Golf courses scrambling as participation dwindles

Steve Jurick was a head pro at a few country clubs in the 1990s before becoming executive director of the Miami Valley Golf Association, working on the circuit at a time when business was booming.

Membership numbers were climbing despite hefty initiation fees. And the steady stream of customers meant the pro never had to worry about the course turning a profit.

“Being a club professional up until ’97, if you didn’t have a 5-7 percent increase every year, you were doing a miserable job,” he said. “Our customer service was nothing like it is today. If somebody got (ticked) off and went away, you didn’t worry about it because there was always somebody else there.

“It has definitely shifted from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market. It’s never been a better time to be a golfer, frankly.”

Playing fees have never been more of a bargain, and course options are close to being at an all-time high. But despite those enticements, golfers are still leaving the game in droves.

Time demands, a reduction in disposable income and the challenge of playing the sport proficiently enough to enjoy it have all been cited as reasons for the decline in participation.

And it’s not just a country club problem. Public courses keep slashing greens fees to draw golfers and yet are still having just as much trouble staying in the black.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Jurick said. “There’s nothing that’s going to flip a switch and get us past this.”

Brian Tyra, the pro at Walnut Grove Country Club for 15 years, has seen dramatic fluctuations in his membership. It went from a high of 370 to a low of 240. It’s recently inched above 300 again, but only because of a severe reduction in rates.

The initiation fee, once $9,000, has been eliminated. And golfers can join the course for only $200 a month, plus a $180 quarterly food-and-beverage minimum, as long as they make a one-year commitment.

“Our membership numbers are actually up compared to last three or four years, but rounds are down,” said Tyra, a 1993 University of Dayton grad. “I think the time it takes to fit in a four- or five-hour round, people don’t have it. I don’t know how much I would play if I weren’t in the business, to be honest. Kids are playing select sports, and life is so much busier now than it was when country clubs were thriving.”

A change in tax laws has eliminated the business deduction for country club dues, cutting into course revenue. And the Miami Valley has been hurt by the departure of corporations such as NCR, which took with them many high-paying jobs.

There were 8,831 active country club members in the area in 2006. Last year, there were 5,571. And with a limited pool of players to draw from, courses are cannibalizing others to survive.

“There are only so many private-club members in Dayton to financially pull from,” Tyra said. “The sad thing is we do market to other club’s members. Our membership gets (brochures) in the mail and brings them into me and says, ‘Here’s what NCR’s running. Here’s what the Country Club of the North is running.’ We look at it and talk about it and say, how are we going to counter this offer?”

He added: “It would be one of the worst investments you could possibly make right now, to buy a golf course. I don’t see how you can make money with the prices being cut so far and what it costs these days to maintain a course. That’s not where I’d put my money, sad to say.”

No course spared

Golf participation, meaning the number of people playing at least one round per year, dropped nationally from 30 million in 2005 to 25.7 million in 2011 (the latest year for which figures are available), according to the National Golf Foundation. Area public courses are facing challenges, too.

The Dayton city courses, which include 54 holes at Kitty Hawk, 36 at Community and 18 at Madden, have held up the best. They had a peak year of 180,000 rounds in 2005 but dropped significantly after that. They climbed their way back to 178,000 rounds in 2012, but it took an unusually warm and dry spring to do it.

Springfield has struggled to justify keeping its three city courses open. It had a $170,000 deficit at Snyder Park and 36-hole Reid Park in 2012 and a $175,000 shortfall in 2011.

Those courses are just three of 11 in Clark County, counting the two 18-hole tracts at Locust Hills. Clark has more holes per person than all but two of the 14 counties in the Miami Valley and keeps losing population with every census.

“In our immediate area, the competition — there are so many holes to play in our region compared to what there were 10 or 15 years ago,” said Tim Greiser, the pro at Reid and Snyder. “More than anything, golfers have more options now. They maybe used to play 10 rounds at one of our facilities, but now they’re maybe playing five rounds at one of them and five at one of our competitors. It’s just reality.”

