Golfers hit the links in greater numbers this year as south-metro area courses generally overcame a historically wet spring to enjoy a stronger 2014 season.
While rounds played topped recession-era lows, most courses still are well off the peak of the sport’s boom years, from the late 1990s to early 2000s. Statewide, some 40,000 fewer people are playing golf now.
As courses explore ways to attract more traditional golfers, especially younger ones, some are considering adding or have decided to add footgolf — a cross between kickball and golf — and are planning or contemplating other measures to help drive business next year.
The experience at Birnamwood Golf Course seems to typify the roller-coaster ride that was 2014 for area courses.
Burnsville’s nine-hole, par-three course opened 19 days earlier than in 2013. But record-setting rainfall in June, the wettest month statewide in modern record and part of more than 16 inches of rain that hit the city in June, July and August, put a damper on the season.
With a total of 20,851 rounds played, Birnamwood was up about 300 from last year, according to Dan Hill, course superintendent.
“We started off way ahead of 2013 but then June knocked us back a bit,” Hill said. “The rest of the year was good. We’ll make a profit for the year, so that’s good.”
Hill is looking into the possibility of adding footgolf next year, if he can resolve the main issue he said other courses have seen when mixing footgolf, which moves along much faster, with traditional golf.
“Golf has been in decline since the heyday back in the early 2000s,” Hill said. “We’re always trying to find new ways to bring in new golfers.”
Plants loved it
The winner from this year’s rains were perennial plantings at Birnamwood’s fifth and ninth tees, Hill said. The course is the state’s only nine-hole course to receive designation as a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, having met standards in environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management and other categories.
“We put in a lot of perennial gardens and native plantings, and the rains did help those,” Hill said.
In Apple Valley, the city’s Valleywood Golf Course saw a 10 percent increase in rounds played, with this year’s total likely to reach 32,500, manager Jim Zinck said.
“We got kind of an early jump but we had poor weather for about the first six weeks or so,” Zinck said, helped in part by growing business at its new clubhouse, which opened two years ago. “All of the public leagues that had room to grow have grown. We’re seeing encouraging signs for the sustainability of the operation over the next few years.”
Valleywood’s status as the only 18-hole regulation golf course in Eagan, Apple Valley and Burnsville also helps, Zinck said.
In recent years, the course has seen 30,000 to 33,000 rounds played a year, up from 25,000 to 26,000 in the mid-2000s, Zinck said.
“A good April can mean $100,000 in revenue to the operation for the year,” Zinck said. “A good October, maybe $10,000. If people get out early and get involved in the game and get committed to playing, the casual golfer who maybe plays two or three times a year may play 10, 12 or 15 times or even join a league.”
The number of rounds played at Inver Wood Golf Course in Inver Grove Heights was steady this year, at about 47,000 rounds, parks and recreation director Eric Carlson said. The championship course offers 18 holes on rolling, wooded terrain while Inver Wood also boasts an executive nine-hole course.
“The spring was not good golf weather for any golf course in the metro area with all the rain we had,” Carlson said. “But we had a nice summer and a nice fall for golf. … We ended the year $75,000 to $100,000 to the positive, so we feel like we had a good year.”
The city plans to manage and operate the course with city staff for at least the next two years, Carlson said. The city parted ways with longtime golf manager Al McMurchie earlier this year as the course faced financial struggles.
The course likely will need a number of capital improvements, including reinvesting in its irrigation system, bunkers, driving range and parking lot, Carlson said.
“We’ll be doing some in-depth analysis of all of those projects to determine what our options are, what our costs are and how we might propose financing those costs to be able to make those improvements,” Carlson said.
Inver Wood’s executive course will add footgolf next year, Carlson said. “It’s going to attract kids and families to come out and use the golf course,” Carlson said.
The course also will introduce season passes for adults, seniors and juniors for off-peak tee times, Carlson said. Another possible addition is a full liquor license. Golfers have requested additional selections at the course, which now has a non-intoxicating liquor license, and a full license could help attract some groups that are going elsewhere for that option.
Cleary Lake Golf Course, a nine-hole, par-three course that the Three Rivers Park District operates within Cleary Lake Regional Park, may have seen a slight dip in rounds play this year, operations supervisor Jenna Tuma. The course saw 19,000 rounds last year, down from a peak of 30,000 in 2001 but up from 17,000 rounds a year in the depths of the recession.
The course, however, has a strong youth program with a summer camp bringing in 1,000 kids. “We have a substantial youth program that has helped not only our golf course but some of the others around here,” Tuma said.
To attract golfers, Cleary Lake has added night golf, with golf balls that glow, and next year will introduce footgolf, Tuma said.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is email@example.com.