The Fred isn't dead. Not yet. The Edina City Council last week granted a stay of execution to the lovely little Fred Richards golf course on 77th Street, but the number-crunchers still intend to place the Fred on death row as early as today, making it part of a national trend: the incredible shrinkage of golf.
Golf courses across the country are closing at a rate of more than 100 per year, the victims of a sad confluence of social, economic, technological and even climatological factors. Not even the rapid aging of the population — a trend that should be favorable to golf, especially to shorter, easier courses like the Fred — can seem to turn the tide.
Two other little gems in the western suburbs, Lakeview in Orono and Red Oak in Minnetrista, both privately owned but open to the public, called it quits last fall. Both will be sold off for homesites. Among the other local closings in recent years: Parkview in Eagan and Elm Creek in Plymouth.
All in all, the nation has lost a net of 300 golf courses since 2005 as the number of rounds played fell by 7.4 percent and the number of players dropped by more than 4 million. What worries the industry most is the one-third decline in the number of frequent players — those who play more than a dozen rounds per year.
Of the many reasons for golf's decline, lack of time is probably the foremost. Job and family obligations make a four-hour-or-longer golf outing less and less possible. The game moves too slowly for a younger generation tied to computer games and workouts at the gym. At the upper end, fewer business deals are struck on the back nine, and fewer corporations offer club privileges to junior executives.
As for the game itself, golf is extremely difficult (and frustrating) unless it's played frequently, and frequent play costs not only time but money. Declining real wages and uncertain pensions have had their effect, experts say.
Then there's the vast overbuilding of golf courses. Between 1990 and 2005, more than 3,200 courses were opened, many of them attached to Sun Belt housing developments. When those homes went belly-up in the 2007-2012 housing slide, golf courses went with them.
Golf-course operators, meanwhile, continue to face ever-higher maintenance costs exacerbated by waves of tree diseases and a changing climate that seems to bring more floods, extreme storms and unpredictable conditions. Minneapolis' public courses were open only 179 days last year.
The city is considering a long-term restructuring of its seven golf courses as a way to lessen the $34 million required to restore them to competitive shape. A recent report blamed two decades of neglect and poor maintenance of grounds and clubhouses for aggravating a downward spiral in play. Traffic on the city courses has declined by 46 percent since 2000. In St. Paul, declining interest prompted the city to let a private company run two of its courses.
Edina faces similar problems on a smaller scale, leading some officials to conclude that golf should be consolidated at the Braemar complex, thus sacrificing the nine-hole Fred Richards executive layout. Rounds played on Edina's three courses have fallen by 41 percent since 1998.
In the face of declining patronage, it's hard to argue for major reinvestment. Minneapolis' parks superintendent Jayne Miller says that before the Park Board decides how to restructure its 108 holes, it owes customers "a higher-quality golf experience." That means, she said, a more helpful staff, better marketing and better conditions on the courses and in the clubhouses — beginning this spring.
Edina Mayor Jim Hovland agrees, saying cities should carefully evaluate the market before closing courses. A huge wave of baby boomer retirees will soon have the time (and, in many cases, the money) to play more golf. And young people must be attracted if the game is to survive. Courses like the Fred may be especially appealing to both groups, he said.
Despite golf's problems, the anticipation of chasing a little white ball down a lush green fairway runs especially strong this year, in the midst of the longest, cruelest winter in memory.