How to Bring Golfers back to the Course

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The place used to be packed. In the late 1990s, Bethlehem Golf Club booked about 90,000 rounds annually at its 27-hole facility on both sides of Illick's Mill Road. Tee times were crowded, leagues were full and singles looking for a spontaneous game often were frustrated.

Things have changed since then. Rounds fell to 55,000 last year, and revenue was down about 70 percent since 2001. Now, like many other public courses across the country, Bethlehem Golf Club is moving to claim back some of that business.

A new restaurant (operated by the owners of Starters restaurants), an upgraded pro shop, course improvements, online tee times and an advertising campaign all are part of the municipal course's enhanced business plan for 2008.

"Golf has changed," general manager Tom Wilchak said. "It has leveled off. Some places were able to sustain a basic clientele, whereas ours fell off. There are other courses, we didn't advertise, and the demographic is changing.

"We're going to be aggressive about it. I don't think we can get back to the numbers we did in the 1990s, but I know we can get at least halfway there."

Generating new players while keeping established business is a theme across golf these days. The Tiger Woods boom of the late 1990s has leveled from its heyday of 2000-01, when golfers nationwide played about 518 million rounds, according to the National Golf Foundation.

But the boom hardly has gone bust, said Jim Kass, director of research for the NGF. The number of rounds played in 2006 was 500 million, which has remained fairly steady since 2002. They're just playing on more courses: 15,971 as of Jan. 1, compared with 15,487 in 2000.

"We have this churn happening," Kass said. "It's difficult to increase the number of golfers year after year substantially."

That's the prospect greeting area course operators. The number of players (estimated locally at 60,000 to 70,000) has remained level, but five new public courses have opened since 2004. In addition, the formerly private Berkleigh Country Club will reopen as the public Berkleigh Golf Club this year.

As a result, course owners either get creative about new business or give up the business. That's why, Wilchak said, Bethlehem Municipal will promote itself more this year.

Other courses are looking at aggressive pricing promotions, often through e-mail campaigns. Still others are floating ideas such as $1 per-hole green fees, allowing players to reduce both time and cost.

Meanwhile, Alex Patullo, owner of Woodland Hills in Lower Saucon Township, plans to sell his course -- which is open this year -- to a housing developer. He said the business just isn't the same.

"With golf being what it is anymore, it's just not feasible to keep [Woodland Hills] as a golf course," he said.

"A flat industry'

Wedgewood Golf Course in Upper Saucon Township has plans in place for a fourth nine. The addition would join the Oak Nine, which opened in 2000, to give Wedgewood two 18-hole courses.

Building another nine holes would keep general manager Joe Coulson from "pulling out my hair" regarding slow play and tee times, so he can't wait for it. But for now, Coulson is doing just that -- waiting.

"We have the land, we have four different plans on how the new nine would look; we're just waiting to pull the trigger," Coulson said. "There's no reason to throw a few million dollars into a new nine right now."

Regional course operators say they are competing for the same players in what Rick Schwab, who runs Locust Valley and Shepherd Hills, called "a flat industry." Owners are noting fewer out-of-state license plates in their parking lots, which they attribute to gas prices, and more emphasis on pricing promotions to draw players.

Number of players stable

According to the golf foundation, the game is not losing players. A recent New York Times story that said golf has lost one-third of its core players was "completely wrong, except for the few things they got right," Kass said.

He countered that golf retains 1.5 million of the 3 million people who try the game annually. But it loses a comparable number through three factors: mortality, hiatus-takers and "actual quitters."

"If the number of rounds is level, that's good in this economy," Kass said. "We'd like to see it go up, but you don't see much of anything going up these days."

"Strong courses will survive'

Jeff Bebbino, head pro at The Club at Morgan Hill in Williams Township, said he views things differently. There are plenty of players out there; courses simply have to go get them now.

"To me, the Lehigh Valley market is very strong," Bebbino said. "There's a lot happening: the casino, the new baseball team. The female market is growing here -- our ladies association here will have more than 70 players this year.

