Public golf courses: Survival of the fittest

Public golf in the United States has seen better days – most noticeably compared to the boom of the 1990s when the game rapidly grew. The National Golf Foundation estimates in a new report that 5-10 percent of public courses will close within the next decade. Essentially, the state of public golf and the real estate industry in the States face a similar plight – they both overbuilt and now there are less people buying (or playing).

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Rounds per course have dropped about 20 percent over the past two decades – the source of today’s challenges.

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Number of golfers per course within a 10-mile radius may be the best predictor of a course’s success.

Fewer courses can actually help the game, contends report authors Joseph F. Beditz and James R. Kass. Annual rounds played per course is down about 20 percent over the past two decades – just one of the sobering statistics in “The Future of Public Golf in America” report. The argument is “course closures will reverse the dilution process and give at least some rounds back” to the remaining courses. However, it's the “value” courses (peak season green fee with cart under $40) that are seeing the steepest declines in rounds played – down 26 percent since 1987.

While the supply side looks challenging, the demand for golf appears more stable, even though the game is losing some golfers to economic pressures. A survey found that 90 percent of “core golfers” (those playing eight or more rounds a year) are still “passionate” about golf. The foundation also sees a correlation between the financial health of a golf course and the average number of golfers within a 10-mile radius. Courses with at least 4,000 golfers nearby are more likely to succeed, it says.

But courses are not just standing-by. Successful operators are more likely committed to e-mail marketing and maintaining a large database of customers, says NGF.

While the climate is currently challenging, there is no need to panic, says NGF. It estimates the game's supply/demand will primarily stay at current levels – no drastic lows or highs – over the next decade.

Among other key findings in “The Future of Public Golf in America”:

• At present, there are 11,581 public golf facilities in the United States, including 9,132 privately owned and 2,449 municipal.

• Nine out of 10 golfers play at public courses and three out of four golf facilities are public.

• Today, about 33,000 rounds are played per 18 holes. In the late 1980s, it was about 40,000.

• The number of U.S. golfers has increased 17 percent since the early 1990s. Golf facilitates are up 24 percent.

Read the full report here.

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