Dwindling ranks of golfers handicap golf courses

Golf courses are in trouble, and Florida — which boasts more golf courses than any other state in the nation — could be hit the hardest.

The latest to experience trouble is Scotland Yards Golf Club on U.S. 301 in Dade City. The bank that holds the mortgage on the course, First National Bank of Pasco, started foreclosure proceedings against the 100-acre course last month. However, course owner David Rinaldo says those problems look worse than they actually are.

Golf courses are a favorite pastime of many older players, but have not really attracted the younger generation. For golfers like Richard Buddy of Wesley Chapel, it might be harder to find golf courses in the future. (Courtesy of Ron Ludwin)

Golf courses are a favorite pastime of many older players, but have not really attracted the younger generation. For golfers like Richard Buddy of Wesley Chapel, it might be harder to find golf courses in the future.
(Courtesy of Ron Ludwin)

“The course has financial issues like every golf course in America,” Rinaldo told The Laker/Lutz News in an email. “But it is not shutting down.”

Golf courses are suffering financially in different parts of the country, especially Florida, as interest in the sport wanes from its peak over the last few decades. Last year, 160 golf courses shut down in the nation, and 300 have closed in the last few years, the National Golf Foundation reported, according to published reports.

Florida has more than 1,200 courses, enough to have one course for every 16,000 people. That’s just too many for the market to sustain, one golf pro says, especially with other recreational activities that may be less time consuming and less expensive competing against the game.

“Golf was in its heyday 20 or 30 years ago, when that was the thing to do, both socially and sports wise,” said Laura Sanderson, a pro at Meadow Oaks Golf & Country Club in Hudson. “Everyone built a bunch of golf courses because, back then, we could keep them full. But now people’s interests have changed, especially the younger generation. People just have better things to do with their time and money.”

The summer season hasn’t helped, when many seasonal residents are in their northern homes, and those remaining finding it too hot to hit the links. Even Meadow Oaks, which averages 275 golfers a day during the peak season, is seeing just a little more than 100 during the summer months.

But getting through those times means knowing that it’s coming, and being ready for it. Quail Hollow Golf Course in Wesley Chapel, for example, has focused on attracting a lot of non-golf events like motorcycle shows and big band performances, Sanderson said.

“You just have to take care of where you’re at,” said Nic Kalojiannis, one of the people in the ownership group that leases and manages Heritage Harbor Golf and Country Club in Lutz. “We do a lot of weddings, sweet 16s, and golf tournaments. It’s a process as a whole that you need to have, just to try and get you through tough seasonal times. Like this year, it’s rained pretty much all day every day, it seems like.”

These events give exposure to the golf course, which is owned by the Heritage Harbor Community Development District.

“We’re out here on Lutz Lake Fern Road off of North Dale Mabry, and we have a beautiful sign and the upkeep is really nice,” Kalojiannis said. “But the clubhouse was built in the back, kind of off the beaten path. We always have people coming in to our events telling us they didn’t even know we were back here.”

Other courses, however, would likely struggle no matter what they tried to do. And all of that goes back to how golf courses were originally financed.

Mortgages — typically in the millions of dollars — were structured in a way that a course could pay its note and still make a profit by charging $70 a round, for example.

“People don’t have that kind of excess money anymore, or if they do, they are not really willing to put it toward golf,” Sanderson said.

Instead, many have to cut fees, and then find ways to save expenses. More often than not, golf courses choose to skimp on maintenance — which could drive away even more golfers, and make their financial situation worse.

Even after Plantation Palms Golf Club in Land O’ Lakes shut down in May, maintenance crews kept the course in mostly good shape. However, when the workers stopped coming, the course fell into disrepair.

“After a matter of a couple months of that, it becomes completely unplayable,” Sanderson said. “You’ll lose the greens, and it’s not that you can just go back and mow it. You’ll have to replace it, and that could cost you $1 million right there.”

Plantation Palms was put up for sale last month for $1.2 million, considerably down from the $2.2 million MJS Golf Club LLC paid for it in 2011.

Plantation Palms was one of many communities in the region, and in the country, anchored by golf courses. But that’s not happening anymore. Some homeowners in Plantation Palms complained about the loss of home value, and many golf course designers have turned to Europe and Asia to build new courses, not finding any market in the United States.

But is golf fighting for its life? Sanderson doesn’t think so. It’s more about “righting the ship.”

“Golf is still strong, we just have too much product out there, too many courses out there,” she said. “We definitely need to grow the industry from the standpoint of the younger generation, but we’re just shaking out some of the excess courses. The ones that survive are going to end up being good in the long run.”

Published September 3, 2014

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