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Double Bogey: The Disappearing Public Golf Course
Take A Good Look
Respect. Patience. Forethought. In years past, they were virtues instilled in us by our parents. You needed them to get ready for the life that lay ahead of you. Those virtues were reinforced in a variety of ways. One of them was sports. As I got older that sport became golf. But for the past year, I have been subjected to a steady drumbeat from the media that golf as an activity is in decline; some claim it is “dying.”
Common wisdom puts the blame on twentysomethings, or the Millenials as they are known, who appear to be not all that interested in driving one off a tee and spending some time walking up undulating fairways. They would rather use a golf simulator than be exposed to the elements. In our ultra-fast-paced society, where no one wants to wait for anything, a game that might take three hours just can’t compete.
The slew of articles about the game's decline lately has really been depressing. To me, the game meant coming of age, freedom and a new challenge. Even with the success of 21 year old Jordan Speith and other twentysomething major winners, I’m not sure the decline can be checked.
I know I have to face up to the societal shifts in attitude. We live in a digital age. Tastes are changing. But isn’t there something wrong when kids don’t have the patience to play even 9 holes? Are they so weak that they will give up trying to learn? Where’s the fortitude so necessary to be successful in life?
While there is no doubt that the changing habits of those under 30 along with high costs were the initial forces behind the decline, there is something else going on behind the scenes affecting these decisions. The story is multi-dimensional; a combination of cultural and economic factors. In some ways, it’s a microcosm of a declining Middle Class. Dig a little deeper and one finds a hidden enemy: plain, old corporate greed.
It's About The Green$
At first glance, maybe some of golf’s critics are right: There is a glut of courses all over the continent. The United States has just over half of all the courses worldwide, roughly 15,000. That is equal in size to the nation of Costa Rica. As they say on Wall Street, maybe there is a correction going on in the industry.
However, it is the way in which the courses are declining that is the problem. Public courses are the ones being hit the hardest. These include not only those owned by a municipality (“munis”) but those clubs that don’t require a membership. In 2013, 157 public courses closed. Closings have outpaced openings since 2005. Over that same period, 90% of the courses that have closed were public facilities. Even more ominous: 60% of those courses only charged $40 or less for seasonal greens fees. The trickle has become a deluge; the reasons may not be so obvious.
Beautiful but inaccessible Augusta
Accessible and Important
Other Things to Do
It's the Economy Stupid
The middle class is hurting. Wall Street is booming, but discretionary income is in remission. The expense of raising children is becoming astronomical. Playing Little League has become beyond many wallets. College tuition is ever present on so many parents’ minds; add in retirement concerns and aging parents. Living longer is costing us money. We have an economy based on fear and everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The pressure to have more family time is always present too; doing things that everyone can enjoy together takes precedence. That parallels the decline in the membership of fraternal orders today such as The Elks and Eagles. Most survive now by renting out their facilities for parties and RV parking. Time and money are always in short supply. Even the great Jack Nicklaus commented recently on this problem, stating succinctly, “I’d quite like to play a game that I can get some reasonable gratification out of very quickly and something that is not going to cost me an arm and a leg.” That is a powerful statement from the world’s most influential golfer.
Entertainment is everywhere today. TVs are cheap. Why not stay home and buy one for each room? A 50 inch for the baby’s room? No problem. Cartoons in HD. Phones are virtual entertainment centers; no need for the giant wall units anymore. Feature films can be downloaded to your laptop.
In my beautiful corner of North America, the outdoor activity choices are endless and very affordable: hiking, biking and kayaking are among the multitude of blood pumping sports to do in a very temperate climate. Regardless of all the choices, I still would rather spend my day walking up and down damp fairways soaked to the bone for 3 hours while I try to get the ball in the hole. I would be outside; that’s all that would matter. That’s all that matters. Hunters talk about the inner calm that comes over them out in the woods stalking prey. When I hit a golf course alone on a rainy weekday in October, I find the same thing. It’s peaceful.
It appears the economic pressures that arrived so abruptly in 2008 are going to stay with us for a very long time. Structural change to our society is now inevitable. But do we have to leave everything behind as move into a new age? Tastes are not disposable.
Can It Ever Be Cool Again?
Image is Everything
Golf also has an image problem. Other than polo, no sport is more closely associated with the establishment. With Tiger Woods in decline, golf no longer has a minority face. Even many commentators are not helping the situation by declaring they won’t watch without Tiger. I would like say good riddance to them, but I know they represent a large segment of the public.
