10 warning signs your favorite golf course might be closing

Golf courses around America continue to close.

Some are unexpected, but for the majority of them, everybody in town knew it was coming. There are almost always warning signs.

Think of the golf course as a living, breathing being. People do drop dead of a heart attack out of the blue, but chances are there were warning signs first - shortness of breath, headaches, lack of physical activity. Before a golf course goes to pasture, it also exhibits signs of its impending demise.

A recent rash of closings has golfers around the country more nervous than ever about the fate of their favorite local track. The Detroit City Council has been holding meetings for several years about how to handle the city's struggling municipal courses: Chandler Park Golf Course, Rackham Golf Course, Palmer Park Golf Course and Rouge Park Golf Course. The council vote last week not to renew the management contract of the long-time operator for Rackham, Rouge Park and Chandler Park, essentially closing them for the 2018 season, but the issue is still very much up in the air. Palmer Park was scheduled to transition into a driving range only after a decision last fall on its future, according to the Detroit Free Press.

In California, after years of an unbalanced bottom line, the Salt Creek Golf Club in Chula Vista near San Diego closed for good March 18. In Texas, despite good reviews on Golf Advisor, the Glenbrook Golf Course, a municipal golf course run by the city of Houston, will close April 1 to transition into a botanic garden, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Worried about the health of your favorite local playground? Here are the 10 warning signs to be leery of before things go south. I don't like writing about all this gloom-and-doom news involving the game we love. Consider this story a public service. I'm telling you in advance when it might be wise to start shopping for a new place to play.

10. Empty fairways and parking lot

Remember the good old days when the Tuesday men’s group was 50 guys strong? Tuesdays nowadays look like a zombie apocalypse hit. Nobody’s in the clubhouse except the staff. Sure, peak-season weekends are booked in the morning, but by noon, the fairways are empty and the tee sheets blank. How much longer can your course survive with such lulls in activity?

9. Allowing public access

One of the sure signs of the decline of a private country club is allowing public access. It’s a risky business decision. Sure, new paying customers help with the mounting bills, but members who pay good money for the privacy won’t be happy. Once they start leaving, it’s game over.

8. Website deactivated

In today’s world, a good website is a critical gateway to communicate with customers. When the online voice goes silent, chances are the course isn’t far behind. After all, it’s not that expensive to keep a website live. If it’s taken down, that means the vendor isn’t getting paid. First, the vendors. Then the staff. Uh oh.

7. Absentee owner

During the good days, golfers probably saw the owner hanging around the club, maybe playing golf with friends or having a drink at the bar. During the bad days? Casper the ghost is more visible. While researching my story last year about 2017 course closures, I had one golf pro tell me his owner stopped communicating with the staff by phone or e-mail. That's the time to brush up the resume.

6. Course for sale with no buyers

Golf courses for sale are an open secret in today’s market. Owners attempt to tip toe carefully between trying to get the word out about their course being for sale, while keeping it a secret from their regular customers to avoid a panic. That’s when the rumors creep in, making everybody paranoid, from golfers to staff. Getting a new owner can be a good thing. Getting to that point is the hard part. Not many people are buying golf courses today.

5. Public problems

When your club’s problems go public, it’s never good. Some dirty laundry might play out in the media – a lawsuit or a story about the disgruntled membership or an owner who commits a crime. Perhaps the worst case scenario is the course finding its way onto the agenda of a city council meeting, likely for rezoning, or in the case of Detroit, problems with management contracts. At least 70 percent of the course closures I’ve written about over the past three years reveal a similar tale: The owner selling his/her green space off to a developer to cash in.

4. Shrinking membership

It’s gotten so competitive to keep country club members that bidding wars aren't unheard of, where the club across town slashes membership rates hoping to steal enough members from its rival to cripple business. That might be extreme, but once you see membership numbers dwindle from 200 people to 150 to 125, the writing might be on the wall.

3. Staff layoffs

These final three steps portend almost certain doom unless new owners come to the rescue. Most golf courses need a certain hierarchy of fulltime employees to survive - a general manager, director of golf or head professional (or two), an assistant pro (or two), a superintendent with a reliable maintenance staff and maybe a teaching pro. If a couple of these key positions are let go, suddenly everybody’s scrambling to work harder without a pay increase. Unhappy employees leads to poor service. The trickle down to unsatisfied customers leaves everybody gloomy.

