Second of two parts

A pop of pink in the distance signaled hope to Sara Ackmann. The colorful putter and golf ball belonging to 9-year-old Jordan Dolinar gave the director of golf at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board a rare reason to be optimistic about her struggling city-owned courses.

Any sign of junior-sized clubs on one of the city’s greens is comforting to Ackmann, the person tasked with fixing $34 million worth of problems in Minneapolis golf.

Dolinar, however, is as rare as a chip-in. Attracting kids and women to the game continues to be a challenge, deflating hopes for those who want these groups to be key players in a golf revival. The number of women and junior golfers dropped 23 and 35 percent, respectively, from 2005 to 2010, according to the National Golf Foundation.

“[My friends] usually say it’s kind of boring,” said Dolinar, who started playing because her father, Jesse, was one of millions who came running to the game a decade or two ago. “But when you actually try it, it’s more fun than you think.”

A bigger picture of the game’s population is just as unsettling. Golf lost nearly 5 million players across the country in the past 10 years. In Minnesota, 40,000 fewer people are playing than in the fully booked tee-time days of the “golf boom” that hit during the 1990s and 2000s.

Sprinkled across the metro, in between cities debating their future relationship with golf or lack of one, are investors who are already betting big on a golf comeback. Some national and local statistics this summer suggest that the game could be catching a break in 2014. The average number of rounds played at Minnesota golf courses is up 7.6 percent year-to-date from 2013, according to numbers tracked by the PGA.

One hint of good news, however, is unlikely to stop a surge in changing course culture. A more relaxed, family-focused atmosphere is driving success at a Blaine course. A multi-course membership approach is working in the northwest corner of the Twin Cities. And soccer balls flying down a fairway is an increasingly common sight.

“Some of this is about golf courses reinventing themselves. How do we do business in a time where everyone wants instant gratification?” Ackmann said. “A four-hour golf round isn’t going to entice a young generation. I don’t think [golf] is dead. I just think it’s stagnant and we need to work on it.”

Adapting to the times

TPC Twin Cities General Manager Alan Cull will be the first to admit he never thought social media or new-generation trends could mesh with his private club in Blaine. Cull also thought denim, straight-billed caps and other leisure wear belonged somewhere other than his course. Times changed, and eventually so did Cull as his course began to experience the same financial pressure as most of Minnesota’s 491 other courses.

The club is now proud of a five-star rating it has on its Facebook page. Kids in soccer uniforms run freely through the clubhouse on pasta night. Membership is at an all-time high and revenue is up despite a discount of nearly 65 percent on initiation fees. It’s all about focusing on the family and embracing new trends in the golf community, Cull said.

“Golf as an industry … you basically have to hit the ‘reset’ button,” he said. “When we first opened the club we were the place you had to play because no one had played it before. But we’re 15 years old now. We saw a little bit of a flat line … so we had to reinvent ourselves and be more relevant to kids by making golf cool.”

No course change tramples traditional golf culture the way footgolf does. Hyland Greens Golf Course was the first to cut 21-inch holes in its fairways and let people kick soccer balls off the tee boxes. Seven courses have since joined the new movement, with the city of Minneapolis hoping that footgolf at its Columbia and Hiawatha courses will help add revenue to a financially strained department that lost a half-million dollars on golf last year.

Youth leader Josh Gregovich picked footgolf over traditional golf for an afternoon of fun with several of his church’s preteens last month at Hyland Greens. After two holes of the sport they had never heard of, the boys already preferred kicking and running over swinging a club and hitting a 1.68-inch golf ball.

“It’s definitely exceeded my expectations. The kids that are playing are loving it,” said Rick Sitek, manager and head golf pro in Bloomington. “It’s not the savior, but it will certainly offset some of the [revenue] loss.”

Revenue losses at municipal courses are scattered across the state. Only six city courses turned a profit in 2011, according to the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor.

Sitek said the minimal $2,000 footgolf investment is an example of the affordable and untraditional ideas that cities need to reach younger generations.

Betting on a revival

If a golf comeback or stabilization is indeed near, several investors in the Twin Cities already have a head start.

The unrelenting recession and increasing financial woes at courses across the Twin Cities offered Chris Sauer a chance to add to his collection. In March, Sauer bought what he says was the last course built in the Twin Cities — the 18-hole Riverwood National in suburban Otsego. It sold for a bargain price of around $1 million, about a fifth of the original asking price, after it bottomed out not long after its opening in 2006.

Sauer is betting that by offering members a chance to golf at three courses for one price — he also owns the adjacent Vintage Golf Course and nearby Cedar Creek — business will be back. Head golf pro Steve Fessler said there are now more than 200 members at the three courses, quite a jump from a recession low of 29 members. “People get sick of playing one golf course over and over,” Sauer said.

Things are also looking up at Keller Golf Course in Maplewood. Ramsey County invested $12.2 million to renovate the historic course that once hosted the St. Paul Open and golf greats Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead. It reopened in July after the 21-month overhaul.

Another big bet is occurring in Eden Prairie, where the Olympic Hills Golf Club is undergoing a multimillion-dollar rebuild. Darlene Bell, an Olympic Hills board member and the Minnesota Women’s Golf Association president, said future golf construction will be less about building new courses and more about upgrading what you have.

