Fans call it "the Fred."

It's a pretty little municipal golf course, with gentle slopes and short holes. Kids learn the game there and seniors can play at a leisurely pace, with no one fuming behind them because play is too slow.

That's why about 300 people showed up at a recent meeting to hear Edina officials explain a proposal to close Fred Richards Executive Golf Course at the end of this year. With fewer people golfing, city officials said, it no longer makes economic sense to have two city-owned golf courses.

The proposal will come before the City Council on March 4. Fans of the Fred have written letters of protest to council members and are making their case with Facebook and a "Save the Fred!" web page.

Edina is just the latest city to make hard choices about its golf courses. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golfers in the United States has dropped by almost 5 million since 2005. Hundreds of publicly owned golf courses have closed. St. Paul and Forest Lake have turned some municipal golf courses over to private companies. Once-busy private courses in Orono, Plymouth and Eagan are now targeted for housing development.

Edina officials point to stark statistics: golf rounds at Fred Richards and Braemar Golf Course dropped from 148,000 in 1998 to 96,000 in 2012, a 35 percent decrease. They say closing Fred Richards will save $734,000 from 2015 to 2020, helping to stabilize golf operations and enabling the city to improve Braemar.

"It's clear to us that the public's relationship with golf has changed; fewer people are golfing [and] less often," City Manager Scott Neal told the crowd at the public meeting. "When we have to take public dollars and use them to fill a [funding gap for golf], that's money we can't use for something else."

'A sweet little golf course'

But supporters of the Fred say the city would lose an asset that Braemar will not replace. At 500 acres, Braemar has its original 18 holes, a challenging stretch in holes 19 through 27 called "the Clunie nine," and a nine-hole executive course. A hillier course, it tends to attract experienced players.

Forty-two acre Fred Richards is "a sweet little golf course, with fine greens. To me, it's a gem," said Andrea Kellar, a golf pro who founded the Patty Berg League for mostly elementary school-age girls. In five years, participation has gone from 30 girls to about 130.

Kellar said that at first the league's playing time was split between the two courses, but three years ago moved exclusively to Fred Richards. She said some girls were uneasy and felt "in the way" at busy Braemar. She worries that participation will drop if the program leaves Fred Richards.

"Braemar is fabulous, but it's a hard golf course," she said. "At Fred Richards, they can have success, and their enjoyment allows them to mature in the game the way you should. It's the perfect course to learn the game."

Bart Halling, who lives less than three blocks from the Fred, said his four children learned to play golf there. He said Fred Richards is one of the few courses his parents, who have seven artificial joints between them, can walk.

"There are lots of seniors out there," he said. "Braemar gets a tremendous amount of playing pressure, and there's frustration if a kid is playing. … I think folks that want the experience that Fred Richards offers won't go there."

Halling and some of his neighbors also are concerned that property values around Fred Richards could drop if the course closes. They also want to know what the land would be used for. City staff has said they will recommend to the council that the land not be sold but be kept for public use.

A matter of money

Ann Kattreh, Edina's parks and recreation director, said the staff recommendation to close the Fred came after a monthslong study of golf operations. The city bought the course in 1992 and finished paying for it last year.

But the city subsidizes its golf operations to the tune of about $485,000 a year with profits from its municipal liquor stores. Next year, at best, operations at Fred Richards would break even, Kattreh said.

At the standing-room-only meeting in January, City Manager Neal said that if the city does nothing, by the end of 2020 the city's golf fund will be $881,000 in the red, even if the city continues to subsidize golf.

"We would have no way to pay for golf course improvements," Neal said.

The golf plan calls for making Braemar more attractive to golfers by reinvesting in the original 18 holes, which are 50 years old, renovating the driving range and improving the executive course.

"We'd like to make it more user friendly for people of all ages and abilities," Kattreh said. "We want to bring the fun back to our course."

The Clunie nine has been criticized for being too difficult, she said, "and we want to take a hard look at that. It may be a matter of changing tee placements in some places."

Hoping to please all

Kattreh admitted that satisfying all users is a challenge. But at a time when golf courses are competing for a shrinking number of players, she said, Braemar needs to keep its current players and attract new ones.

The plan calls for altering golf fees to reward frequent players, outsourcing restaurant operations and a renewed focus on customer service. Kattreh said the city would spend about $9,500 to hire a consultant to help with hiring, training and supervision of part-time staff through an entire season.

The city hired such a firm to help with liquor store operations. Kattreh said the consultants use "secret shoppers" who pose as customers and evaluate service and how they were treated.

"With the competitive nature of the golf industry right now, we need to do everything we can to let customers know we value them," Kattreh said.

A public hearing on the golf plan will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, before the Park Board. The plan then goes to the council on March 4.