This isn’t a market that equipment dealers just “jump” into. It takes focused marketing efforts and an “insider’s” connection to gain a foothold.

With more than 13,000 active golf courses in the U.S., the market for specialized grounds maintenance equipment can be lucrative. It can also be as fickle as the consumer market segment that’s highly dependent on discretionary income. It’s not a market that a dealership can dabble in, says Scott Martinez, commercial products sales manager for Arizona Machinery. “You’ve got to jump in with both feet.”

But even if a dealer puts both feet, his legs and back into the effort, this market just isn’t for everyone, says Jeff Hedge of Birkey’s Farm Stores. This dealership group operates 11 Case IH ag equipment dealerships and four Case construction equipment locations throughout central and northern Illinois.

According to Hedge, Jacobsen, one of the three major manufacturers of golf course maintenance equipment, approached Birkey’s about representing them throughout the dealership’s sales territory. “At the time, we thought it might be a good addition for us. They offered us a pretty good territory that overlapped our Case territory. There weren’t a lot of strings attached and it didn’t require a lot of commitment on the front side to get involved. So it looked like a pretty decent opportunity,” says Hedge.

After pounding the golf market for nearly eight years, Birkey’s exited the market in 2009 at the depths of the economic recession. Hedge says, “My advice to the dealer looking at the golf market would be to research it in-depth before jumping into it. They need to make sure that they’re well connected to golf insiders. Whoever they bring on to work with them or to manage the business in this segment must be tied in closely in this industry.”

Rosztoczy, AA Equipment’s golf equipment sales manager for Arizona, Las Vegas and Southern California, says that the recent recession probably would have wiped out any dealer that relied solely on equipment sales to the golf industry. “It’s always been a very competitive market, but it had been very lucrative for us up until 2009,” he says. “During the boom times of the 1990s and early 2000s, they were building golf courses left and right. But economic turndown hit this industry hard during the past few years. But we’re seeing things improve, but you still wonder if it’s ever going to be as good as it was just a few years ago,” says Rosztoczy.

Specialized Equipment

“Golf courses use very specialized equipment and there’s very little crossover from golf to any other market that farm equipment dealers serve, other than some municipal markets with sports turf to maintain,” says Martinez.

Golf Courses in the U.S.

According to a physical count of the golf courses listed in golf.com, there are nearly 13,250 active golf courses in the U.S. Of these, approximately 27% are private courses that are reserved for members only. The remaining 73% are open to the public.

Nine states have more than 500 courses each, while six states have less than 50 courses.

The biggest states in terms of number of golf courses include Florida (1,076), California (861), Michigan (834), New York (829) and Texas (709). The states with the fewest golf courses include Alaska (18), Rhode Island (31), Wyoming (33), Hawaii (34), Delaware (36) and Vermont (48).

Golf Courses — State-by-State

Alabama 66
Alaska 18
Arizona 280
Arkansas 128
California 861
Colorado 182
Connecticut 137
Delaware 36
Florida 1,076
Georgia 342
Hawaii 34
Idaho 70
Illinois 638
Indiana 280
Iowa 357
Kansas 187
Kentucky 190
Louisiana 158
Maine 111
Maryland 139
Massachusetts 268
Michigan 834
Minnesota 454
Mississippi 112
Missouri 254
Montana 60
Nebraska 142
Nevada 96
New Hampshire 88
New Jersey 266
New Mexico 266
New York 829
North Carolina 466
North Dakota 85
Ohio 683
Oklahoma 145
Oregon 132
Pennsylvania 542
Rhode Island 31
South Carolina 241
South Dakota 81
Tennessee 180
Texas 709
Utah 67
Vermont 48
Virginia 281<
Washington 232
West Virginia 72
Wisconsin 469
Wyoming 33

TOTAL 13,248

Source: Golf.com

He oversees AA Machinery’s John Deere dealerships throughout Southern California and Nevada. AA is a division of Arizona Machinery that owns 21 stores locations in Arizona as well as California and Nevada. It also owns and operates Greenline Equipment with Deere dealerships in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Of the five AA Machinery stores, at least two locations rely on the golf equipment sales for a large portion of their annual revenues.

Some of the unique equipment that Martinez refers to includes greens mowers, fairway mowers and specialized aeration equipment. Golf courses also use sweepers and vacuums. Cemeteries, municipalities and schools also utilize these niche-type products.

“The specialty equipment that really separates golf from other markets for dealers are the reel mowers,” says Martinez. “Other than use on sports turf, reel mowing equipment isn’t found in a whole lot of other markets. From a dealer’s perspective, reel mowers are what make the golf market unique because specialized shop equipment is needed to maintain them, and it takes a separate training for technicians to repair reel mowers.”

What makes reel mowers so different is their blades rotate vertically instead of horizontally like that of the typical lawnmower. They cut against what’s called a bed knife in a scissor-type action. The blades actually swirl, according to Martinez, so as they rotate the grass gets pinched between the bed knife and the rotating reel blade and maintains the height of the cut below one inch.

“In the golf industry, some courses maintain their roughs with rotary, some with reel, but all of them maintain their tees, greens and fairways with reel mowers,” says Martinez. “We have customers mowing greens down to an 80,000th of an inch. It’s more like shaving than it is cutting.”