Joe Brannon of the Hamilton city golf courses, Potter Park and Twin Run, said they’ve been hurt by two nearby layouts, Waldon Ponds and Indian Ridge, both built in the late 1990s.

“We used to do 300 rounds on a weekend,” he said. “Now we’re lucky if we do 120.

“It’s all about the economy. We try to be competitive with our prices. We’re probably lower than our competition in our area. … But a lot of people just don’t have the money anymore to play the game of golf.”

The venerable Weatherwax Golf Course in Middletown has been hard hit, too. The 36-hole facility had roughly 85,000 rounds annually in the early 1990s. But golf director Dave Tieman said, “We’ll be lucky to do 33,000 this year.”

He added: “I can’t imagine anyone is happy with where they are now.”

No golf courses have been built in the Miami Valley since 2002, and the 11-year drought is the longest span without any new construction since 1899-1911.

Two area courses — Larch Tree in Trotwood and River Bend in Miamisburg — have closed. Indian Springs near Mechanicsburg has gone from 36 to 18 holes. And the original owners of 12-year-old Windy Knoll in Springfield went bankrupt.

Nicklaus concerned

At the Memorial tournament this year, golfing great Jack Nicklaus said of the dire state of the sport: “Five million or so regular golfers have left the game. We’ve lost 27 percent of the women and 36 percent of the kids in the last five years. Why are we doing that? Part of it is the economy. Part of it is the expense of the game. Part of it is life has changed.

“People don’t want to spend five hours doing something anymore. Any game you play, any sporting event — nothing lasts longer than golf, unless you’re playing a five-set tennis match.”

Nicklaus for years has had a flourishing golf course design business. He has 30 new properties under contract, but all of them are overseas.

“The design business within the United States is absolutely zero today,” he said.

The golf industry has produced many initiatives to grow the game over the years, including the well-funded First Tee program. Nicklaus himself has put his name behind an endeavor called the Jack Nicklaus Learning Leagues, which he hopes will become golf’s equivalent to T-ball.

“There’s a whole bunch of things we try to do to bring people into the game and keep them in the game,” he said. “And as fast as we bring people into the game, we lose more. That’s not a healthy situation for the game of golf.”

One course all in

But not everyone is deterred by the bleak outlook. Windy Knoll, which was in foreclosure, was purchased for $1.44 million in May 2012 by Nick Tiller under the name of Nostaligic Golf, LLC. And the 40-year-old Springfield native has already made a considerable investment in the links-style course.

The bent-grass fairways and greens are being restored. The gravel parking lot has been paved and striped. One mile of fencing has been rebuilt. And all the facilities are being upgraded.

Although the course is a long way from being profitable, it did 20,000 rounds in 2012, about 7,000 more than the previous year.

A hedge-fund manager on the East coast, Tiller wouldn’t agree to an interview. But his uncle, Windy Knoll general manager Dave Duffey, said Tiller’s motive for buying the property was that he didn’t want to see an upscale course in a prime part of Springfield become an abandoned field.

“He was raised in this area, and he wants to save this place,” said Duffey, a 66-year-old retired salesman for General Motors in Dayton.

“I’m not trying to make him sound noble. If we can get this to break even, he’d sure be a lot happier. He doesn’t want to continue to lose money. He’d like it to sustain itself. But it’s not something he needs to live on.”

One of the ways Windy Knoll hopes to gain a foothold in a crowded market is customer service.

Duffey has vowed not to overbook tee times, a practice that results in slow play, and to make players feel valued.

“A lot of golf courses don’t meet, greet, stroke and pat. That doesn’t cost anything,” Duffey said.

Windy Knoll also has set itself apart by purchasing two Hovercraft golf carts, the first to be ordered by a U.S course. They cost $53,000 apiece and go 35 m.p.h. over land or water.

They’ll be unveiled during a special event July 27, although Duffey isn’t sure how quickly they’ll be made available to the public.

“We don’t know enough about them yet,” he said. “But with all the hard work we do — and my nephew works very hard for what he makes with a lot of stress — we want to make it fun to play. At the end of the day, when you come to the golf course, you’re supposed to have fun.”

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