UPDATE 8/18/20: The City of El Paso has struck a deal with Spirit Golf Management, which runs Picacho Hills Golf Course and Sierra Del Rio Golf Course in New Mexico, to operate Butterfield Trail starting this fall. Read more here.
The United States is into its second month of an altered life and suppressed economy due to the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses are dealing with trying to weather the uncertainty or close all together.
For two highly regarded golf courses, their decision is the latter.
On Wednesday, the El Paso International Airport announced it would close the nearby Butterfield Trail Golf Course for good. Earlier, Eaglemont Golf Club in Washington announced its closure with a letter from the owner posted on the club website.
Considering we're in the early stages of what experts believe to be a long economic recovery, this could be just the first wave of casualties. According to Golf Advisor/GolfNow research, at least 46 percent of America's courses are currently closed due to government mandates for "shelter in place". Losing expected revenue could be the final blow to courses already teetering on the brink of financial trouble.
The future of a third highly regarded facility - the 36-hole International Club & Resort outside Boston - remains in doubt. Originally, a manager told local media that the owners, the Weadock family, had shared with the staff that the government-mandated closure would be permanent. The Weadocks refuted that claim a few days later, according to this Telegram.com report. Since then, its website has added a note that the mostly private club is "temporarily closed."
Tim Matsche, the general manager at Loggers Trail in Stillwater, Minn., said last week that courses in the cold-weather climates like the Midwest need all the rounds they can get in a short season. "Every week we get pushed back, it is harder and harder to convince league and regular members that it (buying a membership) is worth it," he said.
Ambitious El Paso International Airport development fails to materialize after a decade
Butterfield Trail in El Paso, Texas, will close by May 31, according to a press release from the airport, which has been subsidizing the golf operation since 2008. Butterfield Trail's website currently indicates the course is "closed until further notice" due to the pandemic, despite the fact that the Attorney General of the state has said golf courses can remain open with social distancing guidelines in place. The press release indicated the closure will save the airport approximately $1 million a year, allowing it to focus on "essential" services in a climate where the airline industry has ground to a halt. The Tom Fazio course, operated by KemperSports, has been regarded among the best municipal courses in the country and on Golf Advisor ranked among the top five in Texas on Golfers' Choice lists in 2018 and 2019, which are tallied by reviews from users. El Paso had high hopes for Butterfield Trail when it was constructed by Fazio for $11 million. Plans called for a nearby office park and hotel that never succeeded, according to this 2018 report detailing the golf course losses.
New amenities can't save Eaglemont
The loss of Eaglemont, located in Mount Vernon, Wa., about 90 minutes north of Seattle, erases one of the most scenic courses along the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Vancouver. Owners invested in a new clubhouse high on a hill in 2011, a new amenity expected to enhance the banquet and food and beverage side of the business, both for weddings and golfers at the 19th hole. The bump proved not enough. Eaglemont's business model, as a high-end semiprivate club, never really fit with the surrounding blue-collar community, where my father currently lives.
The rerouting of the 7,006-yard layout to accommodate the clubhouse also couldn't fix the facility's biggest flaw: a difficult course on a hilly site. I played it a handful of times and never fell in love with it. Eaglemont was a ball guzzler stocked with too many difficult shots from awkward lies over hazards. According to the letter, Eaglemont was attempting to find a buyer. Ultimately, it was the economy in Asia that derailed the course as much as the struggles of the U.S. golf industry.
We "tried to find new investors for Eaglemont due to (the) financial situation in Thailand (that kept) declining for a period of time and the COVID-19 pandemic is the final impact which affected vast investments both local and overseas", wrote Pisit Singhachaithanadej, the owner's representative.
Golf organizations are doing their best to support course owners and individual employees during this difficult time. A multi-million-dollar gift from the PGA of America launched the Emergency Golf Relief Fund, which was so overrun with applications that the website had trouble loading for many users this week. It is also being supported by the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, National Golf Course Owners Association, the United States Golf Association, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the Association of Golf Merchandisers. The USGA also offers a "Resource Management" program on its website, which could ultimately lead to improved pace of play and suggestions on agronomy changes that cut costs.