(NOTE: This appeared in the Triad Business Journal in 2006.)
In the rough: Clubs try promotions, amenities to draw golfers, families
Head golf professionals and general managers at golf courses or country clubs are going round and round, trying to overcome their problems. Fewer people are playing golf, and fewer rounds of golf are being played than a few years ago.
"It's harder than it was, no question," says Scott Stratton, the head golf professional of Greensboro's Cardinal Golf and Country Club. "As the bottom lines aren't as good and the rounds are down, we're trying to get the revenue up. It definitely was easier six or seven years go."
That's the situation everywhere, not just in the Triad.
"All of us are struggling now," says Mark Hartis, the head golf professional at the Grandview Golf Club in Winston-Salem. "We have a saturated market right now. When we had our best years, when we first came out here, (R.J.) Reynolds (Tobacco Co.) people were retiring and playing, and everybody from the neighborhood was playing.
"But it's not that way now. Throughout the country, you've got baby boomers going to soccer games with their kids instead. Guys who were playing here are now doing yard work."
Hartis and his partner, Harold Kincaid, have a unique situation. Hartis is the golf professional and Kincaid his assistant, but Kincaid's family owns the course. Kincaid is the president of the company, and Hartis is the vice president.
Hartis says developers have approached them about buying Grandview and building homes.
"If they made us an offer we couldn't refuse, we'd have to look hard at it and run," Hartis says.
The problem is supply and demand, says Rick Murphy, the president of the Carolinas PGA and the owner/operator of Rick Murphy's Carolina Golf Academy in Greensboro.
"Golf courses were overbuilt," says Murphy, whose organization, the Carolinas PGA, has about 1,900 members in North Carolina, South Carolina and a small portion of Virginia.
"It's partly due to home building and residential communities popping up to attract home buyers. A few years ago, there were 200 to 300 new golf courses being built per year, and that's flattened out."
Murphy says that golf participation was off in 2005, but he's seen a slight increase in 2006. The PGA of America's new program, called Play Golf America, has helped.
"Our section kind of took a leadership role," Murphy says. "We're holding events to spur interest in golf. We want to bring new golfers into the game, increase interest by the casual golfer who plays six to seven times a year, get them out more often, and try to maintain with the avid golfer."
Murphy says the Carolinas PGA section will hold eight events this year. The one in Hilton Head, S.C., featured 51 golf professionals giving 10-minute lessons, he says, while the one in the Triad drew 18 PGA professionals and probably 800 potential golfers.
Paul Spicer, the golf professional at Salem Glen Country Club in Clemmons, says 2002 and 2003 were the worst times for golf courses, but that business is improving.
"I think it's on the rise," says Spicer, who was an assistant golf professional at the Old Town Club in Winston-Salem before moving to Salem Glen last fall.
"After 9/11 hit and the stock market crashed, there were guys who had been living off the stock market and playing golf, and those guys had to go back to work. People saw being members of a club as a luxury, and it was probably the luxury they cut out first."
Tom Coffman, who recently took over as general manager of the Asheboro Country Club, says he believes PGA programs will increase interest.
Coffman favors a program by the PGA Foundation called Golf: For Business and Life in which businessmen and others can take a college course to learn about playing golf and golf etiquette. He says he plans to approach Randolph Community College about starting such a program.
"The industry as a whole is losing golfers, and we want to replace those who haven't been there awhile and to bring in new faces to create an interest in the Asheboro Country Club," Coffman says. "We haven't yet established a time frame to get this done, but it'll be on the agenda in the next couple of weeks."
Pricing is always a concern, of course.
"So far as I know, there hasn't been a price change here as far as greens fees," Coffman says. "But if we lower prices too much, the course would suffer and we'd lose money."
Salem Glen's Spicer says every club wants families to come out, and amenities help.
"That's what we are really trying to get -- families. We try to offer them everything we can offer, dining, pool facilities, tennis courts," Spicer says. "We (at Salem Glen) don't have tennis courts now, but it's in the plan for the future. It all depends on how the memberships go."
Spicer has had two tours of duty at Salem Glen. He was an assistant there when it opened in the 1990s; then he returned as head professional last fall.
"The original owners wanted to have 150 to 200 members so they could build a clubhouse, but they ended up building a clubhouse to attract new members," he says.
Nontraditional amenities don't hurt, either. Winding Creek Golf Club in Thomasville, for instance, is relatively rare as a golf course with a lighted driving range that's open until 10 p.m.
"It's unusual," says golf professional Jason Gentel. "There are a lot of lighted driving ranges, but not a lot of golf courses have them."
Coffman says Asheboro Country Club's amenities include a driving range and a swimming pool, but it has the unusual, too: a spring-fed lake that allows members to take a boat out and fish.
He knows of only one other course with a fishing pond -- Ike's Pond at the par-3 course at famed Augusta National.
How big is Asheboro's lake? Coffman, a PGA member and a former club pro, says it's two drives long and a drive and a wedge shot wide.
Jim Lotich, the director of sales and marketing at Greensboro's Grandover Resort, says Grandover is unique locally. It has an East Course and a West Course, and the resort itself draws families and groups that might not visit a public course or a country club.
"We're lucky in the fact that we have three different audiences," he says, "guests in the hotel, groups that stay at Grandover that utilize golf and groups that don't use the hotel."
"We have different revenue streams, and we're happy with our success," Lotich says.
Still, no business is bulletproof.
"When the economy is good, we're good," he says. "And when it's bad, we're bad."
Tom Gillispie is a free-lance contributor.
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