At this time last year, golfers had already been out on the links for nearly a month, and they would go on to have one of the longest seasons of enjoying their favorite pastime.
It was also one of the strongest seasons for municipal golf courses, which have been under particular pressure to stay viable as a tough economy and time demands on families have contributed to a decline in the sport.
This year’s weather is a different story, with a drawn-out winter already cutting into a season that typically starts around April 1. Courses are expected to open soon, but each day of delay raises the anxiety.
“The weather is a challenge every year. It’s always been a weather-related business,” said Bruce Anderson, manager and golf professional at River Oaks Golf Course, which is owned by the city of Cottage Grove. “We’re kind of like farmers that way.”
“People are ready and eager to go,” added Steve Whillock, director of golf and general manager at Oak Marsh Golf Course in Oakdale.
Washington County has about two dozen public and private golf courses. Four of them — River Oaks, Oak Marsh and Eagle Valley in Woodbury and Castlewood in Forest Lake — are considered municipal courses.
While River Oaks and Eagle Valley are directly owned and operated by those cities, Oak Marsh and Castlewood are operated under leasing or management agreements with private firms under which the cities are not as directly involved, or financially liable, although the challenges of attracting golfers are the same.
After going on a 20-year golf course-building spree from 1986 to 2005, the U.S. golf industry has been in the throes of a market correction which has seen hundreds of courses close over the past seven years, according to the National Golf Foundation. In 2012, 154.5 golf courses closed (as measured in 18-hole equivalents). Most of those, 130.5, were lower-fee public courses, but only 8.5 were municipal courses.
At the height of the boom, 400 courses were being built each year. Eagle Valley (1998), River Oaks (1991) and Oak Marsh (1997) opened when golf courses looked like lucrative propositions. Castlewood is the exception, dating to 1920.
At Eagle Valley, last year’s balmy spring and long season couldn’t have worked out better, said Dan Moris, head golf professional. “It was like a perfect storm,” he said.
With declining revenues and participation, the fate of the golf course reached a tipping point early last year, when a nine-member city task force considered options that included selling the course or converting it to a park. In the end, the panel concluded the golf course was a valuable city asset and laid out a three-year turnaround plan.
Aided by 41 extra days of golf, 2012 was Eagle Valley’s best season, Moris said. Gross revenues increased 26 percent, and Eagle Valley outperformed other municipal courses in revenue and number of golf rounds played. Clubhouse improvements and a revamped rate structure, including a new break for regular patrons, also brought golfers back, he said. New carts are here for this season.
Municipal golf courses aren’t only about the bottom line, and the support of the task force reflects that, Moris said. “This is a community asset. Having a municipal golf course is good for property values,” he said. “It also brings in a lot of people to Woodbury — 60 percent of our golfers are from outside the community.”
Aaron Parrish, city administrator of Forest Lake, said Castlewood is also viewed as a city amenity.
“When people are looking for a place to live somewhere, a golf course is an enhancement,” he said. “This is definitely one of those value-added, quality-of-life things that we have in Forest Lake, and it’s why we want to keep it for people who live and work here now, and for people who will live and work here in the future.”
Municipal courses, while ever-mindful of finances and stiff competition, strive to make golf affordable and accessible. At all four golf courses, efforts to attract golfers are aimed especially at young people.
At River Oaks, kids under 17 golf free after 6:45 p.m., as does the adult who accompanies them. Eagle Valley added a weekday junior league and works on programs with the YMCA. At Oak Marsh, kids golf free on Sunday afternoons with a paying adult.
For kids raised on video games, the mental and physical challenge of golf can be a hard sell, Moris said. And for families involved in youth sports, the year-round commitment it now takes is one more obstacle to building golf’s future, Whillock added.
“You really need that Pied Piper at every course,” Whillock said. “It’s hard to tell a kid that golf is a lifetime sport. It helps when they get that lesson early.”