $2.5 billion and supported 29,000 jobs in 2007, according to a report commissioned by the Washington Golf Alliance. Current statewide revenue statistics aren’t available, but representatives from local courses say there has been a drop in revenue from pre-recession times. The Puget Sound Golf Association says about 20 courses have shut down since 2008. That year, nearly 80,000 rounds of golf were played at Bellevue Golf Course and Crossroads Par-3, the municipal courses owned by the City of Bellevue. In 2012, just over 62,000 rounds were played at the two courses.

“In 2008, the economy crashed, and activity has been down since then,” says Troy Rodvold, general manager and head professional at Bellevue Golf Course. “And 2014 was one of our worst years because of the weather.”

The mild winter has Rodvold hopeful that 2015 will be a good year, with local companies bringing functions outdoors. He estimates that 80-85 percent of the golf course’s business occurs between March and October, and much of that business comes from after-work leagues hosted by companies such as Microsoft, Univar, Puget Sound Energy, and Expedia. Some companies combine business and pleasure by hosting meetings and tournaments at the course. Last year, for example, MyBuildingPermit.com hosted a 40-person meeting, followed by a 24-player tournament. It has a similar event planned for this summer. MyBuildingPermit.com pays for the meeting, luncheon, and a keynote speaker while the individual players — local building officials and their invitees — pay their green fees.

“The events are a great way for building officials to get together and build relationships,” says Tracy Jones, executive director for eCityGov Alliance, which provides the MyBuildingPermit.com service. “A huge part of what we do is learn best practices from other jurisdictions, and this event is a great way to facilitate that.”

Summer, of course, also is the busiest time at the Tournament Players Course at Snoqualmie Ridge. Director of golf James Hochrine says some 200 rounds are played each day from May through October, while one-tenth of that total is played daily the rest of the year. But Snoqualmie Ridge’s membership-based revenue is steady throughout the year, making its business far less volatile than public courses.

Snoqualmie Ridge is the only Jack Nicklaus-designed course in the Pacific Northwest, making it particularly popular. Boeing, IBM, Microsoft, and Costco employees, as well as Bill Gates, frequent Snoqualmie Ridge, Hochrine says, and he has seen million-dollar deals closed on the course.

Hochrine tells the story of one member who golfs daily and owns a business that supplies power to recharging stations for electric cars. On the course one day, the business owner met another Snoqualmie Ridge member who works in the grocery industry and wanted to help his chain get charging stations. Three million dollars later, the deal was done — and it all began on the golf course.

“There is time between shots to talk, and it’s a more relaxed atmosphere (than a traditional meeting setting),” Hochrine says. “The sky’s the limit. It is a great sport that brings people of all walks together.”

Jordan Flowers (left) tees off at Redmond Ridge with Casey Oiness and Lance Knaevelsrud. Flowers uses golf to build relationships with clients and agents.

Jordan Flowers (left) tees off at Redmond Ridge with Casey Oiness and Lance Knaevelsrud. Flowers uses golf to build relationships with clients and agents.

Hochrine, who once taught a golf-networking class at Arizona State University, believes the sport is a method of learning more about someone’s personality. He uses it when interviewing job candidates. If a candidate throws a club or slams it on the ground during a round, he or she probably is a hothead who doesn’t adapt to sudden change. Or take someone who follows a great hole with a sliced tee shot on the next hole. Does that person regroup? If so, Hochrine might have a team leader on his hands. A round of golf helps Hochrine discover who’s detail-oriented, who’s creative (without cheating), and who can work in flexible conditions. If someone’s personality is hard to read, take that person out on the golf course.

“You can figure out their personalities in a heartbeat,” Hochrine says.

David Hein, vice president of sales for Oki Golf, is looking forward to the summer season, when Oki’s eight properties — six public and two private — are in full swing.

“We’re doing well now because the spring has been so nice, but a wet fall can trump a dry spring, so we’re not out of the woods yet,” Hein says.

Though weather is a big factor in the popularity of golf, it isn’t the only factor, Hein says. Gas prices, the economy, the success of the Mariners’ season, and the preceding ski season also have an impact.

“Anything that impacts a customer’s disposable income impacts our business,” he says.

