The hum of small engines as golfers drive down cart paths is the sound of big business in Augusta.
About 10 percent of the area’s manufacturing workforce is invested in making golf cars and other electric vehicles. Augusta is the corporate headquarters and primary manufacturing home for E-Z-GO and Club Car, the two leaders in golf car production.
In the aftermath of the recession, both companies found ways to make money by making more electric vehicles with purposes other than golf – street-legal variants, utility carts and transportation for outdoorsmen.
With the recession five years in the rearview mirror, the golf business is inching upward.
THE FUNDAMENTALS of golf economics are working against the golf car makers, however. In 2013, there again were more golf course closures in North America than courses opening.
“Its anyone’s guess how long that trend will continue. Its been eight consecutive years. Most of us in the industry would say that the correction is necessary. There is still an oversupply relative to participation and rounds played,” said Kevin Holleran, president of E-Z-GO.
According to data from the National Golf Foundation, there was a net reduction of 143 golf courses last year. That’s 157 courses closing with 14 new ones opening.
Since 2006, there has been a net reduction of 643 courses nationwide. This represents a drop of about 4 percent from the peak year of 2005, the foundation reported.
In terms of supply and demand, there should be another 500 courses on the endangered list.
“In the last 18 months, the golf course operations have been doing better,” said Randy Marquardt, Club Car’s vice president of global marketing. “It is a more stable environment.”
Holleran said the demographics of players is changing, where it seems to be even with new players replacing those leaving the game.
While the game is shrinking in the U.S., it is growing in other parts of the world.
Internationally, there are some golf courses opening, which offsets what is happening in the U.S., Holleran said. The game is growing in Southeast Asia, South America and some pockets in Europe.
“Announcing golf as an Olypmic sport, debuting in 2016, down in Brazil does have excitement,” he said. “The emergence of some course development down in that region is capitalizing on that swell of excitement that comes from the announcement.”
HELPING CUSTOMERS make a competitive advantage to gain business from its competitors is at the core of an idea Club Car has embraced.
“The growth for us in golf won’t be new golf courses,” Marquardt explained. “It is figuring out how you can be a bigger piece of what they do operationally.”
Club Car is concentrating on how technology can play a bigger role in golf course owners’ management tools. About 400 courses in the world use its Visage golf information system, Marquardt said. It underwent a price-model change, allowing more than just the elite golf courses to have the system.
This year, Club Car launched a new version of its Precendent golf car that integrates the car in the communications system via a mounted touch screen. For the golfer, there is course information. For the golf course owner, there is data and control.
“Its a connected car. Its connected to the clubhouse. There will come a day where we can stream live football games on it, advertisements,” said Marc Dufour, Club Car’s president and chief executive officer.
Marquardt said pieces of the system help with maintenance of the car, others with managing pace of play and restricted areas.
E-Z-GO ALSO released a new version of its fleet golf car this year, unveiled at the PGA Show. The company is seeking to increase its market share through a focus on performance and ergonomics.
The TXT has new styling that follows the cues of modern automobiles, a sunroof with handles, and storage for electronic devices.
Holleran said the company is spending money on product development in golf and throughout other business lines, such as a hospitality vehicle also unveiled in February.
Different than previous decades, the company has been rolling out new versions of its vehicles quicker. Holleran said that is the result of having more employees with roots in consumer products.
“People buy what’s new or what’s on sale. With that mindset coming into the E-Z-GO culture, that has snapped some of the golf and commercial folks to attention. You can’t introduce something and go to sleep for five years,” he said.
Holleran said exports are up for its vehicles and the company’s two-year-old joint venture in China has been beneficial.
“There is still benefit to the Augusta community with that joint venture because we still ship a number of kits, components that get assembled over there,” he said.
Holleran said E-Z-GO’s employment is around 1,000 people worldwide.