‘We’ve become one of the only options for young people’

In our latest industry spotlight, an interview with the CEO of Youth on Course

As golf emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will conduct a series of Q&As with various leaders about the state of the industry. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Adam Heieck is the CEO of Youth On Course (YOC). YOC now encompasses more than 70,000 participants in 39 U.S. states and Canada through partnerships with nearly 1,400 facilities. YOC programs include subsidized rounds of golf, paid high school internships, caddie academies and college scholarships.

GNH: How have you personally been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?

Heieck: Like most people, trying to adapt to a new way of operating has been challenging but it has also had its rewards. I’ve found my team and I have been spending more time planning for the future of our organization and innovating around how we will continue to solve one of golf’s biggest challenges for bringing and retaining young people in the game. We have been laser-focused on maintaining our core purpose throughout the pandemic and are excited about the ways we’ll grow and enhance our business in the coming months and years.

How has your company with dealing with the situation?

Heieck: Given the differences in federal, state, and local guidelines throughout the country, subsidizing rounds of golf for our members has looked very different in each market in which we operate. While golf courses were closed in some regions, others have remained open for business.

Because of the nature of our program, we’ve become one of the only options available for young people to safely engage with golf. For families, affordable access to play the game has become more critical than ever. We’ve seen a 54% increase in the number rounds played by YOC members and a 44% increase in membership so far this year. We credit that to the fact that school days and social lives look very differently than they did two months ago and there is a certain amount of stress that comes along with that. Golf has emerged as one of the few healthy outdoor activities available for young people to safely participate in, and by offering our members the chance to play at participating courses for $5 or less, they don’t have to worry about the financial burden.

We are continuing to work closely with courses, allied golf association partners and donors to communicate that message and to help more young people find some normalcy on the golf course. Our team hopes to still offer internship and caddie opportunities, if safe to do so, this summer. We’ve been in touch with our generous donors who have continued to champion YOC because they understand the vital role golf and our program play in our members' lives.

GNH: What are your thoughts on how the pandemic has affected the golf industry?

Heieck: Clearly it has been difficult, but as courses have opened, most are seeing a surge in demand. For facilities, resorts, clubs, manufacturers, and youth organizations like ours this has been a unique opportunity to revisit how we impact our customers -- in our case, the young men and women we provide access to opportunities for every day.

We’ve learned a lot about what makes YOC special to our members, why it’s important to golf courses, and why our work is valued by our donors more than ever. Anecdotally, I’m not sure we have ever seen as much communication and collaboration as an industry. It’s been nice to see and hopefully it becomes more commonplace.

GNH: What about the future of the golf industry in this “new normal?”

Heieck: Whether this is the “new normal” or not, we all have a role and responsibility to grow the sport and foster a welcoming environment. COVID-19 has put a premium on technology, like ensuring booking a tee time can be done as easily as possible. That’s a step in the right direction. The industry is adapting and the leading entities in golf have done a good job demonstrating to health officials that the golf course can be a safe environment.

Perhaps this new normal helps change the narrative around golf, that it can be relaxing, fun, welcoming, social, and great exercise. Competition is always fun and engaging, but if the reaction to the most recent matches involving sports’ biggest stars is any indication, people want to consume golf, play golf, and enjoy access to the sport in a recreational way now more than ever.

GNH: What’s your biggest takeaway from undergoing this ordeal?

Heieck: That the ability to adjust on the fly and be creative will always be a necessary skill set for an organization. Having an incredible team and culture is vital to bringing an organization through something like this. Communication and collaboration are more important than they have ever been, and if we continue down that path there are great things in store for golf and the people who play, or may want to play.