Only one member of the Allen family is still intrigued by the golf clubs stored in the garage.
Curious 2-year-old Landon digs through the old bag stuffed with dirty clubs any chance he gets. But the toddler has enough toys, mom Nicole said, as she priced the clubs to sell at $30 on Craigslist last month. A sale will be the final step in making it at least 40,000 Minnesotans who have given up the game of golf in the past two decades.
All over the state, and especially in Minneapolis and around the Twin Cities, communities are quickly trying to decide whether to abandon the game; change their courses and golf culture for a new generation; or wait out the slump while hoping for another 20-year hot streak.
Riding the golf boom into the new millennium, the sport’s health, like a good round gone terribly wrong, has taken a painful turn in short time. The game is bleeding both recreational golfers and the courses they used to play.
With so many former customers like the Jason Allen, Landon’s father, choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere, the sport’s many jobs — from greenskeeper to clubhouse bartender to golf pro — continue to vanish.
It has been six years since Allen, of Brooklyn Park, last punished himself on the golf course. He first sliced a tee shot into the wrong fairway 10 years ago at Pebble Creek Golf Club in Becker. The slice never straightened, and he doesn’t have the time or the desire to spend the money to fix it.
“If I had the time to, maybe I wouldn’t mind putting the time and investment that you have to put into the game,” Allen said. “I don’t have the time to play anymore, and it is kind of an expensive sport.”
He was pulled in, like millions of others, when Tiger Woods was energizing the old game and new gear such as Big Berthas enticed fringe players. But today the sport has lost nearly 5 million players nationally since it hit a peak of 30.5 million in 2003. Even the state that proudly boasts a “most golfers per capita” slogan isn’t scoring well. Minnesota Golf Association membership, a strong indicator of avid golfers of the 492 state courses, has fallen from a 1999 high of 94,000 to 65,000.
Seemingly every end of summer means an end to golf in at least one corner of a community. In the coming weeks, it will happen again, in Edina and elsewhere. Since the last new course opened in the Twin Cities in 2006, 14 others have closed across the state, according to the MGA.
No city is struggling more than Minneapolis, where a commissioned report this year called for $34 million in improvements.
Too many courses, the dwindling demand and an unforgiving economic recession resulted in what is today’s correction, said Tom Ryan, MGA executive director and chief operating officer.
“I really believe the game of golf is fine. The business of golf is what’s struggling, and the business of golf includes the number of people playing, and the number of clubs and golf holes available for those people,” Ryan said. “It’s amazing how much has changed in 15 years.”
Courses take a beating
Local course owners are warning that it will be another flat financial golf season, if they’re lucky, said Curt Walker, executive director of the Midwest Golf Course Owners Association.
Employees at Edina’s nine-hole Fred Richards Golf Course are feeling unlucky after learning the course will close at the end of the season. Jack McKernan, who has worked the clubhouse for 14 years, will be forced into retirement.
“It’s a shame,” McKernan said. “We’re sad because we’re closing. I don’t know where the kids are going to play. They’re going to be closed out. … It’s a shame we’re going to lose this jewel.”
In each corner of the metro, tall weeds or new homes stand where well-manicured fairways and greens once were considered the jewels of the communities. Minneapolis lost a half-million dollars running its six courses in 2013, a $2.3 million swing in the wrong direction after a golf-boom high $1.8 million profit in 2000. The source of that big loss is easy to find: Barely more than half as many rounds were played in 2013 than in 2000.
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Liz Wielinski anticipates major changes and possible course consolidation. Earlier this year, a consulting group’s 151-page course operational and financial review deemed Minneapolis city golf to be a “failing enterprise” and “in the grips of a death spiral.”
The Minnesota Office of the State Auditor has reported a similar story throughout the Twin Cities. Edina, Chaska, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Inver Grove Heights, Woodbury, Buffalo and Cottage Grove each recorded six-figure operating losses in 2011 at their city courses.
In Blaine, TPC Twin Cities General Manager Alan Cull said the private club’s initiation fee is a third of what it used to be, and the atmosphere is becoming more casual to attract more families.
Hastings Country Club has memberships priced as low as $1,100, and its restaurant is now open to the community, no membership necessary.
Golden Valley Golf and Country Club members Ryan Nelson and Matt Peterson said they joined the club at the height of the recession for a third of the current $25,000-$29,500 initiation fee, a price that is still $10,000 short of what it was a decade ago when a new clubhouse was built.
Bloomington’s Dwan Golf Club continues to be ranked by golf publications and local golfers as one of the more popular courses in the area, yet the city won’t turn a profit between its two golf facilities yet again this year. Rick Sitek, manager and head golf pro in Bloomington, transformed the city’s Hyland Greens course by cutting out nine holes for a practice facility and adding footgolf — a cross between kickball and golf — throughout the remaining track. Sitek said footgolf won’t be the city’s savior, but it should bring in $60,000 in revenue this season.
St. Paul hired the Prom Management Group to operate two of its four courses, Como and Phalen, a move the city hopes will offset a consistent six-figure deficit at these facilities.
