- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Golf courses in Southern Maryland have found themselves well off the fairway because of the Great Recession, but many are finding ways to get back toward the green.
Managers and owners are employing many strategies to cut expenses in unique ways while also creating new deals and programs to draw in customers.
Hawthorne Country Club in La Plata last year created a category, associate membership, that takes the bite out of full membership costs.
Robert Poe, its president, said associate members do not pay monthly fees, unlike full members, and pay a one-time fee of $299 a year for one person, and $399 for a family. Their memberships are for golf only, while full members can also use the swimming pool and tennis courts.
Poe said about 70 percent of associate members have converted to full membership, and there are now more than 60 associates. He said this move has improved Hawthorne’s financial state.
Kim Dickerson tried the associate membership last year, and decided to become a full member this year.
“The associate membership is good, but you’ve got to do the math and figure out what’s the best for you,” Dickerson said.
The club also has initiated a program called Charity Tuesday, usually the lightest-attended golf day at Hawthorne, Poe said. The club charges approximately $40 per person and donates half back to a sponsoring organization, Poe said.
Club vice president Charles Bongar said the country club is a “unique kind of environment” where everyone is welcome. “I think that’s why we’ve survived through these tough times.”
Tom Roland, chief of parks and grounds for Charles County, said difficulties at White Plains Golf Course are “not really different than other golf courses,” as the golf economy has been off in general the last few years.
Membership is off probably about 15 percent from the previous year, Roland said, but a majority of the course’s revenue comes from nonmembers.
White Plains has cut expenses through several means, such as skipping turf management “as long as it won’t hurt,” he said, cutting full-time positions for maintenance, offering part-time work that offers benefits of playing golf and reducing material and fertilizer costs.
“We’re operating on a shoestring. If you cut much more, it affects the operation,” Roland said. He said the course also has delayed renovations to its irrigation system due to the economy.
Despite the difficulties, Roland points to White Plains’ role.
“Municipal golf courses, unlike private courses, offer a significant recreational amenity to the community,” Roland said. “It is affordable, unlike a lot of golf communities. It has an affordable niche that provides a quality recreation amenity and a healthy avenue for physical activity.”
Roland admitted the golf course is not making a profit, but added that it pays out much less from the county’s general fund than other recreational amenities.
But Roland said he is hopeful that more people will join the game as more people retire and move to the area.
“Already many seniors use the golf course,” Roland said, noting that they constitute the majority of members.
The golf course is using social media and email to notify customers of deals and programs, such as receiving a ticket to a Southern Maryland Blue Crabs game when purchasing a round of golf. There are also youth programs and discounts for twilight play starting at 1 p.m., Roland said.
Although the economic downturn brought a decrease in play, Roland sees an upturn now.
“We’ve seen the economy get better. We’re seeing new faces and hoping we have turned the corner,” Roland said.
No silver bulletMark “Doc” Grace, owner of Mellomar Golf Park in Owings, operates one nine-hole regulation course, one nine-hole par-3 course and a driving range, which have all been impacted by the recession.
“The economy ... certainly has had an impact,” he said. “In general, people do not have the discretionary income they had prior to 2008. Those who do have it are much more skittish at spending what they’ve got.”
Grace estimated that Mellomar’s revenue has been off between 60 and 70 percent since 2007. He said he’s run into former customers who say they can’t afford to play anymore.
“If they can’t afford my golf course, which is considerably less, I don’t know how they can play anywhere else,” he said.
Another adverse impact, Grace said, occurred when Calvert County Government purchased Chesapeake Hills Golf Course in 2009.
“The government is not on the profit system, but I am on the profit system,” he said. “The county government has funds available for improving their golf course that I cannot have to improve my golf course,” by using real estate tax dollars.
Seeing the county government spend $800,000 on a new irrigation system has been “absolutely startling,” Grace said. “I’ve put in two irrigation systems, and I have done it for a hell of a lot less.”
Grace also has seen a decline in the use of the driving range, which has 15 to 20 spots for golfers to practice hitting golf balls.
