(Editor’s Note: This article was authored by Jason Deegan, senior staff writer for Golf Advisor.)
Golf courses around America continue to close.
Some are unexpected, but for many of them, you know it was coming. Die-hard players may be in denial, but there are almost always warning signs.
For the second year in a row we are seeing a record number of golf course closings.
According to Sam Adams, a PGA Member and President, Owner and Founder of S.W. Adams, Inc. the reality is that golf as a participation sport is declining. And, it may continue for four or five more years!
“Thirty-three golf courses have closed so far this year. If that pace is maintained we
will reach 360 courses closed this year which would be the second year in a
row we have set a record,” Adams posted on his web site. “The best projections were for around 280 to close this year.”
“There’s a golf course closing every 44 hours. Why has it been increasing
the last couple of years? For the past decade we closed about 240 golf
courses each year. Suddenly we are in the 300+ range. If the experts were right about overbuilding and balancing supply and demand it would be slowing down and not increasing,” he added. “At this point I have no explanation for why it has suddenly started to increase.”
Think of the golf course as a living, breathing being. People can drop dead of a heart attack out of the blue, but chances are there were warning signs first – shortness of breath, headaches, lack of physical activity. Before a golf course goes to pasture, it also exhibits signs of its impending demise.
A recent rash of closings has golfers across the country more nervous than ever about the fate of their favorite local track. The Detroit City Council has been holding meetings for several years about how to handle the city’s struggling municipal courses: Chandler Park Golf Course, Rackham Golf Course, Palmer Park Golf Course and Rouge Park Golf Course. The council recently voted to not renew the management contract of the long-time operator for Rackham, Rouge Park and Chandler Park, essentially closing them for the 2018 season, but the issue is still very much up in the air. Palmer Park was scheduled to transition into a driving range only after a decision last fall on its future, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In California, after years of an unbalanced bottom line, the Salt Creek Golf Club in Chula Vista near San Diego closed for good in March. In Texas, Glenbrook Golf Course, a municipal golf course run by the city of Houston, will closed permanently this month to become a botanic garden, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Should you be concerned about the health of your favorite local playground? Here are 10 warning signs to be leery of before that “For Sale” sign pops up and a developer starts building condos or homes on one of your favorite par-5s.
10. Empty fairways and parking lot
Remember the good old days when the Tuesday afternoon men’s Quota Group counted 50 players? Tuesdays nowadays look like a zombie apocalypse hit. Nobody’s in the clubhouse except the staff. Sure, peak-season weekends are booked in the morning, but by noon, the fairways are empty and the tee sheets blank. How much longer can your course survive with such lulls in activity?
9. Allowing public access
One of the sure signs of the decline of a private country club is allowing public access. It’s a risky business decision. Sure, new paying customers help with the mounting bills, but members who pay good money for the privacy won’t be happy. Once they start leaving, it’s game over.
8. Website deactivated
In today’s world, a good website is a critical gateway to communicate with customers. When the online voice goes silent, chances are the course isn’t far behind. After all, it’s not that expensive to keep a website live. If it’s taken down, that means the vendor isn’t getting paid. First, the vendors. Then the staff. Uh oh.
7. Absentee owner
During the good days, golfers probably saw the owner hanging around the club, maybe playing golf with friends or having a drink at the bar. During the bad days? There’s tension in the air and less friendly banter.Less communication with staff and patrons is a bad sign.
6.Course for sale with no buyers
Golf courses for sale are an open secret in today’s market. Owners attempt to tip toe carefully between trying to get the word out about their course being for sale, while keeping it a secret from their regular customers to avoid a panic. That’s when the rumor mill kicks into high gear, making everybody paranoid, from golfers to staff. Getting a new owner can be a good thing. Getting to that point is the hard part. Not many people are buying golf courses today.
5. Public problems
When your club’s problems go public, it’s never good. Some dirty laundry might play out in the media – a lawsuit or a story about the disgruntled membership or an owner who commits a crime. Perhaps the worst case scenario is the course finding its way onto the agenda of a city council meeting, likely for rezoning, or in the case of Detroit, problems with management contracts. Probably, 70 percent of the course closures over the past three years show a pattern that the owner is selling to a developer to cash in.
4. Shrinking membership
It’s gotten so competitive to keep country club members that bidding wars aren’t unheard of, where the club across town slashes membership rates hoping to steal enough members from its rival to cripple business. That might be extreme, but once you see membership numbers dwindle from 200 people to 150 to 125, the writing is on the wall.
3. Staff layoffs
Most golf courses need a certain hierarchy of full-time employees to survive including a general manager, director of golf or head professional, assistant pro, superintendent and reliable staff. If any of these positions are eliminated, then suddenly everyone’s scrambling to work harder without a pay increase. Unhappy employees lead to poor customer service. The trickle down to unsatisfied customer leaves everyone being unhappy!
2. Flailing conditions
The golf course is the lifeblood of every golf facility. Customers are willing to put up with bare bones pro shops, carts without windshields and skeleton crews for staffs. However, one thing they will not tolerate is a poorly maintained golf course. Have your course conditions taken a sudden turn for the worst as other area courses thrive? It’s probably because the owner has made your superintendent cut too many corners.
1. An actual sign
This couldn’t be more obvious: Golfers and employees showing up at the course only to find an actual sign that reads: “Course Closed Permanently.” Don’t laugh. It happened at the StoneRidge Country Club in southern California last November. The handwritten sign posted at the entrance to the club read: “Goodbye Poway, it was a great 60 years.” It happened again this month in a letter posted outside the pro shop at Salt Creek. Pray this doesn’t happen when you show up for your next round.
(Jason Deegan is an award-winning senior staff writer for Golf Advisor, which is a subsidiary of The Golf Channel.)