It's the swan song for Windsong Farm

When it opened in 2003, Windsong Farm Golf Club had big ambitions. Or its owners did, anyway. The private club in Independence, Minn., 27 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, was meant as a serious golf club, with a big range, broad-shouldered fairways and the kind of golf membership that valued only one thing: playing the game.

Now, apparently, that isn’t enough to sustain a club. Windsong Farm is closing, its aspirations stunted by a tough economy and increasing competition among private clubs in a market that, like so many others in the U.S., has been overbuilt.

Quality wasn’t the issue, and rarely is it these days in a ruthless golf market. The Tom Lehman-John Fought design had impeccably manicured turf and was highly regarded to the point where, at No. 115 on our Golfweek’s Best modern list, threatened to crack into the top 100. Not that elite status is some sort of protectant. Earlier this year, Musgrove Mill Golf Club in Clinton, S.C., a perennial top 100 on our list, shuttered its doors rather than continue bleeding cash.

It’s hard for a writer accustomed to writing about golf courses to have to write about their demise. And there’s little solace to be had in the new industry by words such as “consolidation” and “market correction.”

For those serious observers of the industry willing to admit it, the trends have not been rosy. For all the focus on the PGA Tour and whether Tiger Woods is back, there’s little cheer to be found in the struggles facing many – if not most – private golf clubs in the U.S.

Not being privy to what happened at Windsong Farm, I can only offer a general framework for what happens to stressed clubs. In the first year of financial retraction, the club borrows off of money accumulated from initiation fees to subsidize operations, all the while deferring capital improvement.

In Year Two, with initiation fees cut back and reserves gone, the club cuts back on dues in the hope of attracting new play. All the while, club leaders get inventive about promoting more play for more classes of players, and some even offer cash incentives to members who are able to recruit newcomers. In Year Four, they face the music by paring back services and hope that no one will notice the compromised conditions.

But the fact is that clubs cannot save their way out of an operational shortfall. Those clubs unable to boost revenue then move to some sort of loan, usually through private-issue bonds to a few members because banks, under pressure to clean up their own balance sheets, increasingly are reluctant about lending money to golf clubs. When all else fails, bankruptcy looms – or in extreme cases, outright closure.

Golf is still a great game. But, as the recent action taken at Windsong Farm would indicate, it’s also a tough business. 

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