The pandemic boom has been good for golf.
But, even in the midst of this mad rush of tee times, golf courses are still closing. And there's a new threat emerging for the long-term viability of your local golf course - the solar industry.
Skyline Country Club in Lanesboro, Mass., and Tomac Woods in Albion, Mich., are one step closer to becoming solar farms after the recent sales of the properties. They are just the two latest dominoes to fall in the solar industry's expansion into golf's outdoor acreage. Ideas for Us, an Orlando-based non-profit that touts global environmental solutions through local action, is pushing for more golf courses to become solar farms. Tomac Woods Owner Jeanne Kennedy announced the decision to sell with a heartfelt message on the course website:
Recently an opportunity presented itself that would allow Dave and I to retire and spend our time with our 9 grandsons, the rest of our family and our friends. The property will be sold and it will be repurposed as a solar farm. Obviously this has been a challenging decision to make. The course is open but will cease operations in mid-September. We will advise you of the timeline in the next few days. In the meantime, we hope you will continue to enjoy playing at Tomac Woods. We look forward to talking with many of you, answering your questions, sharing memories and especially expressing our great and deep appreciation for your business and friendship.
Skyline never opened this year in anticipation of its redevelopment. The Berkshire Eagle recently reported that Mill Town Capital, a private investment firm, bought the course last month, so two different companies could build solar fields on each nine. Last year, Mill Town also bought the Pontoosuc Lake Country Club, a course in Pittsfield, Mass., whose former owner had previously tried to get permitting to create a solar farm. Despite its ties to A.W. Tillinghast, the shuttered course's future remains unclear.
The state of golf course closures in 2021
Thanks to the pandemic, golf is actually in a healthier place than it's been in decades. This could be the first year fewer than 100 courses close since the clutches of the recession from 2007-09.
Halfway through 2021, the National Golf Foundation reports U.S. closures are equal to the equivalent of 60 18-hole courses, a 46% drop from last year at this time. Projecting to year-end, the NGF believes that roughly 100 18-hole equivalents will close, about 0.7% of the total supply. In 2020, NGF recorded a total of 193 18-hole equivalent closures, about 1.3% of total supply. In 2019, that number was 246, the largest drop on record.
"This could be the year golf course supply in the U.S. levels out," wrote NGF President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Beditz, Ph.D., in an email. " ... Certainly, we don’t blame golf course owners for cashing out when presented with an attractive exit strategy. In many cases, let’s instead wish them a long and happy retirement."
The solar conundrum
The push for renewable energy in recent years has also coincided with golf's oversupply, opening the door of opportunity for the solar industry. The concept of investing in large-scale solar farms isn't all that new.
Tallgrass Golf Club, an early Gil Hanse design, was one of Long Island's best public courses until closing at the end of 2016 to become a solar farm. In its lifetime, that farm will “displace 29,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually,” according to the Ideas For Us article. Cape Cod Country Club in North Falmouth, Mass., is on track to becoming a solar farm as well. Talks are ongoing.
All this leaves golfers stuck in the middle. Would you rather:
A. Keep playing.
B. See the course, if it continues to struggle, become a housing development where families can grow up and make memories.
C. Watch the land transition into a field of solar panels that offers renewable energy, while also becoming an eyesore and still requiring the same amount of tree removal and land clearing as another commercial or residential development. It's a tricky situation.
It's one thing to put a solar farm on an already closed course, as is the case of the proposal for the nine-hole Pine Brook in Gloversville, N.Y., but closing a historic course like Cape Cod CC, which was designed by Devereux Emmet in 1928, feels like it could hurt the game a little more.
GolfPass user 'DBranca' left a glowing review of the course in May: "What an amazing course. Had one of the most enjoyable rounds of golf this year. The course was in astonishing shape. Lush green fairways , immaculate tee boxes and swift putting greens. I didn’t see a bare, brown or burnt spot on the course. I cannot wait to play this course more."
We'll see for how long.