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Golf courses struggle as effects of recession linger

But weather, new courses, other sports share blame

July 14, 2010

Tee times at Linda Stiloski's golf course were booked solid two years ago.

Now, traffic slows by 2 p.m., and by 5 p.m. it's dead, said the 51-year-old general manager of Brookfield Hills Golf Course.

"We're not full on beautiful weekend days, and the course is in such great shape," she said. "I've never seen the green so plush."

She said she's sure the recession is to blame.

Other public and private courses in the Milwaukee area report similar woes.

Declines in business have sparked discounts and maintenance cuts to remain "below the hole," and that's left some golf course operators wondering if the love affair with the sport has fizzled.

Supply outpaced demand

According to a recent National Golf Foundation report, there's more to the golf industry's slump than the economy.

The number of golfers is up 16 percent since 1990, while the number of golf facilities increased 24 percent, the report said. Supply outpaced demand, and dilution has cut rounds played per course by about 20 percent during the last two decades, the report said.

The foundation predicts 500 to 1,000 public golf courses nationwide will close within the next five years.

It is believed closures may help restore equilibrium.

"Some of (success) is luck, some of it is hard work, but the biggest one is supply. There needs to be a correction," said Dan Morn, 36, general manager of Mequon Country Club.

Shopping for value

Andy Barrett, a 38-year-old head golf professional at Oakwood Park Golf Course in Franklin, said the county-operated course is seeing a steady influx in golfers at prices nearly the same as before the recession.

Golfers played 40,000 rounds last year, and this year's pace is comparable, he said.

"This is a budget golf course. People come to us because they want to save money," he said.

After 2 p.m. a group of four can golf with a cart for $100. Seniors golf for $25 with a cart Tuesdays and Thursdays after 10 a.m.

Barrett said everyone has their own idea of what value is.

"It's like where you go for dinner," he said. "Maybe someone used to frequently dine out at fancy, expensive restaurants. Now maybe they won't go to as many fancy restaurants, or maybe they won't go at all."

Economic strains have caused some to doubt the sport's popularity.

Others aren't sold on the idea that the golf era is over.

"Tiger Woods came on the scene and created a gigantic boom in business, whether it's a junior player or someone from the inner city," Barrett said. "Plus, it's the only sport you can play into your 90s and 100s."

Local closures 'unlikely'

Tom Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, said he believes the sport will recover in Wisconsin.

"Courses are seeing more activity this year than last year," Schmidt said. "Is it as good as five years ago? No. But I think we are (headed) in the right direction."

Schmidt said he hasn't heard of any course closures in the area. While some courses may be struggling, closures are unlikely in Wisconsin, he said.

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