- Associated Press - Monday, August 23, 2010

MAMARONECK, N.Y. | A few weeds have popped up on the fairways, and summer’s heat has scorched the grass here and there, but the golf course at the Hampshire Country Club is still tidy and scenic, its little waterfall still burbling through the rocks.

Not that there’s anyone around to notice. The Hampshire’s 18-hole course on Long Island Sound, along with its tennis courts, pool and restaurant, is closed this year. Members cited rising costs upwards of $25,000 a year for a membership as the roster fell from several hundred at its peak to about 100.

“There was a lot of talk last year about the increasing costs, people not sure what they could pay, the assessments always going up,” said Barbara Mines, a member for 15 years who lives in a house on the Hampshire course. “I wasn’t really surprised when it closed.”

The same thing has happened in recent years at hundreds of other courses nationwide — even in the golf meccas of Florida, Arizona and California — as the economic meltdown and changes in family dynamics combine to threaten club life. Whether it’s a $45,000 initiation fee for a private club or a $5 increase in the cost of a round at a public course, the price of a golf habit is giving some duffers pause.

“It’s definitely connected to the economic conditions and the ability of potential private club members to pay the fairly significant initiation fees and annual dues,” said Jay Mottola, executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association, which represents 120,000 golfers and 500 golf courses in the New York region.

In 2009, about 140 of the 16,000 golf facilities in the country closed and 50 opened, said Greg Nathan, a vice president at the National Golf Foundation, which represents 4,000 courses nationwide. Mr. Mottola said that the industry has lost 100 clubs a year for the past four years. (The figures count nine-hole courses as half a facility.)

Many members who “have had their individual problems with the recession” quit the clubs for financial reasons, Mr. Mottola said. Initiation fees for MGA clubs averaged just less than $50,000 last year; annual dues were about $10,500. Mr. Mottola said the fees were “trending downward” but remained the highest in the country.

The changing lifestyles of family golfers are also at play.

“It used to be that the man of the house could just say, ‘Bye, Honey,’ and go to the club all day Saturday and Sunday,” Mr. Nathan said. “That dynamic has really changed over the last three or four decades.”

Some clubs are trying to become more family-friendly as a result, allowing golfers to bring their children while they tee off and opening computer lounges for busy professionals.

“You can check your stocks and e-mails before you tee off,” said Donald DeMasters, manager of the revamped Brynwood club in suburban Armonk.

In areas of the country where golf is played year-round, many courses were built to raise the prices of new houses around them, said Roger Garrett, a Phoenix real estate agent who has sold more than 150 golf courses nationwide.

Now, with the housing market depressed, a dozen or more golf properties in Arizona are in foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings, he said. The family-owned Sea Island Co. — with a stretch of private beaches and ancient oaks in coastal southern Georgia — also has filed for federal bankruptcy protection, proposing to sell its resorts and golf courses, where Presidents Coolidge, Eisenhower and George W. Bush have been guests.

A dwindling in the ranks of golfers followed an oversupply of golf courses, and then the Great Recession hit.

Since 2005, when the number of U.S. golfers peaked at 30 million, Mr. Nathan said, there’s been “a slow leak” to 27.1 million in 2009 (including anyone older than 6 who played a round). Rounds played were down 2.7 percent in the first half of this year, Mr. Nathan said.

A building boom in the 1990s and early 2000s brought an oversupply of both public and private courses. Mr. Mottola said courses owned by municipalities are “by and large doing OK.”

The town of Woodbridge, Conn., bought the Woodbridge Country Club last year for $7 million to keep it from being developed.

“We did not want to lose that green space,” said First Selectman Ed Sheehy. “The nice thing is, it’s green space with an income stream” — $950,000 the first year, with golfers paying $3,500 for a full membership.

The recession also has taken a toll on public courses. The Links at Shirley, in Shirley, N.Y., which had advertised itself as “a public course with a private feel,” has closed.

Clubs still need to do more, said golfer Greg Schimoler of Mamaroneck, teeing off at the public Saxon Woods course in Scarsdale. “The social life kids have today is not the country club lifestyle,” Mr. Schimoler said.

Clubs are looking at several strategies to lure back golfers. The private Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club in Apache Junction, Ariz., opens one of its two 18-hole courses to the public each day, said General Manager Gene Blum. In addition, the initiation fee was slashed from $100,000 to $15,000 as the club went through bankruptcy proceedings.

“It was maybe that or lock the doors,” he said.

Some private clubs have been able to stay open by selling to investors.

The struggling Canyon Club in Armonk was sold last year, renamed Brynwood and turned over to Troon Golf, which manages 200 golf courses. Mr. DeMasters, the general manager, said the club now has children’s activities, a fitness center and a computer lounge to make it family-friendly and “one-stop shopping.” The changes tripled membership from about 100 before the sale to 331, he said.

The Muttontown Club in East Norwich temporarily dropped its initiation fees — once as high as $60,000 — and welcomed members from a nearby club that closed, said President Mitchell Mandel.

“When things were booming, you add $500 or $1,000 to the dues and it wasn’t even an issue,” he said. “But in the last three years or so, not only can’t you raise dues but people were looking for a reduction.”

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