"Golf is going through a general correction, and the weaker courses will go under. But I think the strong courses will survive and do very well."

Changing course

Patullo bought Woodland Hills 20 years ago and remembers tee times being booked from 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Now, he said, the course is lucky to book times until 11 a.m.

"Yes, we've had problems with the course," he said. "But the players and the game have changed. Heck, we used to play no matter what: It was cold, your mother was in the hospital, you still played golf. It's not like that anymore."

Woodland Hills is open this year, but Patullo said he wants to sell the 48-year-old course in the next few years. He said the plan would be to develop the course for 50 homes. Similar development plans exist for the former Upper Perk Golf Course and for Locust Valley, which also is open this season.

Costly hobby

Patullo said costs are the primary issue. Some players can't afford the game, and course operators can't afford to run on current revenues.

"Let's say you did 20,000 rounds a year at $50 a round," Patullo said. "That's $1 million. How can you run a course on $1 million?

"For the player, it's $2,000 for a set of clubs, $40 to $50 to play and $10 for a burger and a beer. By the time you go home, the wife's ready to shoot you."

Welcoming them back

The Bethlehem Golf Association once had more than 200 members at Bethlehem Municipal. Recently, it had 53 for the upcoming season. Paul Viola, the course's head pro and clubhouse manager, said he wants to revive the league.

"Hardly anybody played in our club championship last year," Viola said. "We want to change all that. We're trying to get [Bethlehem] back to a full-service facility."

According to a 2005 survey conducted by Frankly Golf, a group headed by former United States Golf Association technical director Frank Thomas, the top reasons players leave the game are family obligations, expense and time. That's why courses such as Bethlehem are promoting more women's and junior programs.

Added value

Wilchak said it's also about value for the dollar. Bethlehem is planning to add an automated irrigation system and renovate bunkers to make the course more consistent.

In addition, Wilchak said, he expects broader services in the full-time pro shop to enhance the course.

"There's more to golf than just playing the game," he said. "It's important to have a full-time pro here, so people can say, "Hey, Paul, I have a question about this,' and Paul is available. The average golfer has a lot of options, and we have to provide for them. You can be satisfied in more than one way."

Perception of slow play

Still, giving golfers an affordable, playable course -- and limiting their time on the course -- are the primary concern. Some operators said Lehigh Valley players are spoiled because of the region's relatively low rates compared with New York, New Jersey and tourist locations in the South and West.

Coulson, at Wedgewood, said slow play "kills" courses because it creates negative impressions that often are out of a manager's control.

Cutting rough and making easier hole locations are tactics greenskeepers use to keep play moving. Jack Eckenrode, owner of Fox Hollow and operator of the newly public Berkleigh Golf Club, said he plans to space out players by using 10-minute gaps between tee times at Berkleigh.

Dollar-a-hole fee scale

Even so, some people just don't want to be on the course for four to five hours. To address that, Schwab said, some courses might need to push their nine-hole rates more aggressively. He even has toyed with the idea of a set price per hole (say $1) and allowing people to compose their own rounds.

"Might be kind of crazy to enforce," he conceded.

"Golf is about disposable income," Schwab said. "People can't afford $30, but they can afford $15. Maybe they don't have time for 18 but have time for 12. We have to do something."

For all the roadblocks course operators face, one of the biggest might be entirely unrelated to economics, Coulson said.

"I'll be the first to say that the biggest cause golf issues is the weatherman," Coulson said. "He kills us. All he has to say is "Chance of rain,' and we're done. I always say the weatherman hurts us more than the economy."

BACK ON COURSE

Courses and clubs are using several methods to get golfers back on their turf, including:

Creative pricing such as $1 a hole.

Making the course easier by trimming the rough and using easier hole placements.

Promoting women's and junior programs.

Other marketing tactics such as e-mail campaigns.

mark.wogenrich@mcall.com

610-820-6588

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