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: