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Will a Decrease of Major Golf Events at Municipal Courses Bring Change?

29 May, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Whoever wrote the old axiom about the grass always looking greener on the other side of the fence might not have been a golfer, but the saying is still appropriate. It is, after all, the reason major tournaments travel around. But recently, a move away from hosting high-profile tournaments on public courses has caught the attention of analysts. Possible causes of this trend have been brought up and exhaustively researched. Problem is, there doesn’t seem to be one reason.

Golfweek, which most recently examined the trend, is quick to point out the fact that there are multiple public courses that have hosted major championships or similar events. And Golf Advisor reported that U.S. Open venue Wisconsin's Erin Hills is open for public play, as is TPC Harding Park, a municipal course in San Francisco (which hosted the PGA Championship, and will become the 16th PGA Championship venue open to the public when it hosts the season's final major in 2020). Additional public courses used in the past include Pinehurst No. 2 and Pebble Beach Golf Links, as well as New York's famous (or maybe infamous) Bethpage Black.

But overall, the number of public courses (colloquially known as munis) hosting majors is dropping off. And, says Golfweek, that’s not terribly surprising. One of the big advantages – the fact that a lot of costly improvements tend to be made to courses in the years and months leading up to hosting – is also one of the biggest drawbacks:

Will Smith, co-founder of the highly successful Outpost Club, is part of the movement to protect and improve municipal golf courses with the hope that they become a point of pride for communities (without necessarily having the goal of hosting tournaments). While he told Golfweek that courses like Bethpage Black have done much to enhance the reputation of public courses, he does not like the idea of cities being pressured to put in enormous amounts of work and money in order to attract such events.

“Restoring munis with the goal being to host a major tournament often ends in a course that is too difficult for the local golfer and too expensive to maintain for the municipality,” Smith said. “It can adversely affect the affordability and accessibility of the course and ultimately not serve the role it was meant to play within a community.”

Private courses that routinely host major tournaments have better funding, usually have extensive membership and will budget for regular improvements. They have larger staffs and often, sponsorship of smaller tournaments held throughout the year can contribute to continued upkeep. Many are also in areas that have less variable weather. Municipal facilities, by contrast, may lack many of these advantages. And that fact often keeps many from throwing theirs hat into the hosting ring.

The essential thing, say those who love municipal courses, is to keep them busy, regardless. While major tournaments bring publicity, economic impact and a prestige factor, keeping up the foot traffic year-round is essential for any course to be successful. And that means a constant marketing effort. Bethpage State Park is regularly in demand, as are Erin Hills and TPC Harding Park – but not all municipal golf facilities enjoy that and have fallen victim to an economy in disarray.

Not helping much is the fact that the acres of land taken up by public golf courses are often viewed as a commodity when cities looking for a quick influx of cash see municipal courses as underperforming and look for ways to reallocate the land for residential and retail development. In the private sector, there have also been news stories about golf courses hitting the market and being eyed by real estate developers when the owners find nobody ready to take up the reins on the management of the facility. In late December, for example, Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch broke the news of at least half a dozen courses for sale.

Zack DeLeon, the listing agent for the one such course, said the longtime owners gave him the OK to advertise it for sale because they’re “ready to sell the business” and recognize that they should capitalize on its location in a busy and popular area. Like many owners, they are facing the unpleasant fact that a buyer may not be interested in continuing to operate the golf course.

“The golf course industry is more difficult these days,” said DeLeon, with Gorsuch Realty. “People used to spend their weekends at the club. That’s over now. There are so many different social options, and families are busy with things like travel sports, club sports, you name it.”

It’s a hard place for both municipal and private golf course owners. Much sentiment is often attached to courses but unfortunately, sentiment doesn’t pay bills or attract new membership.

Greg Hrabcak, with HER Realtors, is another Ohio-based realtor dealing with golf course properties. “The land itself becomes more valuable than the course that’s on it,” Hrabcak said. “People get faced with the fact that it may not be the highest and best use for the ground. Plus, golf courses are just expensive to operate, and they aren’t a year-round business in Ohio.”

It’s a phenomenon that has been seen nationwide. In Washington, D.C., a new organization called the National Links Trust has formed in a battle to resurrect endangered and neglected courses in the nation’s capital. The trust has an eye on helping others around the country looking to protect and improve municipal facilities.

Golf publications have capitalized on this effort, creating travel guides for those interested in exploring public courses, particularly those that have hosted major tournaments.

GolfWeek notes, “As awareness of historically significant architecture has grown over the last two decades and a younger generation has become more interested in a fun day at a centrally located course over the lavish theatrics of upscale daily-fee “experiences,” we are on the cusp of a municipal-course renaissance. Restorations and fierce battles to save important courses are happening all over the United States. It’s a pure grass-roots effort fueled in part by these championships, especially the Bethpage Black experiment that debuted at the 2002 U.S. Open.

A new generation of golfer unencumbered by strange elitist peccadillos – as changing shoes in the parking lot or believing that low green fees equal bad golf – also understands many cities, counties and states have quality facilities by famous architects often commissioned during the Works Progress. Administration of the 1930s and ’40s. They are usually centrally located, too. The idea of fighting to save and improve something close to home versus going to far-away places for golf is proving more attractive, even if the bureaucratic fight can be maddening.

While it is disappointing that the “grow the game” crowd has not put more of its resources to use restoring munis instead of launching glossy ad campaigns, the USGA and PGA of America efforts to bring majors to publicly owned venues has worked. Just not the way they imagined. But if the end result is a golf nation finally coalescing around the venues it should be protecting instead of clamoring for something new, then taking majors to munis will be viewed as an even greater success than anyone ever could have imagined.”

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