Struggling with drooping participation and revenues, golf courses are looking for new players to prop up the bottom line: Those who don't need clubs or a ball.
A small but growing number of courses, including two in the Twin Cities, are adding disc-golf baskets alongside their fairways and greens. It's a form of double-booking that nets extra cash at a time when rounds played at the state's public courses are down by the thousands, and revenue is down by the millions.
Disc courses opened for business in May on golf courses at Theodore Wirth and Fort Snelling parks near Minneapolis. "We are always looking for a new revenue stream," said Theodore Wirth Golf Course manager Mike Baker. Disc golf at Wirth's par 3 course is gaining popularity, despite little promotion and the $5 fee for adults, he said. "The first year was an experiment that went well," Baker said. A disc-golf league or tournament might be in the works for next year.
Another combined course opened in July near Rochester, and about two dozen hybrid courses have opened around the country, said Steve West, a disc course designer who laid out the two Twin Cities hybrids.
The Three Rivers Park District, which operates three disc courses and four ball golf courses, most in Hennepin County, is watching the hybrid trend.
"We talked about the possibility of adding disc to our golf courses," said Tom McDowell, associate parks superintendent. The district's courses are making less money, and it wouldn't cost much to add disc baskets if revenues keep dropping, he said. The revenue from disc golf isn't huge, at least not yet. The two Minneapolis hybrid courses made more than $9,000 this summer with a combined 1,766 disc rounds, said Tim Kuebelbeck, director of special facility operations for the Minneapolis Park Board.
That's a tiny fraction of traditional golf revenues at the same two courses, which, in the same period, totaled more than $250,000 at $17 per adult round, Kuebelbeck said.
The hybrids are a cultural shift for disc golfers, too: Their courses have a history of being free, but that's slowly changing. Eight of the 50 or so disc courses in the Twin Cities area charge admission, said Chuck Kennedy, a disc course designer and course development director for the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Some discers like the better-groomed pay courses, and golf officials hope they'll fork over greens fees to play on their pristine expanses.
The Three Rivers District was one of the first to charge disc players when its first course opened more than a decade ago on the ski hill at Hyland Lake Park in Bloomington, McDowell said. It now operates three disc courses, and has shown, even at $3 per adult, that it can make money: $92,500 for 55,000 disc rounds played in 2010 at Hyland, Elm Creek and Bryant Lake parks, McDowell said.
By comparison, three of the district's ball golf courses -- Baker, Eagle Lake and Glen Lake -- provided about 120,000 rounds last year that generated nearly $2 million in revenue, district figures show.
The courses have created some awkward scenes, with the older, traditional golf crowd learning to share the fairways with typically younger disc golfers.
Ball golfers weren't thrilled to see Frisbees flying across the Theodore Wirth par 3 course when Dave Lynch and his wife played the disc course shortly after it opened in May.
"It was kind of like you were treading on their territory," said Lynch, who helped develop a free disc course in West St. Paul, where he lives. He said the golfers' reaction was similar to that of skiers when snowboarders began appearing on ski slopes in the 1990s.
"It's a cultural adjustment," Kennedy said. "I think more and more it's being accepted from a practical and economic standpoint."
There have been a few testy moments during opening months, but disc and ball players seem to play together smoothly now, said Baker and Dan Stoneburg, the Fort Snelling course manager.
"Traffic control has been the biggest issue," Stoneburg said. "At some holes they tended to run into each other and bunch up."
Because disc golfers are faster, they have two baskets per hole of regular golf at both courses. At Fort Snelling, disc players are asked to let ball golfers play through to keep erratic balls from winging disc throwers. Some disc tees are set near regular golf tee areas, but disc baskets are set away from golf greens.
The three Minnesota courses are among more than two dozen in the country, including six in California, four in South Carolina and two in Wisconsin, said West. He and Kennedy co-designed the state's newest disc hybrid, which opened on the Piper Hills Golf Course in Plainview, near Rochester.
The number of regular golf players nationally has gradually declined in the past decade from about 30 million in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation's website. The foundation expects the number of golfers to increase about 1 percent in this decade.
But disc golf player numbers have risen steadily for several decades, perhaps more than 10 percent a year, West said. He said solid numbers are hard to find because most disc golfing is played for free on unmonitored courses.
"We powered right through the recession with no dropoff," Kennedy said.
Jim Adams • 952-707-9996