For the past couple of years, it’s ruled the headlines. Some businesses have closed. Some have been bailed out by the government. Some have just managed to stay afloat.
And in times like this, consumers are pinching pennies more than ever. Many have done away with what can be considered luxuries.
According to a recent report in Golfweek, “public golf in the United States has seen better days.” A study by the National Golf Foundation said that an estimated 1,500 public golf courses in the U.S. are in financial trouble. The study also estimated that up to 150 public courses will close per year until “supply and demand reach equilibrium.” The study said that 500 to 1,000 courses would likely close within five years.
Laurel County has four courses. Two public, one semi-private, and one private. And all four have felt the effects of the economy.
“Our business has been pretty good, but I’ve seen better,” said Renee Finley-Tankersley, owner of Sweet Hollow Golf Resort, a 9-hole public course. “But you have to understand, golf is a weather-based business. April was fabulous. It was cool and the season got off to a good start. May was wet, and not many golfers came out to brave the conditions. And now in June, you have temperatures nearing 100. But all-in-all, weather permitting, we’re in a pretty good situation.”
Greenway Golf, a 9-hole public course, is another facility hurt by the economy.
“It’s been very slow,” said Betty Finley of Greenway Golf. You could tell last fall that the economy was bad. Plus, the weather has hurt us.”
To offset losses, several courses have lowered their green fees, trying to attract more business. Some, like Crooked Creek, went from being a private facility to semi-private.
“We’ve gone public to help make up the difference,” said Bill Sergent. And if the first couple of months are any indication, that was a smart move for the course.
“We’ve had more play in the last two months than this time last year,” Sergent said. And he doesn’t see the course returning to private status any time soon.
“I don’t see it in the foreseeable future,” Sergent said. “Unless we can get our membership up to 400, then we will go private.”
Recently, the private courses in Lexington have complained that public courses are hurting their business. But Sergent sees a need for both public and private courses.
“(Public courses) are a niche for people who want to play golf cheap,” Sergent said. “It gives lots of people the chance to play, and then, if they enjoy the game, may join a private club later on.”
London’s lone private course, London Country Club, hasn’t been immune to the struggling economy, though things are looking up.
“We’ve actually had business pick up since school let out,” said Mike Kissel, Jr. “But it’s still a struggle. I would love for the economy to turn around. It’s been a two-year drought, and we’ve noticed that many consider golf a luxury, and it’s the first to go.”
Ironically, according to the NGF study, ‘value’ courses (peak season green fee with cart under $40) are the ones seeing the steepest declines in rounds played -- down 26 percent since 1987. All three courses that are open to the public have lowered fees in an attempt to attract golfers.
At Sweet Hollow, nine holes Monday-Friday costs $16, but if you have two golfers to a cart, the fee drops to $14. For 18 holes, it’s $24, or $20 for two to a cart. On weekends, the cost is $28 for 18 holes and $18 for nine holes. There are also deals for seniors. Also at Sweet Hollow, there are plans to convert the pool into a fish farm and the skating rink into an indoor farmer’s market, complete with a greenhouse.
“The economy is tough, but if we all pull together as a community, and keep the customers in mind, we should be all right,” Tankersley said. “My dad (Lester Finley) taught me there will always be a need for recreation and socializing. He said to cater to the general public, keep prices down.”
Tankersley said they would also love to light all nine holes for night time play in the near future.
“Golf courses are not real feasible entities,” Tankersley added. “I would rather have a smaller course than one with big overhead. We are very energy efficient, and have been green for seven years. We just really need to water and feed the grass. We probably have one of the smallest budgets in Kentucky.”
Greenway Golf also offers discount rates. Nine holes will cost you $15, or you can play 18 for $20. You can also pay $30 and play all day.
At Crooked Creek, green fees are $40 during the weekdays, and $50 on weekends. But after 5 p.m. on weekdays, the cost is $30, while on weekends, $35.
“And if people join our Player’s Club, they can get the twilight rate, but start playing golf two hours earlier,” Sergent said.
But all is not gloom and doom.
“While the supply side looks challenging, the demand for golf appears more stable,” the NGF report said. “Even though the game is losing some golfers to economic pressures. A survey found that 90 percent of ‘core golfers’ (those playing eight or more rounds a year) are still ‘passionate’ about golf.” The foundation also sees a correlation between the financial health of a golf course and the average number of golfers within a 10-mile radius. “Courses with at least 4,000 golfers nearly are more likely to succeed.”
Denis House can be reached at email@example.com.