ASGCA Treasurer Greg Martin has long been an advocate for public golf course facilities. A recent column in the Illinois-based “Daily Herald” cited the challenges of operating public facilities. Martin details solutions to those challenges.

Following is Martin’s full response to the article questioning the commitment to public golf facilities:

The recent article in the Daily Herald [Publicly owned golf courses losing money, and taxpayers pay – Jake Griffin] about the financial challenges of many Public golf courses was interesting and brings light to some important issues. Certainly, these courses and others need to examine their facility and their long-term viability. The challenges are numerous and include uncooperative weather, discounted rates, increased maintenance expectations, debt servicing and declining golfer participation. Moreover, these occurrences are not isolated to Chicago or public golf. Golf, everywhere, is under pressure right now for the reasons cited. However, like many public issues, the reasons and answers are far more nuanced than a simple yearly budget.

Any industries produce varying cycles of growth, and then “self-pruning’. Golf is no different. But to paint public golf as failing is clumsy. The issues are far more complex and in many ways, public golf is not only surviving, but instead, thriving. Economic cycles, being what they are, will turn and as the economy grows, and history dictates, the game expands. The past 10 years was the single greatest economic downturn in the last 70 years.  The fact that more courses haven’t closed is the bigger story.

Public golf is necessary for reasons beyond cost/benefit. I offer the following:

  1. Yes, taxpayers are footing the bill for losses at those and other courses. But for years, golf carried the load. For years, public/park district golf subsidized other recreational activities and Public golf provided community-wide economic benefit. Profits from golf courses were used to improve playgrounds and subsidize other less profitable recreational endeavors.
  2. Recent statistics indicate that golf is losing golfers and show dire predictions for the game. Multiple sources profess golfers are leaving the game by the millions. A deeper look will show that the golfers leaving the game are those that were considered “infrequent golfers” – those that played less than 5 rounds per year. The fact is, that frequent golfers, those that play more often than 5 times per year want to play. They may not be playing as much, but that could have more to due with recent economic volatility. It is true that the golf industry hasn’t done the best job of providing the most enjoyable, playable or cost effective courses for interaction. However, this game is adjusting and will endure these challenges.Those changes are already happening.
  3. For every golf course that is operating in the red, there are many that have managed to turn a profit during the most dreadful of economic conditions. That doesn’t necessarily mean close those that are leaking; it means systematic changes to the design, operations or maintenance to create a sustainable enterprise. Thoughtful environmental, operational and strategic changes will revive any golf operation. A landscape asset like a golf course must not be subject to knee-jerk reactions due to near-term economic cycles, but rather long-term planning and thoughtful design to accommodate the most appropriate and viable economic operation.
  4. Food and beverage at many courses do outpace the golf revenues. But it should be cited that the clubhouses that offer those services likely carry the largest portion of the debt service. Clubhouses and the kitchen carry a heavy cost at golf courses, and in many cases is the reason for the ruinous losses. The old saying “no one comes to play the clubhouse” is truer now more than ever.
  5. Maintenance and operational costs have been stabilizing for years. As golfers continue to adjust their expectations for conditioning, maintenance costs will moderate. This past year’s US Open was a good example, showing how reduced maintenance can still produce visually stunning golf facilities that engage golfers.This takes time. The American Society of Golf Course Architects has long advocated the reduction of maintenance and “brown is better” or “brown is the new green” philosophy. This perspective will take time to seep into the golfing culture. But has already taken hold. A long view of the game, its design, maintenance and operation shows remarkable transformation in style, play, operation, maintenance, and golfer enjoyment.
  6. The numerous initiatives like First Tee, Hook a Kid on Golf and others are introducing the game to millions of children. These programs advocate a life-long sport to this “wired/video” generation. Nothing is more important than getting the youth of this country to participate in games outside, in the fresh air. Public golf plays a significant role in that advocacy.
  7. Finally, Public golf courses provide benefit beyond recreation. Many of the golf courses you cite provide neighborhood stormwater management, flood control, wetlands or other environmental habitat, tree preservation or water quality enhancement, as well as aesthetic benefit.It is impossible to place value on these benefits well beyond those for the golfing public. Further, it would be short-term to think of these courses transformed to strip malls, housing developments or condominiums.

Most of the golf courses I have renovated in the last 10 years are actively seeking ways to promote multiple environmental benefits while providing a solid recreational experience. This is not unreasonable and in fact, it is visionary. The inclusion of environmental assets into any golf course serves multiple purposes for the golfer, certainly, but for the wider community and region. Golf courses are unique in that they are flexible, malleable and can ‘form fit’ into a variety of challenging sites to provide green space sanctuary or buffer from suburban and urban sprawl.

Yes, there are economic conditions that challenge the game. Many of those are short-term. Any new golf course, or those that seek to renovate must be thoughtful and considerate of the golfer, the environment and the cost to implement these changes. Only then will golf endure.

The golf industry is actively seeking ways to promote benefits that reach beyond the boundaries of the golf course. Those benefits are echoing and will be felt by golfers, non-golfers and the communities in which they reside. The narrow view sees unprofitable operations. The big-picture sees value that will resonate far beyond the golf course.