Golf course owners see fog lifting

After several years of pessimism and doubt, golf course owners and operators around the state feel good about their prospects for the coming season.

Positive signs — auto industry bonus checks, pre-sold golf packages at Michigan golf shows, the continued funding of the state’s Pure Michigan tourism promotion campaign, the pent-up enthusiasm of winter-weary golfers and better vibes from the economy — all add up to hope, something in short supply in recent years.

According to Golf Datatech, an industry research firm in Kissimmee, Fla., rounds of golf in the state were down 1.6 percent last year from 2009. But that number outperformed the national average decline of 2.3 percent.

Gaylord Golf Mecca, a marketing alliance of 21 courses near Gaylord, reported a 4 percent increase in rounds played last year. Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which oversees the alliance, expects 3 percent to 5 percent growth in rounds played this season, a number Beachnau said was conservative.

“The turnaround of the auto companies has been huge. People are starting to put some money back in their pockets. With high gas prices, that will be to our benefit, too. People will stick close to home.”

Kevin McKinley, director of golf at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, said “the efforts of Travel Michigan and the Pure Michigan golf campaign over the past few years, including the use of local Gaylord footage in national media buys, has helped to increase our out-of-state golf business, which is higher than it ever has been.”

Dave Richards, owner of Resort & Golf Marketing in Bloomfield Hills, said an informal poll last year indicated that 10 percent of the business at high-end courses he contacted came from out-of-state golfers. He said one of his clients, Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, saw its rounds increase 29 percent last year.

“The group business is coming back. … People are willing to spend more money,” Richards said.

Enhancing that economic impact: The state now has fewer courses competing for those additional dollars.

The meltdown of the economy changed the golf industry in Michigan. There is less competition today — nearly 30 18-hole courses and as many as 25 nine-hole and shorter so-called executive courses closed in the state over the past decade.

The Traverse City area was hit particularly hard, with three top-notch courses closing since 2008: High Pointe and LochenHeath, both in Williamsburg, and King’s Challenge in Cedar. LochenHeath and King’s Challenge, now called Manitou Passage, have since reopened under new owners.

The surviving public courses should benefit from the declining memberships of private clubs.

“There are very few country clubs that are stable,” Richards said. “The middle-of-the-road country club has lost half its members. That just freed up $6,000 to $8,000 to play at Shepherd’s Hollow (a 27-hole course in Clarkston) and play up north.”

Joe Basso, secretary-treasurer of the Detroit Club Managers Association, said metro Detroit is oversaturated with private clubs. David Graham, executive director of the Golf Association of Michigan, said he can envision a future with fewer private clubs throughout the state.

Basso, general manager and CEO of Birmingham Country Club, said his club has been fortunate, adding members the past 18 months.

“You’ve got clubs in the area that have lost 50 to 100 members over the past two to three years,” he said. “They are surviving, but they are having to reinvent themselves.”

Discounted greens fees are the new normal at public courses looking to attract more players, although some think the practice must be scaled back for long-term success.

Jim Dewling, president of Total Golf Inc., which operates seven courses in Michigan, said Mystic Creek, a 27-hole course in Milford, attracted 2,000 more rounds last year than in 2009. But discounting cut into a stagnant bottom line.

“The revenue came from the driving range and pro-shop sales instead of the greens fees,” Dewling said. “Rounds are all driven by price point. … We’re all stealing (customers) from each other.”

Bernie Friedrich, vice president of golf, marketing and retail at Boyne USA Resorts, takes a different approach. He thinks that creative golf packaging last year helped Boyne have its best year since 2006. The company owns and operates eight courses and three resorts in northern Michigan.

By offering so many choices and prices, Boyne increased the number of rounds of golf nearly 10 percent, Friedrich said. Some packages included breakfast. Packages with unlimited golf were popular.

The key, Friedrich said, is “getting the price of golf where the masses can afford it, so the masses can play and grow the game.” Richards calls northern Michigan one of the best value golf trips in the country.

Said Freidrich: “We have a lot more choices for people to play. We have changed some of the price structures, but we also looked at the times and days that we needed people (to fill up empty tee sheets). We adjusted some twilight rates by changing the time of the day. We made specials for local people. We are trying to fill as many tee times with different price structures than we ever used to.”

Growing the game and attracting new players, including women and juniors, remain major problems, however.

“We’re building some momentum,” said Graham of the Golf Association of Michigan. “Is that going to lead to growth year after year? I hope so. I feel more bullish today than I have in quite a while. We’re moving in the right direction.”


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