The game is reverting back to the long ago image as an elite country club sport. In this era of the “1%” and “eat the rich,” mentality, that’s not a good place to be from a business standpoint. Instead of seeing the game as a challenge, young people are increasingly viewing it as not cool; a symbol of the greedy corporatists. That strikes me as jealously. I abhor the envy of our age along with the associated guilt that so many try to lay on others for their achievements. Channeling that attitude into something more productive would help us all.
When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, with my parents frequently on food stamps and my dad on unemployment, I never scorned others with more. That was forbidden. Other people’s positions in life and their material things could be attained, if that is what I chose to do. My dad wanted me to learn the game because it was something we could do together and might be good for my future. Many of the guys my dad knew who played golf were quite successful. So we would trudge with my driver and maybe a nine iron, onto the #12 bus to the Turtle Cove Golf Facility in the northeast Bronx (near City Island) to learn the game.
I had a dozen lessons from a frail 80 year old named Jerry Driscoll. Jerry had survived several heart attacks but his passion for the game was limitless. He used a giant pair of wood tongs to place the ball on the tee. “Keep your head down,” was his mantra, as I swung my old wood driver. And the ubiquitous, “Square the club head,” resonated up and down the tee boxes. I was nervous but I loved it; and dreamed of playing on a course someday. I never felt like an outsider at the driving range. It was all about golf. Whether you were a construction worker or my old pediatrician, everyone was there to get better. Never once did I hear “Golf is for the rich.” There were other kids just like me trying to learn. Most of all, I was outside getting fresh air (albeit humid), far away from my stifling apartment.
I also have a fervent hope that degree of difficulty is not the primary reason for the sports’ abandonment. Once Americans stop wanting to do things that are tough to learn, I’m not sure where that would bottom out.
Bucolic No More
The signs of change are in my own backyard. Several local cities have closed their golf courses and some have plans in the works. Rumors pop up monthly. One ominous sign was the closure of a course in the eastern suburb of Sammamish, a growing bastion of upscale living. If that area can’t support a golf course, the game is in crisis.
Last year, my home course in Sumner, WA, a beautiful links course with views of Mount Rainier, was closed by the city supposedly because of poor business. They couldn’t make enough revenue to cover the management company’s fees without raising taxes and utility rates. In reality, the course was marketed poorly, and the City Council wanted to cash in on the real estate. The course was $5.8 million in debt and it sold to an investment services firm for $53 million. Running up almost $6 million in debt on a golf course is just plain incompetence.
In a town full of brand new but still empty warehouses, they are going to add 1.4 million square feet that will probably lay vacant for upwards of a year. Once they give some employer a sweet deal, the tractor trailers can once again pummel my local two-lane road. The City has apparently put aside 138 acres of the development for their own use. We will wait and see on what happens with that parcel. City leaders also claim that it will lead lower utility rates. Does anyone believe that? When was the last time your rates, water or otherwise, were lowered across the board on a permanent basis? Granted, in the world utility finance, permanent means less than two years.
While driving on the Valley Freeway for a few miles between King and Pierce Counties, one is presented with a monstrous display of developers taking a quick buck. For Lease and Build to Suit signs hover over huge plots already graded for building or existing monstrosities ready to be tenanted. The area is running out of open space in general. Farms, which once dotted the valley floor, are nearly gone (but we still have a gaggle of those annoying farmer’s markets, which I don’t get). We’re supposed to be in an era that values open space with our leaders preserving that right. Instead we have a marriage of politicians and developers who are working to “revitalize” the urban centers. It’s really just a matter of developers getting their way by giving money to the people that hold the purse strings. At best, this is a misguided attempt to bring more business into the cities; at worst it is corruption.
The City of Bothell, northeast of Seattle, has an interesting political dilemma and one that is becoming more commonplace. They actually have a mayor who is a developer and part of the winning group to develop the back nine holes of their local course along with the clubhouse and parking lot (after sale). Included in the project would be the building of 76 townhouses along an endangered riverfront. Just in case there are people who are not familiar with our climate, rivers flood a lot in Western Washington regardless of easements and retaining walls. And we have earthquakes too. Have we learned nothing from the disasters of the past two decades? Bothell is just 50 miles from the Oso slide area. I don't care how much dredging and damming has been done to control water flow. Everything fails once. At this stage in our history, how could the mayor of a growing city advocate for more development on an unstable river? The backstory makes for an intriguing tale of politics as usual.
In the midst of all this development, voices are missing. Environmental groups have been missing in action for quite a while. I don't understand it and keep waiting for someone, besides a desperate homeowner, to lodge some protest. But I find nothing. You get the occasional neighborhood activist at the City Council meeting. But they get dismissed as a crank and one of the members waves a soil test or environmental study in their face.
