Now is not the best time to be in the golf business.
Even those who like to golf don’t have as much time – or money – to play.
A good example is what’s going on in Amherst.
The town continues to lose money operating its three golf courses, where the number of rounds played each year is falling. Now, after years of mounting losses, Amherst is considering privatizing its municipal courses in hopes of at least breaking even.
“When you take a look at the number of golf courses in the area, I’m sure all the courses are struggling a little bit,” said Eric Guzdek, who oversees golf operations for Amherst.
In fact, the rounds of golf played at Erie County’s Elma Meadows and Grover Cleveland have been on a steady decline for years.
Numbers are down at Brighton and Sheridan Park golf courses in the Town of Tonawanda, too.
Even the private country clubs are feeling it.
“I don’t want to get into names, but there are at least five major country clubs that are really struggling,” said Thomas Sprague, executive director of the Buffalo District Golf Association. “What used to be 400 members is down to 250.”
Some say the area has way too many golf courses – a total of 87 in Sprague’s Buffalo District, which runs from the Pennsylvania line, as far east as Attica, and stretches north across the border into Canada.
Guzdek and others point directly to the mid-2000s, when golf was booming and a bumper crop of new, privately run courses opened to the public, including Arrowhead and Ivy Ridge in Akron, Diamond Hawk in Cheektowaga, Buffalo Tournament Club in Lancaster, Harvest Hill in Orchard Park and Seneca Hickory Stick in Lewiston.
“There’s definitely more competition out there,” said Martin Denecke, recreation director for the Town of Hamburg, which operates 18 Mile Creek Golf Course, “and I think some golfers now prefer to try a variety of courses rather than purchase a season pass.”
“Everybody is clamoring for the same piece of the pie,” said Robert Shelby, superintendent of the two Erie County courses.
But golf’s struggles go well beyond the Buffalo region.
What’s happening to the game here is also happening across the nation.
In 2005, an estimated 30 million golfers in the United States walked the links, according to statistics from the National Golf Foundation.
They played 500 million rounds on more than 16,000 public and private golf courses – an increase of 3,200 courses from the start of the previous decade.
But since then, the nation has gone through a recession and today not every kid wants to be the next Tiger Woods. The number of rounds has dropped by more than 7 percent with the help of 5 million fewer golfers. There also are 536 fewer golf courses, including 157 that closed last year alone.
There’s no single cause.
“It’s just a sign of the times,” said Joe Bertino, executive director of the Western New York section of the PGA. “There’s a lot more things for people to do, especially for junior golfers.”
And there’s no simple solution, either.
Make the hole bigger?
Shorten the game?
Speed it up?
All are being tossed around in effort to win back players and attract new ones.
“Time is a big factor,” said Jeff Ehlers, director of the Youth, Parks and Recreation Department in the Town of Tonawanda. “A lot of golfers just don’t have the time to do it anymore.”
Between 2009 and 2013, the rounds played dropped by 3.5 percent at Sheridan Park; nearly 7 percent at Brighton; 21 percent at Grover Cleveland; 22.7 percent at Audubon; and 27.3 percent at Elma Meadows, according to figures the municipalities provided to The Buffalo News.
In some cases, the rounds may have fluctuated up or down from one year to the next due to the weather conditions, like a wet summer or a gorgeous fall. A long, hard winter and soggy spring took a toll on courses this year, making for a slow start to a season that never really seemed to get going, Ehlers said.
Nearly 4,400 fewer rounds have been played at Brighton and Sheridan, compared to this same time last year, he said.
“The economy affects a lot of what people are able to do, too,” Ehlers said. “Golf is a luxury – not a necessity.”
Consider the Westwood Country Club in Amherst.
Declining membership and rising debt forced the sale of the club in 2012. Now, the new owners want to redevelop the 170-acre course into a mixed-use neighborhood with housing, storefronts, offices, a hotel and parkland.
Golf isn’t in the long-term picture.
Other country clubs – faced with similar challenges – are lowering fees and dues, bringing in more outside events and renting out their clubhouses for banquets and weddings.
“You’ve seen a softening of memberships,” Bertino said. “There aren’t too many people that have waiting lists anymore. They’ve had to be creative in how to generate revenue in lieu of that 450 membership roll.”
At the public courses, rates are still reasonable, Sprague said, but budgets are tight. Municipal courses are expected to be more self-sufficient.
Amherst’s three courses – Audubon on Maple Road, the Par 3 across the street and the Oakwood Golf Course on Tonawanda Creek Road – saw a net loss of more than $2 million over the past 10 years, according to figures from the town’s Comptroller’s Office.
Some golfers at Audubon say business would be better if the town would only keep the course in better shape.
The town, on the other hand, says it’s handcuffed by maintenance and labor costs. Upgrading Audubon would require more workers, town officials say, which isn’t affordable based on the wages paid to the union highway workers who have exclusive rights to maintaining the courses.
So now, the town is seeking bids from private companies interested in operating and managing the three town courses, in hopes they can eventually turn a little profit.
“Some of the public courses, like Audubon, fight a tough battle, because the golf courses are perceived to not be as new or modern as some of the other ones,” Sprague said. “If the prices are relatively similar and you got a golf course that appears to be a second-rate course, they get in the car and drive to another place.”
One of those places is Harvest Hill on Transit Road.
The course opened in 2007 and was purchased in 2012 by attorney Ross Cellino, who added such amenities as a clubhouse, restaurant and patio overlooking the 18th green.
“Ours is a public course that has the same, if not better views off the patio as Park Country Club would have,” Cellino said. “My goal is to provide a country club setting at public course rates.”
Rounds played at Harvest Hill are up from last year, Cellino said, but he’s looking farther down the road.
“I am concerned about the long-term trend,” Cellino said. “The truth is people have become very price-conscious and there’s less and less demand. If someone can save 20 bucks a round, they may go to Elma Meadows or Grover Cleveland.”
Cellino thinks the area just has too many golf courses.
Sprague isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think so. I really don’t,” Sprague said, “But I might be wrong on that depending on whether we can get over this hump.
“It could be cyclical and in five years we may look back and say, 'Everything is going well,’ ” Sprague said. “Or, this could be a downward trend where we don’t see the end of it.”