“At about 4 to 5 p.m., we would have people waiting for space on the tee line to hit golf balls. That’s a situation we have not seen in years. Now we’re never packed and we always have a vacancy,” he said.
In order to make up for reduced revenues, Grace has had to tweak things to keep the golf course viable.
“You have to tweak things to keep yourself in business that you didn’t have to do five years ago,” Grace said.
Grace has deployed a different sort of creature to tackle high grasses.
“This time last year, I initiated bringing goats to the golf course. I now have people that come to the golf course and ask, ‘Where are the goats today?’ So I move them around every week or two. That is one way I can set myself apart from other golf courses,” Grace said.
The goats come from the Prosperity Acres farm in Sunderland. During the winter, Grace feeds them hay baled from the property, another cost-saver.
Grace also encourages players online.
“I try to have a more individualized approach to golf and golf courses than anybody else,” Grace said.
As for how to get the golf industry out of the rough, Grace said, “I’m not sure what the silver bullet is.”
Preparing and maintaining a golf course is difficult and expensive, Grace said.
“It’s not easy. If it was easy, everyone would have a golf course,” he said.
Chesapeake Hills in Lusby was in a difficult financial situation when Calvert County took it over three years ago.
General manager Tim Hepler has been in charge of turning around the golf course, which needed fixing first before responding to difficult economic conditions.
In particular, what needed fixing, Hepler said, were poor conditions and a bad reputation.
“We have been in fix mode for three years, spending every penny we can. We’ve done a very good job of that,” he said.
A new $800,000 irrigation system, approved this year by the county commissioners, has a bigger pump and will allow the course to be watered at the best time — at dawn.
“It’s a key piece of infrastructure for the next 20 years. The original system dates back to the 1960s. We have to water all night currently. But if we can pump more water at once, we can shorten the window,” Hepler said.
Another challenge has been regrowing grass, Hepler said, because neither summer nor winter grasses grow well in the mid-Atlantic region, with its hot summers and cool winters.
The course lost some greens in prior years, but not recently, Hepler said.
The greens this year are in great shape, Hepler said, thanks to the course’s superintendent Mike Maher working to make the course better and U.S. Golf Association regional agronomists assisting on an annual basis.
“Once you have a good product you have something to build on. We’ve maintained customers in poor conditions. Hopefully with good conditions and a good economy, we’ll gain more customers,” Hepler said.
Hepler said he is hoping to have the golf course break even in a couple of years.
“Last year, we made about 82 percent of revenues needed to run [the] golf course. We’re trying to close the gap on that,” he said.
Rounds played on the golf course have remained steady between 19,000 and 22,000 a year, Hepler said, but the golf course “probably need[s] 26,000 rounds to break even.”
Hepler said the majority of business comes from senior citizens.
“We have a special rate set up for them so it is affordable. Our goal is to grow more leagues,” he said. The course also offers a program where children can use clubs for free.
Karen Shields, co-owner of Twin Shields Golf Club in Dunkirk, said everyone in golf has felt the economic pinch.
“I think it changed everyone’s plans across the board,” she said. “We all have had to cut pay. Golf has taken a slump. It doesn’t have the zip-zap it used to have.”
Like many courses, Twin Shields has tried to cut expenses in maintenance and membership fees.
“We try to save a buck everywhere we can, but can’t cut back everything. We’ve got to keep the greens looking good,” Shields said.
Shields surmises that the nation overbuilt on golf courses and then lost significant value in real estate prices when the economy went under.
“I don’t know what golf needs. It needs a miracle. Hopefully it will come back. Hopefully the government will work with you,” she said.
Shields said plans for the golf course closing and becoming a subdivision have been approved, but are not going into effect anytime soon.
“It is public knowledge that we’ve been approved as a subdivision. Is it happening anytime soon? No. Is it sold? No. Right now it’s not happening. We’re going to keep on working. We are a full-fledged golf course open to the public,” Shields said.
Keeping out of the hazards
Breton Bay Golf & Country Club stretches close to the shoreline of Breton Bay in Leonardtown, but the course isn’t on the edge financially after the recession.
