Thursday, April 18, 2002

Local golfers find bargain prices

Hard economic times 'not good for business'

By Carey Hoffman
Enquirer contributor

        If you return to your local golf hangout this month and find your favorite pro hunched over his desk, cut him some slack and save the small talk — he's probably pondering the imponderable. The question is, how can golf courses protect their bottom line, in 2002 and in the future? The outlook for the golf industry is murky, and in few places are its basic supply-and-demand questions more acute than in Greater Cincinnati.

        Cincinnati is a tough place to make a buck in golf now. Conversely, the great news for the consumer is that high-quality golf will continue to be a bargain in 2002.

        “Golf is both accessible and affordable in Southwest Ohio,” said Ron Stepanek, executive director of the Southern Ohio PGA.

        But, said Doug Stultz, golf manager for the Hamilton County Park District: “You probably can play golf cheaper today than you could five years ago at some (local) facilities, and that trend is not good for business.”

        Local golf is plentiful and comparatively cheap. The golf boom of the 1990s has resulted in approximately 85 public-access courses within a 40-minute drive from downtown Cincinnati, along with 30 private courses. Statewide, Ohio ranks fifth nationally in total public access facilities, according to the National Golf Foundation. Ohio is third in lowest average greens fees and Kentucky is second.

        The average greens fee nationally last year was $40.88. In Ohio, it was $29.48, and in Cincinnati it was $25.93.

        But for operators, those realities cut the bottom line pretty thin. Add in that play was down last year — local numbers are not publicly available, but the Hamilton County Park District and the Cincinnati Recreation Commission courses had approximately 4 percent decreases in play from 2000 — and profit margins get smaller.

        “It's been tough for everybody the last 18 months. I think very few businesses have grown much, if at all. And when revenues are flat, those expenses don't stay flat,” said Ralph Landrum of Landrum Golf, which operates four facilities locally. Landrum said one colleague he talked to said that, for the first time in nearly 20 years, his course has no budget for capital improvements in 2002.

        “Here in Ohio, everything flattened out,” said Gary Koehler, president of the Ohio Golf Course Owners Association. “I've heard business was down anywhere between 4 and 15 percent, and a lot of that comes from the new courses opening up and having to share that clientele.”

        Greater Cincinnati was saturated with special offers and programs last year, a trend likely to continue into this golf season, particularly among higher-end golf courses most vulnerable to an economic slowdown.

        But as the economy has rebounded, so has some optimism. Indexes from a firm called Golf Datatech that track golf retail activity and participation have been on the upswing this year.

        Steve Pacella, director of golf operations for Kemper Sports Management, which operates the CRC courses, believes conditions have stabilized. “Everybody is waiting for the second quarter,” he said.

        Beyond that, though, lie golf's greater challenges. A consortium of golf's major organizations are leading an effort called “Golf 20/20” to try to ensure a healthy future for the sport. Among goals set for 2021 are increasing golf participation nationally.

        A national survey indicated that 43 million people would like to play golf, but don't for reasons such as the perceived difficulty of the game or the time and money investment involved.

        Guaranteeing golf's future growth may depend on that population segment. And area golf operators can't wait to see a brighter tomorrow.


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