Ready to tee off for a round of golf at the Hiawatha Golf Club, Jim Keegan pulled out his camera and snapped a photo of the golf cart he'd just rented.
"Nice logo," he said of the gold-on-green heraldic design. "And it's electric. They don't make as much noise."
That information became part of the scorecard that Keegan, a Colorado-based golf consultant, will turn in to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as it tries to evaluate how its seven municipal courses might stand up against changing recreational tastes, a saturated market, demographic upheaval and plain old bad weather.
"It's long overdue," Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller said of the study, which could lead to anything from expensive improvements to grounds and buildings to changes in the times of day reserved for golf leagues. "We've not invested in the golf courses. We haven't changed who we've served."
Though regarded as cheaper and more convenient than their suburban competitors, the Minneapolis courses have something in common with them: fewer players. Rounds of golf on Minneapolis' courses declined 42 percent between the late 1990s and 2011, with only a slight rise last year. The decline is expected to return when this year's numbers are tallied, with a season plagued by wintry weather in early May and heavy rains into July.
Minneapolis' municipal courses, like those in other cities, were so popular until about the mid-1990s that their revenues were helping support other park and recreation programs. "Cash cows" is how Miller described them. But in 2012, despite an unusually long season, they barely broke even, taking in $6.1 million but spending $5.6 million.
Indeed, if the park board wants to make costly improvements, Assistant Superintendent Bruce Chamberlain said he didn't know where the money would come from.
Nationally, more than 1,000 golf facilities closed in the past decade, according to the National Golf Foundation. More than 90 percent were public facilities, and 85 percent of those had playing fees of $40 or less — the profile of the Minneapolis courses.
Who's got time?
Analysts and golfers themselves can easily point out the problems. Fewer and fewer people can find four or five hours in a day to play 18 holes of golf. It's expensive to get into, and often expensive to play. It's not part of the cultural traditions of growing segments of the U.S. population, whose young people might otherwise help it grow in popularity. Kids have too much else to do. Michael Turnbull, former manager at Baker National Golf Course in Medina and a Twin Cities teaching pro, said his son played golf for free with him seven times last year, but played Frisbee golf 44 times for $5 per round.
Keegan noted that golf ranks 15th among preferred recreational activities in Minneapolis. He said he will try to point the way to golf courses that will be "a continuing value to citizens, and fiscally sustainable." That could mean a wide range of recommendations for the park board to consider, growing from his unannounced, solo, 18-hole round at Hiawatha Tuesday, as well as results from an upcoming online survey and meetings with users and neighbors. Information will be posted when available at www.minneapolisparks.org.
They will likely cover more than just 18 holes. Before his first shot Tuesday, Keegan had already made note of his experience getting a tee time and how he was greeted at the desk. He photographed bumps and bare spots in fairways and greens, poorly placed bunkers, and trees that a golf designer would remove but that, he added, nearby residents would probably want to save. He praised the design and capacity of the driving range. He shot photos anonymously in the clubhouse. He asked the beverage seller about rival courses. He looked for details that might be more important to some than the break on a green.
One question he'll be asking people, for example: "Would you want to go to the bathroom here?"
Keegan may find the Minneapolis courses have some advantages.
Accessibility and affordability have helped build strong community connections, noted Butch Davis, who grew up in Minneapolis, now lives in Eden Prairie and is part of a men's league that's been playing every Tuesday at Hiawatha for more than 20 years. Most Minneapolis courses are on bus lines, Davis added; Hiawatha and Fort Snelling are within reach of light rail.
Davis also credited Hiawatha with developing programs to attract inner city kids to the game.
"They were loyal to us, and we're loyal to them," he said.
It's similar for Sean Lalevee, 43, of Albertville, who was lacing up a pair of golf shoes Thursday morning before playing a round as a corporate event at Rush Creek in Maple Grove. Lalevee grew up in Bloomington and played Hiawatha as a kid, but said he and his friends played many different courses once they started getting careers going and had some money. He now considers Cedar Creek in Albertville his "home" course. But he and his friends have also returned to the courses they played as kids, such as Hiawatha.
"It's nostalgia," he said. "You get to a point where you couldn't care less about a place where you're spending $100. For us, we can go to Hiawatha and point out where your friend made that crazy shot 20 years ago. It's a bonding experience."
Courses like Rush Creek offer a great clubhouse — stone tiles and golf-themed wallpaper in the men's room, for instance, as opposed to the dingy, mazelike locker and bathroom area at Hiawatha — with opportunities for weddings and corporate events, Lalevee added. But he said Minneapolis' public courses are challenging and well-maintained.
"They should just keep doing what they're doing," he said.
Chris Kellogg, 45, of Edina, said he golfs at Wirth Park because it's easy to get tee times and because it's both cheaper and, in his opinion, more challenging than the highly regarded Braemar public course in Edina.
"It's a great course," he said after whacking a long drive straight down the first fairway Thursday morning. "The greens are always in good shape. It's got great tradition — and skyline views!"