In our survey of fifteen local golf businesses, from country clubs to driving ranges, the vast majority say that business has stagnated or declined in recent years.
“There’s a convergence of factors” behind golf’s falling fortunes, says Gilda Johnson, owner of Lake Forest Golf Club in Pittsfield Township. A June article in Bloomberg Businessweek noted that the number of golfers nationwide peaked in 2002–and has since fallen 24 percent, to 23 million.
“Tiger [Woods] did a huge, huge service to golf by increasing the number of youths that wanted to participate in it,” explains Diana Kuenzli, the membership and marketing director at the Polo Fields Golf and Country Clubs, which manages two courses on opposite ends of Ann Arbor. “With his star on the decline, I don’t think there’s anybody who’s [captured] everybody’s interest quite like he has.”
Golfers also are aging out of the sport. When Brian Stange came to work at Ann Arbor Golf and Outing Club ten years ago, he says, there were 180 names on the waiting list for golf membership; today there are fifty. “Most of our [golf members] are in their sixties to seventies, so they’re moving out of golf into social [memberships],” says Stange, the club’s general manager.
Even the real estate bubble played a role. “You had a big blip up [in revenue] in ’04-’05, and I think that’s because people’s home values were high and there was a lot of equity in their homes, so they felt they had a lot of wealth,” says Doug Mervis, owner of Stonebridge Golf Club in Pittsfield. “People were paying more [to play], and there was probably a few more golfers. But we definitely see a little less golf over the last eight years in general, just because people did move out of the state after ’08.”
Many also say that the sport is having to fight to fit into hectic family schedules. “There’s been a huge change in the last ten years,” says Barton Hills Country Club manager Corey Gerhart. He says many golfers now ask themselves, “How much time do I have to spend at the club and play a round of golf, or go out and eat, go down to the pool or whatever else, when my kids are in four different sports and both myself and my spouse work?”
Then there’s the weather. Gerhart says that last winter’s bitter cold was “very hard” on grasses. And “we lost a month [of playing time] in the spring,” adds Allen Young, owner of Indian Trail Golf Center northeast of town. “You never get that back.”
“Four years ago there was massive flooding all the time in this area,” says Stonebridge’s Mervis. “And then three years ago we had a really bad heat wave that knocked a lot of people out of playing golf. And then the last two years, there’s just a lot of rain. I sometimes wonder if people dropped out of golf because they can’t even get out to play.” Stonebridge had to cut fees to keep up its player numbers.
Paul Scott, general manager of the U-M’s Radrick Farms on Geddes Rd., says his course has been mostly “insulated” from weather-related losses by its season pass model, which requires golfers to buy into the whole season upfront. But even Radrick and the U-M Golf Course, across from Pioneer High, are offering weekend family and student golf programs at discounted rates.
Despite the overwhelming bad news, there have been a few success stories. One is the Ann Arbor Country Club in Loch Alpine, which had been struggling until a West Virginia investment group took it over in 2011. The new owners have thoroughly redone the entire club, including a $200,000 renovation of the golf shop and golf course. General manager Mark Chalou says business has increased 40 to 45 percent over the past two years.
One of the more unlikely recent successes is the city’s Huron Hills golf course, the subject of considerable controversy in 2010 when the city requested proposals to restructure the course, which had been losing money and golfers. Two options–particularly one that would have seen Miles of Golf move its operations to the course–met with ferocious disapproval from neighbors, and the city rejected both. Recently, says Ann Arbor parks and recreation manager Colin Smith, the annual number of rounds at the course has held steady at around 21,000–up 50 percent from 2007.
Smith says the city’s Leslie Park course has also seen increased usage, although both courses are still operating at a loss. He attributes the uptick to a variety of initiatives designed to bring in younger golfers and hold onto aging ones. The city has a shorter nine-hole “Wee Tees” course at Huron Hills and a parent-child instruction class. Huron Hills also introduced golf carts to make it easier for senior players.
Polo Fields hopes to attract younger golfers with its own new wheels: the “golf board.” Introduced at this year’s PGA merchandise show, “It’s kind of a hybrid between a stand-up paddleboard and a skateboard, but it’s motorized,” Kuenzli says. “You hold onto a handle, and you can either mount your golf bag on the handle or you can put it across your back … This enables the course to still be golfed in the normal style, yet with an edgier way of getting around the property.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the October 2014 Ann Arbor Observer. Corey Gerhart’s first name and job title have been added.
The following Calls & letters item was published in the November 2014 Ann Arbor Observer
Golf’s next generation
To the Observer:
Your article “In the Rough” [Inside Ann Arbor, October] may have given some readers the impression that the future of golf in the area is bleak at best. Having been in this business for almost twenty years, and having worked for two prestigious clubs and the PGA Tour, I can tell you that the rise and fall in the number of golfers is nothing new. Golf, like many things, is directly impacted by the economy, and if a course cannot be maintained in good condition, golfers will go elsewhere.
As a private club, the Polo Fields is able to be impeccably maintained despite heat, rain, and winter damage that can be devastating to a public course. One of the upsides for us of the recent recession and bad weather is an increase in membership inquiries from golfers who want better course conditions and are tired of public play. We added forty-five new members this year.
The GolfBoard you mentioned is just one of the ways the Polo Fields and other clubs are adapting to the economic challenges, changing needs, and time allotments of today’s golfer. Footgolf (played with soccer balls, locally at Fox Hills), SpeedGolf (played with three clubs while running the course), Par-3 courses, and more are already taking golf into the next generation.
Diana M. Kuenzli
Director of Membership & Marketing
The Polo Fields Golf & Country Clubs