2. Flailing conditions

The course is the lifeblood of every golf facility. Customers are willing to put up with bare bones pro shops, carts without windshields and skeleton crews for staffs. However, one thing they will not tolerate is a poorly maintained golf course. Have your course conditions taken a sudden turn for the worst as other area courses thrive? It’s probably because your owner has mandated your superintendent to cut too many corners.

1. An actual sign

This couldn’t be more obvious: Golfers and employees showing up at the course only to find an actual sign that reads: “Course Closed Permanently.” Don't laugh. It happened at the StoneRidge Country Club in southern California last November. The handwritten sign posted at the entrance to the club read: “Goodbye Poway, it was a great 60 years." It happened again this month - a letter posted outside the pro shop at Salt Creek. Pray this doesn't happen when you show up for your next round.

Has your favorite courses exhibited these signs? What other warning signs have foretold the closing of a course near you? Share your stories in the comments below:

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Commented on

Jason, do you think the Diablo Grande golf course above Patterson Ca will ever reopen? It seems the owner is holding the complex for some reason and not selling it. The thing that I found was that the course was never promoted and some people in the local town didn't know it existed.

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Diablo Grande Golf Course in Diablo Grande, CA just notified it's residents that the golf course is closing on Oct 19, 2019

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We all know the problem exists; but what are the solutions? Is golf just going away? It is such a great sport. I'm 75 and would like to continue to play into my late 80's, but my club keeps losing golf members and is in trouble. It will be interesting to see how things shake out,but I'm not ready to quit playing. What are some suggestions? There must be some solutions out there.

Commented on

In upstate, NY the Town of Colonie municipal course was incredibly busy 25 years ago. You'd have to call 30 times non-stop to get a tee time. Today? The parking lot is only 1/4 full, nobody is on the driving range or practice green and you don't even need to call for a tee time. Show up anytime & you can pretty much choose between any of the four 9-hole courses. Of course for 3 non-residents to walk 9 holes plus a very small bucket to warm up cost us $70. Do that on a Saturday & a Sunday for a month & you shelled out $560. We enjoyed playing with our son who is home from college but we can really see why people don't play golf anymore. Tennis takes an hour, you get a great workout & oh yeah..... it's free!

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Brookdale golf course in Tacoma, WA is closing at the end of September. 300+ homes will take it's place. Boo. :(

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I live and play golf in Sweden during summertime and in Florida in the winter months. That way I get to see the problems of both.
The number one problem with the golf courses is the funding. In the Us someone expects to make money from them. In Sweden 95% of the courses are owned by the members. To become a member you have to give the club a non-interest loan or buy a share giving no dividends. We are now talking about app. 2-3000$. The average club has app. 1000 members. Most of Sweden have a golf season ranging from 25 to 30 weeks. The annual full member fees in the average club will be less than 1000$. Everything is a breakeven business. The green fees in an average Swedish golf Club is around 50$. In spite of the climate the Swedish courses are in just as good shape as what I see i Northern Florida. The management of the Club is chosen from the members on the AM and they hire the people to run the business on a day to day basis. And if you find the course in bad shape the board have to change the staff or raise the annual fee. The money is going nowhere else than to the course!

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Commented on

hälsningar, I like the idea of members owning the club. What happens when a member leaves or dies? Can it be passed on to their children?

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Reduce your rates and also have resident rates. The cost to golf is ridiculous

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The general economy has lessened the general publics desire to spend entertainment dollars that are being stretched. Another is the prime lands that courses occupy that become very attractive to developers for close urban property to subdivide and develop.

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The golfing powers should promote the sport at the junior high school level. PGA, USGA etc. should put an effort to spend money and entice physical ed teachers to promote the sport among their students at the junior high level. Free rounds to both pe teachers to entice them to promote the sport and for students to go out and play. The young players of today will be the paying players of tomorrow benefiting the golf courses. Looking forward is the name of the game here.

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Commented on

The trouble is that 99% of the people who play golf don't have a clue about the business of golf.

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10 warning signs your favorite golf course might be closing