What's one of the biggest contributing factors to global warming/climate change? Pavement. Yet, the rush to cover everything in concrete rolls on unabated. Officials point to new bike lines as "progress." A bike lane between two warehouses is not progress. It's just sad. And then there's the inevitable pointing out solar panels on the roof of the warehouses. "Look, we're saving energy," they shout at the ribbon cuttings. America should be about amber waves of grain, not rebar and prefabricated panels.
Is Change Always Good?
A Course Too Far
The Wayne Golf Course, which is privately owned, straddles both sides the Sammamish River. It has served the northeast King County City of Bothell since 1930. In 1996, with conversation funds from King County, the city paid the golf course’s owners $890,000 for the development rights to preserve 46 of the front nine’s 50 acres. The remaining 4 acres, surrounding the clubhouse and parking lot, were not included. The owners could sell the land within the conservation easement, but they couldn’t build on it. The City had the right of first offer if any part of the course is listed for sale. It’s a standard clause, but also a very convenient one. Remember, this was all done in the name of “conserving” public space. In 2013, the owners notified the city they intended to sell the back nine. This includes a beautiful wooded hillside overlooking the course. So the family submitted a rezoning proposal in January 2015. That’s when the citizens of Bothell woke up to what was happening and contacted their state representatives en masse. An investigation is now underway.
The mayor is a partner in 20 limited liability corporations in the area. He adamantly denies a conflict of interest. I spent a decade auditing municipalities in this state and I’ve heard this all before. When a candidate runs for office in this state (and I’m sure in yours as well), he fills out a public disclosure form, which requires him or her to state whether they have a business relationship with a government entity (directly or indirectly). This form has to be updated yearly or if there is a change in the status. There’s a lesson here for all of us: if you see a developer or builder running for office, be afraid, be very afraid.
A Balanced View
I see open spaces filling up with a plethora of new apartment buildings for retirees and warehouses that store more cheap goods from Asia. What would be better for our environment? A golf course that covers 200 acres of open space using minimal water resources (it’s the NW after all) or a bunch of apartments using toilets and showers while creating endless garbage and traffic. With today’s technology, water usage can be modified greatly at courses to enhance sustainability.
Those who know me would never accuse me of being a bleeding heart liberal and certainly no environmentalist. But I value recreation and a lush green valley devoid of concrete boxes. If we were putting up factories, I don’t think I would complain. However, we don’t need another REI distribution center, furniture warehouse or Amazon business park (with drone airports, of course). Driving home the other day, I realized that Sumner has two pot shops but no golf course. The same can now be said for several other cities. Hippie lettuce is selling better than Ping.
I know that the state and counties have master development plans but overall planning seems haphazard. A hotel was built a few miles from my old golf course. It lies in the middle of an empty field with nothing of significance even close. I guess they are counting on more business parks soon. Build it, and they will come. The term sustainable development has become just a catchphrase. It's a cover used by politicians after they've accepted donations from their developer friends. Politicians like to talk about the future but instead of building affordable housing for families and new recreational facilities, they build condos and upscale apartments for folks over 55.
As a native son of NYC, I’m a constant critic of my hometown. The city was a cesspool growing up in the 70s and 80s. Corruption, mismanagement and neglect all helped contribute to the downfall. But I will always be thankful for one thing: the parks department. Every outer borough had a golf course, a riding stable along with a public pool or beach. No matter what your income level or family situation, for just a few bucks, you could get recreation that kids in the suburbs took for granted. And I’m not even mentioning the thousands of acres of fields in the city’s outstanding park system; or the thousands of basketball and paddleball courts that were tucked into every neighborhood. In the harsh urban environment, these places were an oasis. It was a microcosm of the city: white, black and brown all trying to move in crowded spaces, escaping the heat along with many any other issues.
The Future and Some Solutions
We’re left with an apathetic generation of young people, an economy that refuses to bounce back and developers masquerading as concerned politicians. Golf is in a trap of quicksand. Is there hope? Yes. Solutions are right in front of us.
1. Increase outreach, particularly with the black community. We’ll never see another player with the social impact of Tiger Woods, but we can certainly have more African Americans in the game. I think it is coming. Tiger’s success inspired black kids to take up the game. If they were like me and didn’t mind getting on the bus facing snarky comments (i.e. tough enough), it will happen.
Just a side note: I’m not a fan of Tiger. I would bet my life that he was on PEDs that included HGH among others (hence, his injuries). His conduct was often atrocious and his complaints about too many fans bothering him were ill timed as well as insulting to those of modest means. But there is no denying his impact for African Americans. If just one kid from the inner city takes up the game, he did his job. There has also been a spike in the growth of two-parent African American middle class families; exactly the type of target consumer the game needs.
