An informal survey of 10 local courses shows rounds played are decreasing by 1 percent or 2 percent annually
By Mike Dougherty
Remember the old-school golfers in metal spikes who routinely complained about the conditions and the cost to play golf at the various public courses in the Lower Hudson Valley?
They are sorely missed.
Nobody is sleeping in cars, hoping to play Saxon Woods Golf Course bright and early. Singles aren’t having any problems squeezing in a round at Rotella Memorial Golf Course after lunch. Seniors can play nine holes with a cart at Putnam County Golf Course for $24.
The golf boom is clearly over, and the previously underserved are in a relatively good place … for now.
“If we have the attitude to keep doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to turn things around,” Metropolitan Golf Association Executive Director Jay Mottola said last month at the organization’s Public Golf Forum. “The current trend lines have to do with more than the economy and the weather.”
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Spending time with family became a high priority after 9/11, and the recession knocked the wind out of the game. And while there’s no mention of crisis or contraction, the folks who operate public golf courses in the Lower Hudson Valley are expressing concern.
According to research conducted by the National Golf Foundation, some 5 million golfers have walked away from the game in the last decade. The number of rounds played last year fell to 462 million, the lowest number since 1995.
“Everybody is looking for a deal right now, and it doesn’t matter if you’re playing golf or buying a shirt,” said Scott Klemme, the director of golf at Centennial Golf Club in Carmel.
Despite the setbacks, there is a demand for golf in the metropolitan area.
The population here is largely affluent, so the 21 public-access courses are overshadowed by the 47 private courses in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties.
“I think, nationally, the ratio is more like 60-40 public to private,” said Met PGA Executive Director Charlie Robson.
A decade ago, it was difficult to get on a public course in these parts.
“There was kind of an ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ mentality,” said Dave Fusco, the director of golf at Patriot Hills Golf Club in Stony Point. “Now, like any other business in this economy, it’s become a challenge.”
Legacy thinking dangerous
An informal survey of 10 public courses in the region shows that rounds played have declined by 1 percent or 2 percent in each of the last three or four seasons. There are some exceptions.
Westchester County is the region’s largest owner and operator, with six courses — Hudson Hills in Ossining, Maple Moor in White Plains, Mohansic in Yorktown, Saxon Woods in Scarsdale, and Dunwoodie and Sprain Lake in Yonkers. None of them are filled to capacity. The county hosted 230,902 rounds in 2012 and 218,543 rounds in 2013. Weather factored into the drop in play last year.
Despite the frigid spring that resulted in late openings, county officials expect the numbers to climb slightly this season.
“The traditional senior golfers are not playing as frequently,” said Peter Tartaglia, the deputy commissioner of Westchester County parks. “That seems to be the most significant change we’ve seen. Baby boomers aren’t retiring. Having said that, we still do very well.”
Patriot Hills hosted 32,686 rounds in 2012 and 32,233 rounds in 2013. If the weather cooperates in the coming weeks, Fusco expects to surpass last year’s total.
“I think you make up the rounds you lose to weather in the spring and fall,” he said.
So if there’s not a steep decline in rounds, what’s the concern?
“Revenue is starting to decline,” Fusco said.
Right now, the numbers seem to be largely in the black.
“There is some debt service on Hudson Hills because we built the course, but we pretty much break even,” Tartaglia said.
It’s no secret taxpayers do not like the idea of subsidizing golf.
For the past several years, the USGA and PGA of America have unveiled a string of programs to engage the public, hoping to drive more traffic. The MGA recently appointed Kevin Kline the director of public golf development.
“When you talk about growing the game by enticing the first-time golfer, it happens at our public facilities,” Robson said. “Normally, it starts at the driving range.”
There are just a handful of ranges left in the Lower Hudson Valley.
So how do public course operators fill up a tee sheet these days? They run lunch and cart specials on weekdays. They align with a national booking website like GolfNow.com. They offer discounts to fill unused tee times.
All of it is done reluctantly.
“It’s hard to discount your rate without losing most of what you want golfers to experience,” Klemme said. “You have to be really careful that you don’t end up damaging your brand.”
All about value
Nobody likes playing a neglected golf course.
“The condition of your greens is paramount,” said Michael Laudien, the head pro at Rotella in Thiells. “Golfers aren’t overly concerned with fairways, but nobody is going to play a course with bad greens.”
David Oatis, the regional director from the USGA Green Section, urged public courses to dispense with the items he labeled overindulgent eye candy. Flower beds, ball washers and benches all come with a cost. So does intermediate rough and wall-to-wall irrigation.
Even the best private clubs in the region cannot afford to set up their courses like those seen on television every weekend the PGA Tour is in action.
“Lush is a four-letter word,” Oatis said. “You can spend a horrendous amount of money trying to make conditions consistent, but that’s not good for the game either. … Tournament golf is not sustainable. What is done for a week is not possible over time.”
Marketing budgets are mostly nonexistent, so word of mouth is critical.
“In the past, we’d open the doors and golfers would come to us,” said Jonathan Gold, the PGA of America regional manager for player development. “Now we have to go and get the golfers.”
And that is the good news for the shrinking legion of hackers and duffers. In many locations, golf is more affordable. The courses are in relatively good shape. And the pace of play is slowly beginning to improve.
“It’s a great time to play golf,” Fusco said. “The deals are there. Everyone has created some kind of a promotion or discount. The problem is, those can be a double-edged sword.”