Golf Challenge: Could there be a course correction for the Muni?

single-meta-cal June 2, 2017

North Inch Golf Course, in on the banks of the River Tay in Perth, Scotland, just 45 miles north of Edinburgh, has been called “the first recognisable golf course in the world” by Beasley’s World Atlas of Golf. It hosted King James VI in the 1500s.

Yet for all its history and grandeur, Scotland’s public course has fallen on the brink of extinction twice in the past three years. So, if the world’s oldest golf course has challenges luring participants and making financial ends meet, imagine the challenges for the City of Huntsville and other municipalities that find themselves on the fringe of the golf business.

The Becky Peirce Municipal Golf Course, a longstanding piece of John Hunt Park on Airport Road, has been closed since last fall. A “request for proposal” for a private entity to renovate and manage the course brought just one company response and it failed to meet the criteria.

Watching the course steadily deteriorate, the Parks & Recreation Department retained Raven Golf Services of Nashville to serve in a consulting role, evaluate the condition of the course, and suggest viable options. The result of their report was the focus of a Council work session June 1, where Council Members and the public learned what it would take to bring golf back to Becky Peirce.

John Hunt Park is a showcase, and if we’re going to have a golf course as its centerpiece, we have to make sure it’s a showcase.”

As Raven Golf noted in its report, golf is “in a correction era.” There was a net closure of 171 courses in the U.S. in 2016.

Perhaps the most telling statistic – 69 percent of the courses that closed last year charged $39 or less in greens fees, according to the National Golf Foundation. That means less money to reinvest and properly maintain a course, so golfers look for an option that’s in better condition.

That describes the “Muni.” Though a loyal cadre of Becky Peirce regulars is clamoring for the course to re-open, many have held an annual pass that permitted unlimited play. There were such 89 pass-holders last year who paid a total of $53,737 and played a total of 9,854 rounds. That’s $5.45 per round.

Thus, the quandary.

If the Muni is going to be rebirthed, Raven says it must be done with more permanence and must be attractive to players.

“John Hunt Park is a showcase, and if we’re going to have a golf course as its centerpiece, we have to make sure it’s a showcase,” says Steve Ivey, Director of the Parks & Recreation Department.

To do so, greens fees and annual passes would be more expensive than the past, according to Raven’s recommendations. There will be higher maintenance costs to accompany an initial investment to return the course to playing shape.

On the other hand, there is a clamor to use the property for other recreational purposes, such as for bikes, a cross-country course and other activities.

The changing playing field

North Inch Golf Course faced its challenge – as have many American courses – by creating a Footgolf course where players kick soccer balls into oversized holes. Hawk’s Landing, a prestigious resort course in Orlando, recently added the sport to its course and touts it as a faster alternative (2 ½ hours for most rounds) for vacationers and conventioneers at nearby resorts.

Salt Lake City, Tucson, San Jose, San Diego, Orlando and Phoenix are among cities forced to close municipal courses or who have seen affordable public courses go by the wayside.

Though golf may be considered a country-club sport, in actuality 73 percent of the courses in the United State are public facilities. However, of the hundreds of courses that closed in 2015, 83 percent of those were public. For more than a decade, more courses have closed each year than have opened.

Who’s playing golf?

The Huntsville golf landscape has been dominated more by private courses and two courses that are part of the statewide Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Huntsville, with the Muni included, ranked No. 261 in the nation in public course holes per capita, but is No. 90 in America in private course holes per capita.

The aforementioned “correction era” is a result of several factors.

Hundreds of upscale courses surrounded by new developments were victims of the bursting real estate bubble. Many of those courses avoided extinction by lowering their greens fees or memberships to become more competitive with the traditionally low-cost municipal courses.

For years, golf rode the Tiger Woods Effect, with more players drawn to the game. Golf course construction accelerated and golf equipment companies flourished. However, there are nearly 20 percent fewer players since 2005, when Woods won two majors and $10.6 million. According to the National Golf Federation, some 2.2 million Americans played golf for the first time in 2015. However, the number of participants was 24.1 million, down from 30 million in 2005.

Golf is also feeling a generational lull. Though there are large numbers of long-time golfers, millennials have little interest in the slow pace of golf. They’re more attracted to faster activities, which is why the Huntsville City Council faces the difficult decision now of whether a golf course or other options such as cross country, walking and bike trails will serve as the showcase at John Hunt Park.

The Council is expected to make its recommendations for the use of the property in the coming weeks. To learn more about the two options under consideration, read City News.