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
2008 GOLF GUIDE