Wally Bomgren, coach of the new girls' golf team at New Life Academy in Woodbury, doesn't want to offend any of the courses the team plays on, but he's certain of which one his players like best:
Woodbury's municipal course, Eagle Valley.
"It's the nicest," he said. "Scenic views. There's water. There's a real variety to the holes, and there's wildlife — our girls get chased by geese, constantly."
Bomgren was surprised to hear that the course he sees today, with its country-club ambience of soft leather chairs in the lounge, was on the financial brink just a few years ago and given three years to turn things around. But it has — thanks in part to discounts that have the club selling thousands more rounds than it used to.
All in all, said city parks director Bob Klatt, "the course is now operating very successfully. We've had good seasons and good revenue."
A big change
Four years ago, it was quite the opposite.
"By far, 2011 was the worst ever in our existence," said Dan Moris, head pro and supervisor of golf operations.
It began the year before as rounds sold began dropping off fast, and then Mother Nature delivered a blow: the biggest single-day November snowfall in nearly 20 years.
"We went from 65 degrees one day in the fall, with greens still trying to grow, to nine inches of snow three days later," Moris said. "It suffocated the grass. We spent the whole spring trying to regrow the greens. We seeded them three times. That year was brutal."
City officials were tiring of financial problems, and put the golf course on a three-year recovery clock: Get your act together, or risk getting out of the business altogether.
Things began to turn around in 2012, with its miraculously early spring. Golfing at Eagle Valley soared. Even last year, with an abnormally wet June, notably on weekends, the course experienced a jump of well over 4,000 rounds played compared to 2011.
Late in 2014, a financial weight was lifted. The City Council found the money to buy out debt, save heavily on interest costs, and put the course on a firmer footing.
"The funds for the debt retirement came from city reserves and resulted in substantial interest savings of $832,180, the largest savings the city has experienced in calling a debt issuance," said city spokesman Jason Egerstrom.
The course's "key performance goal," he said, "is maintaining a 20 percent or greater annual operating profit. The course has exceeded that goal for three straight years: 25 percent in 2012; 22 percent in 2013 and 25 percent in 2014."
Staffing got slimmer with the loss of a general manager position. The cost of play dropped: Fridays, weekends and holidays after noon went from higher weekend rates to lower weekday rates.
Memberships in the Royal Club, which offers greens fee discounts, were reduced for Woodbury residents. Memberships jumped from 332 in 2011 to more than 500 in the following three years. A club card is $90 for residents and $110 for nonresidents. It pays for itself after five rounds played in a season.
"With the Royal Club membership," Moris said, "you can ride [play while riding a cart instead of walking] for 38 bucks. That's attractive to people."
While the cost dropped, improvements were made to the clubhouse to give it a more luxurious feel.
"We did an interior renovation. The carpet and painting had been there for 15, 17 years, ugly green carpeting, and we've made improvements," Moris said. "That was important.
"Those leather chairs you're seeing have only been here for a year. It used to be just little tables all around. We tried to make it inviting. We want people to have a beer and a sandwich on our revenue side, so let's make it inviting."
In retrospect, he said, the course opened at just about the worst time it could have — July 1998, as courses were opening across the region and supply began to outpace demand.
After 9/11, he said, the corporate market crashed. Then the Great Recession hit. Between them, you saw a lot fewer expense-account Fridays. Now, courses are closing all across the metro.
In suburbs, municipal golf exists in a slightly precarious position: it's considered enough of an elite amenity that cities are reluctant to oversubsidize it while turning away requests for funding of other projects or programs.
Still, Egerstrom said, the debt buyout was considered to be a good decision. A task force decided that "the golf course is a valuable asset for the community — for recreation, quality of life and for the property values around it — and therefore was worth preserving and continuing to operate."
So far this year, rounds played are up 100 percent from the same period last year, mostly because of great weather, officials say.
"The last three days," Moris said early last week, "Friday-Saturday-Sunday, we were pushing 700 rounds played. Typically, this time in May, it could be as little as just a couple of hundred."