Playing golf demands a willing suspension of disbelief. How else to explain why so many of us set off in pursuit of a score that our own record of futility suggests will remain forever unattainable?

Golf course owners, meanwhile, live in the here and now, where the collision of economics and demographics requires a certain level of coldhearted realism.

So, what does that make Gary Erlander, the occasional golfer and business manager for a union that bought the private Hillcrest Golf Club in St. Paul?

You could call him an opportunistic real estate investor. Local 455 of the Steamfitters and Pipefitters Union paid only $4.3 million for a 112-acre site that has an estimated market value of $15.4 million.

Or you could call him a moon-faced optimist. Though the land could be developed for other uses, Local 455 was the only bidder to pledge to continue operating Hillcrest as a private golf club for at least two years. The union's 1,426 members, including retirees, unanimously approved the purchase, using money from a special building fund established in the 1980s and financed by contributions from member paychecks.

While a portion of the 112 acres could eventually give way to a union headquarters building, "Our goal is to return Hillcrest to its rightful stature in the golfing community," Erlander said.

Hillcrest is one of about 4,400 private golf clubs in the U.S., down from a peak of about 5,000 in the mid-1980s. According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), about 15 percent of them face the same sort of financial pressures that resulted in Hillcrest being put on the block.

Some private clubs are responding by allowing outside play by nonmembers. Others are converting entirely to daily fee courses, and some are simply shutting down.

Many private clubs are struggling because their members are aging and the Facebook/Twitter generation is unwilling or unable to pay thousands of dollars a year to play a sport that demands hours upon hours of concentration or time away from their family.

Then there's the competition from municipal courses and the overbuilding of privately owned daily fee courses. Between 1990 and 2000, the United States added more than 2,600 golf courses, a rate of one new course every 1.4 days, in anticipation of a golf boom that never occurred.

Today, golf course closings exceed openings, while fewer people call themselves golfers than in 2000. And they play less frequently -- a trend that has only accelerated since the Great Recession. Hillcrest opened in 1921 as a St. Paul municipal course, its eastern edge bordering the city of Maplewood. A group of businessmen bought the club in 1945 and converted it into a private club for Jewish members. Membership has been unrestricted since the 1970s, and during some of the good years the club was able to charge initiation fees that ranged as high as $11,000.

By the time of its sale, Hillcrest's membership roll had fallen from a peak of 240 to fewer than 200. Hillcrest's problems were compounded by its investment in a new, $3 million clubhouse that opened in 2000, just before the economy started to sour and country club memberships weren't as high on many priority lists.

Operating losses mounted, and since the charter required a balanced budget, Hillcrest's members faced annual special assessments of $1,000 to $1,200, according to one former member.

That financial instability, more than demographics, is what scared off existing and prospective members, said Jennie Schader, Hillcrest's membership and marketing director for the past three years.

Local 455 has guaranteed that members will no longer have to pay special assessments. Food minimums and initiation fees have been eliminated, and monthly dues now top out at $350. The club signed up 12 new members in March, and another seven as of April 8.

Michael Kahn, a Florida-based golf business consultant who has worked in Minnesota, said Local 455 will need to get enough members to cover operating costs, which could run as high as $1 million a year, and build reserves for future maintenance and improvements.

The club also has hired more grounds crew and member service workers. Behind the scenes, the union is also making improvements to the maintenance yard and investing in new mowers and other groundskeeping equipment.

The union has shifted its annual golf tournament to Hillcrest and will work its connections to persuade other unions to do the same. Erlander has become a Hillcrest member, though he doesn't play often enough to have a handicap and wasn't able to get away from work for the club's Friday opener.

"Will we lose money for a little while? Probably," he said. "But we're excited for the upcoming season."

Spoken like a true golfer. • 612-673-1736