2. Use their power - The USGA and the PGA can swing a mighty club against unscrupulous developers. Some of these developers and builders are members, which can complicate matters. These organizations need to lobby the cities against closures and use their financial wherewithal to stop it. Donate to public courses or the cities themselves. Cities have funds set up just for that purpose. Developers do it all the time in a multitude of different ways to gain influence. There are so many independent golf clubs that provide recreation for middle and working class families. An infusion of capital will help spread the game.
3. Partner with environmentalists – Sound crazy, right? Not at all. Many in the environmental movement still see golfers, like hunters, as the enemy. But recreation is never the enemy. New advances in technologies like drought resistant playing surfaces make the game better for the environment. Dense urban centers, the de rigeur of liberal city planners, are spilling over into the suburbs to become the chief rival for open space. Single family homes are being replaced by tract housing and multi-use urban villages, supposedly close to transit centers. And developers are cheering them on along with builders sucking up government contracts for roads and sewers. They then throw up 100 apartments in between a group of subdivisions without any traffic mitigation or thoughts about quality of life. These are not apartments for the working class. Upward mobile singles and retirees with huge nest eggs are the ones buying. How progressives are not seeing the faults in their methods, I don’t understand. They are taking money from the exact people they rail against on a regular basis. Regulations in Washington State, like the Critical Areas Ordinance, which was designed to stop urban sprawl, are actually contributing to it.
Time For Change
Would you ever try playing golf?
A Call To Arms
I’m a realist. Change must happen. Some arguments about the industry can’t be refuted. Desert golf courses will never be good for the environment unless they switch to all artificial playing surfaces, which would affect the game. Courses in Arizona and Vegas use up to one million gallons of water a day to keep its fairways green. That’s equal to the amount a family of four will use in four years. They must change. But for the other parts of the country, the impact can be minimal if done right.
To the game’s detractors, I would say this: do you think if they closed all the golf courses around the country that the land would be restored to its previous pure natural start? The answer is no. Plots of land that size, within reach of a major metropolitan are too valuable. Condos and subdivisions would spring up instantaneously. Cue the strip malls and casinos too. Add in a karate school or an insurance office and you have "Anywhere USA." Another cookie cutter example of urban planning. We now live in a world of SIMS.
Progress is being made. The industry has been converting highly maintained out-of-play areas to native species. Native species are more drought-tolerant, requiring little to no watering efforts. They also reduce the use of staff time and costs related to turf management supplies. Other conservation efforts include computer-controlled irrigation systems that conserve water by accurately following the current weather conditions. Systems like these can help determine hour by hour how much water the course needs. Some courses have even added water features such as lakes, rivers, waterfalls and ponds that help collect water and reduce the amount of turf coverage drastically. Realistic lakes and streams also help create challenging hazards for the golfers and enhance the natural beauty and land use of any course because they attract colorful birds and other wildlife.
Accept The Challenge
Try the game of golf. Yes, it is difficult. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Opportunities to learn the game are everywhere. Some cities offer affordable lessons through their recreation centers. Your local driving ranges offer them too. Ask friends and relatives if they play. It never hurts to ask if they would be willing to take you out to the driving range or a Par 3 course. Anyone living in Western Washington who wants more info, can message me. No matter what you do, get outside.
- Harwell, Dean. “Why America fell out of love with golf.” March 5, 2015. Washington Post, workblog. www.washingtonpost.com.
- Cook, Bob. “How A Declining Middle Class Is Killing Golf.” May 23, 2014. Forbes Online (“Sports & Leisure”). www.forbes.com.
- DePass, Dee. "New Toto Sprayer helps golf courses go green-and save money." Minnesota Star Tribune. April 6,2015. www.startribune.com/business/298627061.html.
- “U.S. golf courses in steady decline.” ESPN.go.com. March 11, 2015. (AP Story)
- “Flowing Lake and Sumner Meadows golf courses closing.” Seattle Times. September 25, 2013. www.seattletimes.com.
- Plog, Kari. “Sumner golf course sale can move forward as city settles lawsuits.” Tacoma News Tribune, October 24, 2014. www.thenewstribune.com.
- Thompson, Lynn. “Residents fight to save Bothell golf course from developers, mayor. Seattle Times, April 12, 2015. www.seattletimes.com.
- “Is this really the end of Sumner Meadows Golf Course?” Inside Golf Newspaper, September 4, 2013. www.insidegolfnewspaper.com.
- "Golf Courses Go Green With Less Green - Two Approaches." University of Arizona School of Agriculture and Life Sciences Water Resources Research Center, 2009 Newsletter.
- "How Golf Courses are Going Green." Outside The Lines online magazine OTL, November 29, 2011. OTL is a design and construction company that does work in various industry across the country. http://otl-inc.com/how-golf-courses-are-going-green.