The Golf Club at Newcastle, one of Oki’s properties, attracts many business golfers for meetings, events, and regular play. Hein wouldn’t share names, but he says one large Seattle company hosts tournaments twice a year. The company sometimes subsidizes the price of golf for its employees and gives out prizes donated by its vendors. Another group of executives meets at the driving range on the same day every week. While hitting balls, they talk business.

Hein himself uses golf as an incentive for his sales team. When the team hits its goal, he gives them a day of golf, including lunch, at any of the Oki properties. He says the best part of bringing clients and employees out to golf is getting their undivided attention. Golfers have the ability, for four or five hours, to weave professional topics into personal conversation. People get the opportunity to get out of the office and outdoors, and discussions can be more casual and free-flowing.

“Business in the boardroom doesn’t always work,” Hein says.

Eastside professionals like Jordan Flowers, branch manager at Guild Mortgage in Kirkland, use the sport as a business-development tool. Flowers says golf helps him cultivate relationships with clients and recruit new loan officers. Because of industry regulations, Flowers can’t treat a client to golf or reward real estate agents for leads, but he can get to know them better, which could yield referrals.

“Golf is a great way to get in front of potential recruits and partners to see who they are as people,” says Flowers.

About a year ago, the mortgage broker met several agents and hit it off with one in particular. The golf-related pictures on the agent’s wall let Flowers know he and the agent shared a common interest. They eventually went golfing together, cemented their relationship, and now refer business back and forth to one another.

Flowers also participates in and sponsors local golf tournaments to meet potential customers and partners. Last year, his previous company sponsored three tournaments — two for the Master Builders Association and one for Seattle Mortgage Bankers Association. His former team spent about $1,000 to sponsor a hole and took the afternoon off to network. This year, Flowers purchased advertising space on the scorecard at Willows Run Golf Club in Redmond.

“My face will be in front of every golfer that plays the course and keeps score,” Flowers says.

Cheri Brennan takes a swing at Bellevue Golf Course. Brennan is a member of the local chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association, which teaches women to use golf for professional development.

Cheri Brennan takes a swing at Bellevue Golf Course. Brennan is a member of the local chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association, which teaches women to use golf for professional development.

Willows Run is one of Flowers’ favorite Eastside courses, along with Aldarra Golf Club and Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, The Golf Club at Newcastle, and Snoqualmie Ridge. During the summer, Flowers golfs about twice a month for business purposes.

“I’m a true believer in the old adage of golf that you can tell everything you need to know about somebody by the way they play the game,” Flowers says. “You can see a person’s character and ethics. You know if they’re cheating on strokes, they’re going to cheat in life.”

Mike Reph, account executive for Parker, Smith & Feek, a commercial insurance brokerage firm in Bellevue, uses golf to solidify relationships with prospects. In March, Reph took to the course with the CFO of a local pediatricians group, and he recently signed a deal with a food distributor from Seattle after a round of golf.

“For those who don’t know you, it is a way to differentiate yourself,” says Reph. “Golf fills the gap between prospect and client. Typically, you are on a course for four-and-a-half hours, so you have a lot of one-on-one time, particularly if you are riding in a cart together. You have personal time to chat and professional time to talk about your organizations.”

Reph also partners with local accounting firms, including Moss Adams, Clark Nuber, and CliftonLarsonAllen. Reph and a CPA each will bring a contact to the course to make a foursome. Like Flowers, Reph golfs about twice a month from April to October, and he participates in his firm’s annual tournament at The Golf Club at Newcastle, where it hosts 150 clients and prospects.

Fewer women use golf as a business tool, but one local organization — the Seattle chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association — promotes golf as a professional tool for women in business. Cheri Brennan, owner of Alliance Communications in Bellevue, is a member of EWGA and the Northwest Golf Media Association. “Women need to overcome the fear of not being good enough. Even non-golfers and beginners can contribute to a scramble team for a business outing or charity tournament by being a good putter,” Brennan says.

Mary Herlin, EWGA Seattle’s president, says women need to be comfortable on the golf course before golf can become an effective tool for business, so the EWGA focuses on fundamentals.

“You don’t have to be good, but you have to be comfortable with the basics of the game — rules, etiquette, skills — first,” she says.

Whether you work in aerospace, real estate, health care, or tech, golf can be used for everything from networking and relationship building to employee appreciation and deal making. It’s a method of combining mutual interests with prospects, clients, and colleagues, and it takes business out of the boardroom and onto beautiful Pacific Northwest courses.