I’m fortunate to have a few small projects. Yet I’ve talked directly to some people and heard about others that have had to turn to their “native” careers — landscape architecture, civil engineering and others — just to get by.
It seems unfathomable that a short 10 years ago we were opening more than one golf course per day on average. For the past few years nationwide, we have been closing a net total of around 100 courses. There was a lot of money made on golf during the late 90’s. In fact, the golf business had remained strong even through the last big recession from the late 80’s through early 90’s. Real estate sales and values plummeted, jobs were lost, and interest rates skyrocketed, but the golf business held steady.
Golf got its first big boost around 1900. The wealthy were primarily responsible for bringing golf to the United States. Country clubs were originally large parcels where urban members could retreat for more rural enjoyments. With the industrialization of the nation, urban centers exploded and many country clubs became crowded by development.
Golf was a way to use those large acreages for outdoor activity in a pleasant setting. There were many golf courses constructed on country clubs until World War I. After the war more courses were built, including some very good public courses, until the Great Depression of the 30’s. There wasn’t much activity after the depression until the late 50’s and early 60’s when there was a huge burst of public golf courses. Things slowed down again through the recession of the early to mid-70’s, but then gradually rose into the late 80’s. We peaked out in the late 90’s with over one course opening PER DAY. Amazing. How could it be? Why would there be such a huge difference — over 400 courses per year?
Well, participation has dropped some for sure. People have less disposable income and fewer hours to devote to leisure activities. And the cost to maintain a golf course and therefore to play hasn’t dropped much. But that isn’t the whole story — it’s not even half the story. The biggest factor is real estate. Until the second half of the 20th century, golf courses were developed solely to address the golfing market. As real estate developers grasped the value of amenities and golf courses offered activity and aesthetics, a relationship grew. According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), as many as 40 percent of the new courses during the 90’s were associated with real estate projects.
The NGF further states that over 800 courses have closed during the last decade, but insist that there is a net gain of 500 during the same period. If that is the case, it must be due to the extremely high rate of openings in the first part of the 2000’s. Today’s reality is the golf market is stagnant to retracting.
Are real estate developers the villains? Well, maybe. They certainly have little concern for whether a facility will be able to survive after they’ve sold all their lots. And yet a developer ordinarily expects a “picture perfect” layout on opening day. In years past a course would be built, but require years of reinvestment to mature. Often the course wouldn’t reach its peak conditioning until decades later.
Today the iconic golf course aesthetic drives sales in golf real estate projects. Developers not only want that aesthetic but it has to be more dramatic or more “perfect” than the competition down the street. This results in golf courses that are extremely difficult and expensive to maintain. Furthermore, the course needs to be at its peak for the first few years. After the project is sold out and the course is handed over to the homeowner’s association or sold to a private operator the golfing market often can’t support the extensive maintenance that the developer needed to sell his product. The result has been many disasters and sometimes even multiple foreclosures or short sales on golfing facilities.
But, there’s plenty of blame to be passed around. Bankers, investment brokers, feasibility consultants, architects and even the golf business itself didn’t take steps to forestall adding to an already stressed golf market in the early part of this decade. But that’s water under the bridge I suppose.
Where do we go from here? We are in the middle of a big adjustment. There are lots of things about golf that isn’t fitting so well with current society. Market surveys reveal that the game “takes too long”, “costs too much”, and “is too complicated”. These objections are no surprise – they’ve been the same for many years it’s just that the financial reality has hit. It’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, it may be a decade or more before the golf development market is really healthy. If I could wave a magic wand what would I envision? It seems to me that we need to simplify. Get back to basics. Reduce the cost of maintenance by simplifying courses. Make them simpler to play and simpler to maintain. And finally, golf has to be about the game, not selling real estate.
A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces last January. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.