Sunday, June 15, 2003

Golf legion grows, but links lonelier


Low traffic closing courses

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The sellout crowds this weekend at the U.S. Open golf tournament in suburban Chicago underscore the growing interest in the game, spurred largely by the tournament's wildly popular defending champion, Tiger Woods.

The 27-year-old phenom has been credited with revitalizing the sport by attracting a younger, more diverse audience and generating record television ratings with his amazing feats on the course.

The number of golfers has grown significantly since Woods joined the tour in 1997, reaching an all-time high of 26.2 million last year, according to the National Golf Foundation, which conducts research for the golf industry.

But at the same time, the number of rounds of golf played each year has declined from 518.4 million 2000 to 502.4 million last year, the foundation says.

With golfers taking to the fairways less often, public and private courses in the Tristate and across the nation have found themselves teetering on the brink of financial ruin and scrambling to find ways to stimulate play and generate revenues.

"If the state of golf continues the way it is, some golf courses aren't going to make it," said Ron Stepanek, executive director of the Southern Ohio PGA, a section of the Professional Golfers Association of America.

Some golf course operators have already checked their scorecards and decided to give up the game.

The owner of Kingswood Golf Course in Deerfield Township and a private developer have announced plans to bulldoze its sprawling fairways and build an office complex.

And the owners of Crest Hills Country Club in Amberley Village and Deer Run Country Club in Miami Township have been negotiating with builders interested in erecting large-scale housing projects on their properties.

But the loss of the golf courses would hardly make a dent in the area's overall supply.

Ohio is a golfer's haven, with the fifth-highest number of golf courses per capita in the continental United States and ranked the third least expensive state for average greens fees - the cost to play - at public courses, according to the Ohio Golf Course Owners Association.

But the decrease in the number of rounds played - estimated to be anywhere from a 10 to 18 percent decline in Greater Cincinnati over the past five years - has forced courses with even the most reasonable greens fees to slash prices even further. Some now offer midweek specials to get golfers out on the course.

"The meat and potatoes of the business as far as play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday has remained pretty steady," said Steve Pacella, general manager of Billy Casper Golf, a company that manages Cincinnati's municipal golf courses. "It's Monday through Thursday where you see the drop-off, and that's why you see reduced rates at many courses during that time."

Economy a culprit

Most industry insiders blame the sluggish economy for the slowdown in play.

When the economy was booming in the early to mid-1990s, it was not uncommon for office workers and business executives to leave work early to play golf in the middle of the week, Pacella said.

"There was a time when guys would slide out of work at 12:30 in the afternoon and get in 18 holes," Pacella said. "We're not seeing those guys anymore. They're staying at work, watching their 401(k)s.''

Donald Jordon of Bond Hill is one of those golfers who just doesn't play as much as he used to, primarily because of the demands of keeping his business afloat.

But Jordon, 39, who operates his own lawn service, couldn't resist the temptation to play on a rare sunny day recently at Avon Fields Golf Course on Reading Road in Paddock Hills.

"I should be taking care of business right now, but I haven't been out in weeks," said Jordon. "There was a time when I played here two or three times a week, but this is a busy time of year for me. And with my family ... I just don't have the time."

Market saturation

But while the economy and increased constraints on people's time may be the overriding factors contributing to golf's decline, course owners and operators also have themselves to blame.

As golf's popularity grew in the 1990s, new courses sprouted, reaching an all-time high of 17,000 last year, according to the NGF.

At least 15 new golf courses have opened in the southern half of Ohio over the past 10 years, with most of the new courses concentrated in and around Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus, according to the Ohio Golf Course Owners Association.

Such market saturation has intensified competition by giving golfers more options.

That's good for players, but bad for course operators.

"The biggest problem I've seen around the area is that there are just so many places to play compared to nine or 10 years ago," said Tom Mackie, head teaching professional at The Golf Courses at Kenton County, one of Northern Kentucky's more popular tracks. "There are more places to play, so that cuts down on the number of rounds at each course."

Northern Kentucky's municipal courses are managed independently, so it's difficult to determine the overall decline in play in the area.

But Mackie, who recently met with a group of his peers in the area, said play is down across the board, a trend that began shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"We were doing very well until 9-11, and then we hit a wall," he said. "It's been a struggle ever since."

The slowdown has also meant a slowdown in sales for retailers and equipment manufacturers.

Supply sales lagging

Sales of golf clubs, balls, bags, gloves and shoes declined about 6 percent in wholesale dollars, to about $2.375 billion last year, according to the NGF.

"Our sales are running about even with last year, which is probably better than most shops," said Richard Hutchinson, a PGA teaching professional who manages the golf shop at Dick's Sporting Goods in Kenwood. "But business certainly isn't the same as it was seven or eight years ago, when people would buy a $400 driver without hesitation and even buy three or four at a time.

"People are still buying $400 drivers," Hutchinson said. "But they buy them less often, and they're keeping them longer."

Off its game

Regions of the United States hardest hit last year by the decline in number of rounds of golf played, compared with 2001 (public courses only):

Lower Midwest (including Ohio): down 5.5 percent.

Southeast: down 5.1 percent.

Northeast: down 5 percent.

Central/South Florida: up 0.2 percent.

Gulf Coast: up 1.4 percent.

Source: National Golf Foundation

E-mail rtucker@enquirer.com



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