Martinez, who serves on John Deere’s Dealer Advisory Council for turf products, says he’s seen a lot of misconceptions when it comes to golf course maintenance machinery. “From the outside, it appears to be an extension of the commercial mowing business that so many dealers are familiar with. But it’s not until a dealer really gets into it that they realize how specialized the golf market is. The golf customer has a different set of needs, the equipment has a different requirement in terms of precision and maintenance so it is a much more complicated, more technical business than I think a lot of dealers realize.”

Who Holds the Purse Strings?

Another major challenge for the dealer pursuing the golf equipment market is determining who actually makes the purchasing decisions. Hedge, Rosztoczy and Martinez agree this can be difficult for someone new to the market.

Martinez says purchasing is often a shared responsibility among the general manager, golf course superintendent and the chief mechanic. “It depends on the culture within the course organization,” he says. “With some, those decisions are left solely to the mechanic. In most cases, purchasing is in the hands of the superintendent. But in some instances, the general managers are very involved. So in terms of selling to golf customers, you need to engage all three of them.”

With private golf clubs, where the board of directors is involved, the decision making process can become very bureaucratic, say Hedge.

“It takes a lot of promotion and a lot of face-to-face calls. When we got into this market, we hired a manager and a couple of salesmen who had industry ties as course superintendents,” says Hedge. “It’s a very tight industry; very cliquish.

He explains a lot of private clubs typically have a greens chairman or a board chairman and also a general manager. “You need to get all of those parties lined up and dig through several layers to get everybody on board. It’s a very cumbersome and time-consuming process. From start to finish, our ag and construction equipment business is much quicker selling process,” says Hedge.

Demanding Customers

Rosztoczy works out of AA Equipment’s Escondido, Calif., location where the biggest portion of its revenue comes from golf equipment. He characterizes his golf customers as extremely knowledgeable and highly demanding.

“Our customers are extremely knowledgeable about equipment. They know what works, they know what they want, they know what they don’t want, and they have high expectations. A lot of demands are placed on them in the golf industry, especially the private clubs,” he explains. “Their members can be pretty tough, so they expect a lot from their suppliers.”

Dealer Takeaways
  • Selling golf course equipment can be lucrative but highly dependent on discretionary income.
  • Golf’s specialty equipment requires special tech training.
  • There is little crossover from other equipment dealers sell.
  • “Insider” connections are required to do business with most golf clubs.

He says the salespeople who focus on golf equipment spend “a lot” of time in the field. “With the bigger spending clubs, you’re out there at least monthly, so if things come up you’re on top of it.”

While “insider” connections are imperative in this market, Rosztoczy says there aren’t many customers who will buy product just because you’re their buddy. It’s a market where customers buy one or maybe two machines at a time, and in almost every case, demand a product demo. He says relationships are important, but their decisions comes down to value and “I want the best machine for my property.”

According to Martinez, a fairway mower is about $50,000 these days. This is what filters out a lot of smaller dealers, he says. “You can have a million dollars tied up in a demo fleet. That’s why it’s so hard for smaller dealers to get into and stay in. This is why we so often see dealerships fail in this market. It takes a dedicated sales staff, a dedicated service staff and dedicated demo inventory. All of it is very expensive.”

Not a Lot of Service

Another thing that differentiates the golf industry from agriculture or construction is its aftermarket sales for parts and service tend to be pretty low. Martinez estimates that 90% or more golf courses maintain their equipment themselves. “This makes it difficult for the dealer. There’s practically no service sales in golf equipment.”

Hedge adds, “The parts side is very competitive from the standpoint that a lot of these customers buy their wear items like blades from third party vendors. It’s the OEM parts they buy from the dealer and that’s a pretty decent business. But there’s not as much parts business per se in golf as there is in the ag or the construction business.”

From a service perspective, Hedge says, “Their techs and our techs are totally different, and they do their routine maintenance. We tended to get the warranty side but not the routine maintenance. As a result, it’s difficult to achieve the margins required for the service segment of the business.” Y

Hedge adds that Birkey’s tried selling some golf clubs on maintenance programs where the dealership would send a tech out to service the equipment. “We had a little success with a few of those, but not enough to justify it.”

High Maintenance

Despite the lack of aftermarket sales, Rosztoczy still calls the golf business “high maintenance.”

“It’s demanding. The customers demand a lot and you’ve got to have a good team to handle all the aspects of it. If a customer’s machine is down, you need to have a mechanic that knows how to fix it. You need to have a parts department who can get parts quickly. You need to have a good salesman who has a relationship with the customer. There’s a lot to it.”

Hedge adds that golf customers are just as demanding as Birkey’s other customers. “They expect a lot of demos, which are costly. They feel that they’re entitled to demos, which are costly, even more so than our other businesses.

“The margins were excellent when the golf industry was booming. But when we looked at it from the standpoint of selling a $45,000 piece for a golf course vs. a $300,000 combine or a $250,000 excavator, those golf customers were just as demanding or more so than the customers with those higher dollar pieces. Our service labor rates were always a battle, too. I understand their demands to keep their equipment running during the golf season can be just as important as a farmer’s equipment during planting or harvest. But considering everything else, keeping golf course superintendents happy might be the tougher business.”