Tough times for golf industry

Springfield, Bellefontaine course among 7 forced to close.

Seven golf courses in the region, including one each in Clark and Logan counties, have closed during the past three years, casualties of an overbuilt industry that has lost millions of customers since the turn of the century.

From Bellefontaine to Springfield to Mason, 1,200 acres of manicured fairways and greens are being converted to farm land, housing developments or just sitting idle.

Snyder Park on Springfield’s west side is the smallest of the courses that have closed — 90 acres. Ten of those acres will be taken up by the Master Gardeners of Clark County and a dog park that could open by the end of the year, said Brad Boyer, deputy director of the National Trail Parks and Recreation District, which manages the course.

The decision earlier this year to close city-owned Snyder Park, which opened in 1920, was an emotional one. But it is estimated to save the city about $350,000 this year.

“The (golf) market was really saturated, which forced the hand of our board to make that difficult decision,” Boyer said. “There’s a steady decline nationally for the game and we were seeing that in our area.”

Two of the closed courses — Tree Links near Bellefontaine and Gem City (formerly Greene Country Club) in Fairborn — sit idle. Their owners could not be reached for comment.

Tree Links remains open for wedding receptions and according to its website, is selling trees and shrubs.

Six of the area courses that closed were open to the public. One — Gem City Golf Club — was private. The closures leave about 100 courses operating in the 14-county territory served by the Miami Valley Golf Association.

“It’s a demographics game,” MVGA executive director Steve Jurick said. “We’ve lost a lot of mid-level, white-collar positions. Blue-collar positions are working more, there’s less factory employment.

“When you bring tech in, it’s not that they don’t play golf, it’s just that it’s not core to who they are as some of the more traditional career paths.”

According to a study by the MVGA, the loss of more than 3,600 members at the region’s private golf clubs since 2006 has had a negative impact of $136 million on the clubs.

Change of course

Closed golf courses usually are destined for one of two fates: housing or farm land. Crooked Tree in Mason is the only one of the closed courses in the region slated for a housing development.

Hidden Lake near Tipp City recently was auctioned off in four separate parcels. The largest, 103 acres, was sold for farm land, said Bethel Twp. administrator Andy Ehrhart.

“That area’s not covered by water or sewer, so to buy that for development purposes would have been difficult,” Ehrhart said.

Larch Tree in Trotwood closed two years ago and is being farmed for hay and straw. Hundreds of bales sit where golfers used to navigate fairways.

Five Rivers MetroParks plans to purchase the course, using a Clean Ohio grant to cover the $1 million price tag. Property clean-up and site improvement will bring the total bill to $1.4 million, $200,000 of which will be covered by a private donation.

Curt Cranmer’s family has owned Holly Hills Golf Club south of Waynesville since 1982. The course was closed last year because it wasn’t making money. A restaurant in the old clubhouse remains open.

Cranmer said his family is using the land for hay and is working on changing its zoning classification.

“We really don’t have any plans; I’ll probably sell it,” Cranmer said. “We’ve let it grow up and we’re cutting it for hay. We’re trying to get it back to agricultural because the property taxes are so high on golf courses.”

Fewer golfers

The golf industry boomed in the 1990s when 2,641 courses were built nationwide, according to the National Golf Foundation. In the Miami Valley, 18 courses opened that decade, eclipsed only by the 1960s when 23 courses were built.

“The 90s were amazing,” said Jurick, who has led the MVGA since 1997. “You would constantly budget for a 3-to-5 percent increase and hit your mark every year … and you didn’t even know what customer service was back then.

“Imagine a hotel being able to charge that rate on the back of the door every night all the time and have a full hotel. That’s what golf was.”

Some of the area’s best courses opened in the ’90s. Heatherwoode debuted in 1991, followed by Pipestone, Country Club of the North, Yankee Trace, Beavercreek Golf Club and, in 1999, Moss Creek.

But times changed. The region’s newest course — Indian Ridge, south of Oxford — was built in 2002. None have been built since then and there are none on the horizon.

Jurick has a theory about why interest in golf cooled even before the Great Recession.

“I really think it changed a lot after 9/11,” he said. “All of a sudden it was acceptable for the male adult in the family to be home and closer. I know that sounds weird, but if you go back to a date in our history when golf changed, I think it was around that time. It was about getting the family unit closer. Life was more precious.”

More to close

In recent years, taxpayer-subsidized courses Like Snyder Park have been targeted when it comes to cutting costs.

In Middletown, the city was subsidizing Weatherwax Golf Course with $350,000 for several years. Now it is selling the 36-hole venue for $1.6 million and expects to close on the deal in the coming weeks.

“The industry got overbuilt and when the recession hit, the first thing that goes is some of that discretionary spending,” said Les Landen, law director for the city of Middletown. “A lot of people who liked to golf, but it was third on their list, stopped doing it or cut back.”

According to the NGF, the number of core golfers — those who play at least eight times per year — dropped from 19.7 million in 2000 to 13.7 million in 2012.

The organization predicts a modest increase in golfers in the coming years but it will be “hardly noticeable.” It also predicts more courses will close.

That likely will mean more barren land and lost jobs. Last month, Dick’s Sporting Goods parted ways with 500 golf pros nationwide. The chain used to have a pro in every store to fit clubs for customers.

The downturn has affected both private and public courses. In a buyer’s market, rates at most clubs have been reduced and some private courses are beginning to allow public access. At Meadowbrook Country Club in Clayton, a non-member can play 18 holes, with a cart, for $35 on weekdays.

“In our heyday, probably 15 years ago, we had 400 members. Now we hover around 200,” said Bill Williams, head professional at Meadowbrook. “We went semi-private this year to allow some outside play during our dead times just to make it work, try to stay open.”

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