Below Par: Public golf courses continue to close; could the privates be next?

        Golf courses continued to close at historic rates in 2011, according to a recent report released by the National Golf Foundation. In all, since the industry started taking on water in 2006, 358 ½ golf courses have closed, a reduction of 2.4% since the peak year of 2005. (Note: The NGF calculates 9-hole courses as a half course.)

        Golf industry professionals moan about societal issues causing the loss of golf courses, but as the NGF indicates, the growth of golf courses over the last 30 years -– a 30% increase –- has way outpaced

Public golf facilities have suffered the most closures, but private clubs could be next.

the number of new golfers, just 6.5% more. In other words, Darwinian logic more than “golf’s too difficult” or “young people don’t like the game” is at work. It should come as no surprise that, during a recession, a relatively few of the more than 17,000 golf courses in the U.S. would close. NGF CEO Joe Beditz called the recent closures a “slow correction” and long overdue. That may be faint compensation for those who have lost their businesses and their jobs, but it seems to depict accurately the landscape.

        Also, the NGF has released the results of a recent study it undertook to determine public golfers’ behavior during the recession, specifically what approaches they are taking to save money at the golf course. The study found that the most popular ways to save money (indicated by between 43% and 45% of players) were to play in off-peak times, use coupons for green fees (and food) and book discount rounds online. Only 15% said they were buying cheaper golf balls and gloves.

        Most of the golf courses that closed in the last half dozen years are public facilities, many of them nine-hole tracks whose former clientele moved to the more upscale courses down the street when they dropped their green fees significantly during the depths of the recession. As the economy improves, we should see the rate of public golf club closures slow. But we have to wonder if the next golf shoe to drop is among private golf clubs that have slashed their initiation fees to the bone –- some have dropped them altogether -- but haven’t raised their dues enough to pay for higher gas prices and other costs of doing business. Many have trimmed staff as well and, over time, proper course maintenance may be affected. Good economy or bad, club members are not going to tolerate less pristine conditions on their golf course or in their clubhouse, especially if the cost to switch to the better-maintained club down the street is a couple of thousand dollars -– or nothing at all.


        Speaking of higher gas prices, we learned today that Direct Air, which serves every buddy foursome’s favorite destination, Myrtle Beach, SC, from such secondary northeast airports as Plattsburgh, NY and Worcester, MA, has suspended service for almost two months because of excessive fuel costs. The low-priced airline decided that, rather than raise prices, it would take cover for now and wait until fuel costs abate (they hope). They indicated they will consider resuming flights in May.

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