Perhaps the most unlikely place that seems to be bullish on golf is the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

After five years of start-and-stop planning, the Golf Experience — a high-tech indoor golf facility — will this winter give airline passengers waiting to change planes a golfing opportunity not available at any other U.S. airport. The project, which includes the PGA of America as a marketing partner, will include a putting green, state-of-the-art golf simulators, practice range and merchandise only available at major PGA tour events.

The highlight will be a 3D-imaged, tour-quality fitting simulator that will allow customers to have clubs custom built for their swing.

To accommodate the facility, located on the airport’s upper level at the main terminal, federal officials will allow golf clubs to be used inside the concourse — federal security rules classify them as potential weapons — and will also allow customers from the Twin Cities who are not flying to be issued limited guest passes to move through security scanners and visit the store.

Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) officials are hoping that the facility becomes so popular among passengers that they will purposely plan layovers in Minnesota in order to visit.

But the commission, which is not contributing money to the project, said it endorsed the idea without necessarily analyzing the overall state of golf.

“It wasn’t necessarily, from our perspective, a focus on golf,” said Eric Johnson, the MAC’s director of commercial management and airline affairs. “It was something that was unique and different” that would allow passengers and others “to do something out of the ordinary at an airport.”

Joel Burger, a consultant with Wexford Golf of Minneapolis, is helping push the project. When Burger is not working on the airport project, he advises golf course owners in Minnesota on what to do — and advises some that it may be best to find other uses for their courses.

“Golf is definitely alive and well,” said Burger, who is also the secretary of the Minnesota PGA. “There’s a correction going on in the marketplace, and it’s healthy.”

Some golf courses have floundered because they had bad economic models, and others were simply “bad at what they do.” If in the end there are fewer golf courses in Minnesota, said Burger, “I don’t think that’s a bad thing for golf.”

A second 2nd chance

Call Simon Kallal’s bet on golf a double-down.

The former University of Minnesota golfer and Carlson School of Management graduate watched the company he created become a victim of the golf boom’s overreaching.

The business, 2nd Swing, was originally intended to focus on buying, trading and selling used clubs and had been reshaped into another golf equipment retailer with 70 to 75 stores in 20 different markets, Kallal said. Investors eyed an initial public stock offering and more expansion, but instead 2nd Swing overplayed its hand and spun into bankruptcy.

Kallal was fired from his company in 2005, a year before its collapse, for pushing a vision opposite of more expansion.

“The greed with overexpansion and being a little too overexcited about the industry and growth … I would say that definitely hurt us,” he said. “That put pressure on the board … and it put pressure on the company to move very fast and kind of capture the wave that was going on. Were we overbuilt? Did we build too fast? Absolutely.”

The entrepreneur wouldn’t give up his original vision. He purchased the 2nd Swing name out of bankruptcy and began rebuilding the company he dreamed up as a college student-athlete. The new 2nd Swing reopened in 2007, and eight years later it has become one of Golf Digest Magazine’s 2013 Best 100 Clubfitters in America. The small business with two locations, in Minneapolis and Minnetonka, and a strong online presence, is only one of two Minnesota companies to make the exclusive list.

“[Golf has] gone through a lot in the last six, seven years,” Kallal said. “But … it is still going and good things are still happening.”

Kallal’s former college teammate and 2nd Swing President Russ Higgins sees the good on a daily basis at the company’s stores.

Higgins said, “We see someone new or coming back to the game every day,” Higgins said

‘Unlimited future’

Maggie Heggertson hails from a town where the race for a good tee time still starts 72 hours in advance.

The summer destinations of Brainerd and other northern Minnesota cities are minting their health with the help of lodging, food and golf travel incentives.

Heggertson, who holds the girls state high school record for low score, recognizes the days of fighting for tee times are rare throughout most of the country.

“Golf is kind of dying out, maybe,” Heggertson said. “It’s not something a little kid dreams about, being a golf professional. But just try it out. It’s not like you can play basketball or hockey the rest of your life. Golf is something you can do until the day you die. It’s for anyone, really.”

Victory Links head golf pro Scott Roth is betting his career on the game’s future players. Roth has maintained a focus on families and kids since the public course in Blaine opened in 2004. The goal is to make the experience fun, affordable and time-sensitive, much like a family going to the movies, he said.

The PGA is also advocating new ideas such as 15-inch holes to make the game more “fun and enjoyable” for new players and kids. The national Drive, Chip and Putt skills competition has expanded from 19 to all 50 states, and the “Time for Nine” initiative is attracting time-crunched families. According to PGA statistics, junior golf leagues around the country are growing this summer compared to the past two.

The PGA is also betting on a new role model by naming 25-year-old four-time major champion Rory McIlroy as an ambassador for the PGA Junior Golf League. Tiger Woods led the most recent golf boom. Could McIlroy be next?

The family-focused change has helped fuel one of the healthiest summers at Victory Links. Revenue, rounds and kids interested in the game are all up.

“I feel as good about golf today as I did 20 years ago [during the boom],” Roth said. “Since our emphasis is teaching kids and getting kids into the game … we’ve got an unlimited future.”

Read Part 1 of the series here.

 

jason.gonzalez@startribune.com

mike.kaszuba@startribune.com