With two course closures in the past decade, Eagan’s 65,000 residents now have just nine holes to play in their city.
And the last golf course built in the Twin Cities area — the 18-hole Riverwood National in suburban Otsego, which opened in 2006 — is a textbook example of what had happened in a state with too many courses and a collapsing real estate market. Homes along Riverwood, which initially fetched $700,000, dived to $200,000. Course membership dipped in 2010 to just 29 members. And the golf course, which at one point listed for $4.9 million, was recently sold for roughly $1 million.
Each of these scenarios can be traced to a course-building craze that hatched an astounding 147 new courses in Minnesota from 1990 to 2009.
“In the late ’90s, early 2000s, ‘Build a golf course a day’ was the motto in the United States,” said Jeff Ische, executive director of property and sports operations at Golden Valley Golf and Country Club. “Now we’re closing one every other day, probably.”
The correction is most evident in places such as Orono, Mound, Eagan and Plymouth, where Lakeview, Red Oak, Parkview and Elm Creek are no longer course names but housing developments.
“I think there are some serious decisions that have to be made,” Wielinski said. “It may be an opportunity to repurpose golf courses to new ways of playing golf — footgolf and disc golf. I know traditional golfers would have to make some adjustments to adapt to new golfers. But every sport has a cycle.”
All in, then all out
The cycle at Lakeview Golf Course came to an end last summer.
For six years, Grant and Vicky Wenkstern drained their personal assets and borrowed money from the bank to keep the 60-year-old course in Mound open.
“I cashed in the IRA, my life insurance policy, I took out a loan on the home,” Grant Wenkstern said. “Then I subsidized it on the land hoping the industry would turn around, and it didn’t.”
Turning a profit didn’t become a problem at Lakeview until the late 2000s. In 1998, Wenkstern said the course turned its biggest profit. Around 2009, the course began losing an average of $60,000-$70,000 a year.
The family-owned course was drowning in debt with no end in sight, until a surprise visitor knocked on the Wenksterns’ door last spring on a snowy May afternoon. A developer interested in the land near the shores of Lake Minnetonka made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
It’s too late to get his life insurance policy back, Wenkstern said, but he’s happy to own his home again.
“It’s a matter of time until more courses close [around the Twin Cities]. The more that go broke, the industry will be better off. … There’s too much competition,” Wenkstern said. “It’s real hard to drive by and look at [the empty] course.”
Bad for business
The sport’s decline goes beyond the greens and tee boxes. Once bustling stores Nevada Bob’s Golf, Austads Golf and Golf Etc. have closed their doors in the Twin Cities. Such mom-and-pop shops across the country have fallen from a high of 2,000 to 300, according to the National Golf Foundation.
National golf retailers Golf Galaxy and Golfsmith are also cutting locations, inventory and staff.
Dick’s Sporting Goods, which owns Golf Galaxy, laid off all 478 of its nationwide PGA-certified golf pros in July to offset a projected 10 percent drop in year-end profits from declining equipment sales.
“It’s a shock. It’s a body blow. Especially when you give your heart and soul to your job,” said 53-year-old Brian Riner, one of seven golf pros in Minnesota escorted out of the big-box sports retailer on the morning of the mass layoffs. “Nobody was spared. But I’m not giving up on the industry. No way, no how.”
Donny Mark saw that golf was no longer the way to make money and did something about it. He bought the inflatable golf dome in Long Lake — and virtually eliminated the golf. He uses it instead for almost everything else: soccer games, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, remote control airplanes, car racing. It even turns into a haunted house at Halloween.
In one nod to golf, the dome does offer Terror Mini Putt for $6 at Halloween.
But golf, he said, is just 5 percent of his overall business. The driving range is typically open only when the field is not otherwise rented.
“Each year, we’ve started to wean off golf — less and less hours each year,” Mark said. “I think there’s too many facilities, too many courses for how many people who are playing golf right now.”
The golf boom tricked Wenkstern into believing “everything would be fine forever and ever.” His forecast, along with the rest of the industry’s, has changed dramatically. The former Lakeview owner anticipates things getting worse for courses and their owners struggling to survive.
Wielinski is bracing for the worst by considering a long-term plan that reconfigures Hiawatha to a nine-hole course and ends the city’s relationship with the leased Fort Snelling course.
Former golf pro and course designer Joel Goldstrand will see the first of his 85 projects in and around Minnesota shut down when Edina’s Fred Richards Golf Course closes this year. The 75-year-old golfer would rather see footgolf become part of the course than see it close. The future of golf, he said, will depend on growing interest among kids.
Cole Olson could have been one of those young golfers, but it’s too late. The 16-year-old from Northfield needed some summer gas money, so he sold his clubs.
Golf is important in Olson’s family, especially to the grandparents who own a course in Arizona, but he prefers the intensity and speed of football and baseball.
“My parents would much rather have me play golf because it carries on into older life and it’s a game you can play at whatever age you are,” Olson said. “But golf is a slow game. … I haven’t golfed this year and don’t think I will.”
Read Part 2 of the series here.