“It has cost us some membership, but really we’re not hurting as bad as a lot of [golf courses],” general manager Bob Arnold said.
Arnold credited the course’s proximity to Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the club’s semiprivate status, which permits public play for offsetting losses in membership.
While the golf course has been making its budget, it has worked on reducing rates to draw in golfers, Arnold said.
It has established a reduced rate through a program called the “Tee-Time Golf Pass,” Arnold said, which permits play on weekdays at any time for $30, and on weekends and holidays for $33. The normal rates are $50 per round during the week and $52 on weekends.
Arnold estimated that the program, which started in 2010, has generated about 200 rounds of golf a year for Breton Bay. Members still have priorities on tee times, reduced golf fees and the club’s social activities under the program, Arnold said.
The economy has slowed down other plans for the course, Arnold said.
“We have been looking to expand our clubhouse, but we had to put that on hold due to the downturn,” he said.
The country club also created a new membership package in July for younger families at a reduced rate, but it has not published those rates.
Wicomico Shores Golf Course near Chaptico has experienced a series of challenges as a result of the recession and bad weather, but play is on the upswing.
The course saw a 15 percent decline in rounds of golf played from fiscal 2009 to 2011 and a $138,000 deficit in fiscal 2011, but in fiscal 2012, rounds of golf played increased from 33,982 to 35,093.
Wicomico Shores manager Pat Meyers said the rounds played “certainly increased” in the last six months, but did not know whether to attribute that to an improved economy or the region’s warmer winter.
“Hopefully it’s a sign [the] economy is trying to perk up a bit,” she said.
The economic downturn has not significantly affected any plans for major improvements, Meyers said, as most renovations to the course’s clubhouse, irrigation system and maintenance barn have been done over the last 10 to 15 years.
“Maybe we’d like to renovate some bunkers, but there is almost always something that golf courses are looking to renovate,” Meyers said.
The county government operates the course on an enterprise budget, meaning that the course is sustained by its own revenues instead of taxpayer dollars.
Although the St. Mary’s commissioners have considered privatizing the course, the board voted in January to keep the course under county government operation and enacted a couple of expense cuts, including refinancing the clubhouse’s mortgage, saving $17,000 a year, and replacing the vacant assistant general manager position with a lower-paid position of golf shop attendant, saving $11,000 a year.
Meyers said the golf course also can do minor maintenance cuts to save funds here or there.
“The fine line is you can’t cut back on things that golfers will see or notice. You might skip and spray every other time, but if you’re losing integrity of greens, that’s when you run into problems,” Meyers said.
Wicomico Shores also has moved back its twilight rate to 2 from 3 p.m. to draw more people to the course on the lower rate, she said.
Meyers said she has seen a general trend of fewer children playing on the course, and would like to initiate specials to change that fact.
Cedar Point Golf Course, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, has had a “resurgence” in the number of players playing this year, said Kevin Conlon, the course’s general manager and head golf pro. He said that’s due to communicating specials better, a milder winter and avid golfers figuring out how to adjust to economic conditions.
“I think people have come to grips of where the economy is,” he said. “Those who are golfers have found to take care of needs with family and other life functions, and as a result, they’re isn’t as much discretionary income, but they’re finding a way for it to work.”
Because Cedar Point is a military golf course, its clientele is confined to active-duty military, retired military, Department of Defense employees and contractors who work at the base or at Webster Field in St. Inigoes. With the exception of contractors, eligible patrons are able to sponsor guests.
The golf course also has a different sort of mission, Conlon said.
“We’re here for the sailors,” he said. “They have a huge responsibility to protect the freedom of all American citizens. When they’re off, we offer many areas for them to spend their time off” with zero or minimum costs.
Conlon said despite challenges, the maintenance staff has done a better job of keeping the course looking sharp each year, Conlon said.
“Regardless of number of players, we’ve always tried to provide the level of service you expect at a top-level golf course,” he said. “We come from [the] mindset that when [a] person goes to a golf course, [we want them] to enjoy themselves, making [the] golf course a little golfer-friendly and more fun to play.”