Rub of the green

 In 2015-04

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by Lee Pace

A golf course near the coast hires an architect to build a set of greens designed eight decades earlier by famed Scottish architect Donald Ross. A golf pro in the Piedmont strikes a partnership with a Brazilian supermarket magnate to save a struggling course from closing. A course manager in the mountains recruits prison labor to help weed his course and rake bunkers. In the universe of daily-fee and municipal golf, prices are down, deals are bountiful, new technology is hot and operators are scratching their noggins for clever ideas as fewer people tee it up. “What used to be a $35 to $45 price range has slipped to $25 to $35 in this market,” says Tom Anders, a staff member at Asheville Municipal Golf Course from 2000-12 who now works at a nearby resort. “Golfers are looking for bargains, and that seems to be the price people will pay. The dynamic has changed considerably the last few years.”

At least 5 million fewer people were playing golf in the U.S. in 2013 than in 2003, when the industry peaked, according to the National Golf Foundation. Even after the 20% decline, about 25 million are knocking it around, a number that rebounded after the recession of 2007-09 and has steadied over the last three years. While reduced demand and stingier consumer spending has pressured most courses, the public and daily-fee sector has suffered particularly because of its reliance on middle-income people, who were hit harder by the economic downturn than the private-club set. “Our industry is looking to find its keel,” says Karl Kimball, head professional and co-owner of Durham’s Hillandale Golf Course, which operates as a public-private partnership. Beyond a tough economy prompting some people to give up weekly golf dates, many courses are selling less equipment because of competition from large retailers and Internet sales. “The big-box stores are squeezing the small golf retailer out,” he says. “I took some econ courses in college, but that doesn’t prepare you for this. It’s a challenge — it really is.”

Daily-fee courses also face increased competition from private clubs that are opening their links to outside play at slow times. “A lot of clubs were built as high-end, exclusive clubs during boom times,” says Kelly Miller, whose family owns the Pine Needles and Mid Pines resorts in Southern Pines. While both properties are geared to overnight guests, they also accept daily-fee players. “Now the model is changing. A lot are doing what so many clubs do in the U.K. and Scotland — they subsidize member dues by allowing outside play. When 2008 hit, everyone was just trying to claw and hang on. It’s stabilized now, but the old models don’t work.”

Hillandale is a daily-fee course with a history mirroring the golf industry’s trajectory. It was Durham’s first course, with nine holes that were among the more than 400 courses designed by Ross, a Scottish-born, Pinehurst-based architect who died in 1948. Durham banker and benefactor John Sprunt Hill opened the course as a private club in 1911 on Hillsborough Road north of downtown when the city had fewer than 20,000 people. In the 1930s, Hill formed a trust and donated the course to the city of Durham. Its layout shifted northeast in 1960 with a new design by George Cobb after part of the property was sold to developers who opened strip shopping centers. The course features tight fairways and small greens. Its fees — rates start at $11 and top out at $25 — and an accessible site appeal to both accomplished golfers and hackers. Long before the advent of big-box retailers, the golf shop at Hillandale was a favored spot to buy clubs, often generating annual sales of $1 million or more, including about $200,000 in used equipment. Luke Veasey, a former club pro who is now retired, won several PGA Merchandiser of the Year awards.

“Hillandale was the most diverse place you can imagine,” says Zack Veasey (no relation to Luke), who worked in the shop as a teenager in the 1970s and became director of golf and general manager in 1989. “I would sell golf clubs to a doctor from Hope Valley one day and to the mechanic who fixed his Mercedes the next.” At times, the shop carried an inventory of $350,000 or more. “You could not sit down anywhere in this showroom,” Kimball says. “Product was stacked in every square inch and corner of the building. There were rows and rows of golf bags and golf clubs.” With less walk-in traffic, the showroom is now less cluttered, and a corner area now houses a snack bar.

Kimball has deep roots in municipal golf. He started hitting balls as a toddler in New Lexington, Ohio, played his first round at the city-owned course at age 8 and was breaking 40 by age 12. He played 48 PGA Tour events from 1989 to 1991, and entered 74 Web.com tournaments through 1996. He joined Hillandale in 2007 and replaced Zack Veasey two years later as general manager, just when equipment sales slipped as more golfers opted for national retailers like Coraopolis, Pa.-based Dick’s Sporting Goods and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Edwin Watts Golf. Green fees also declined during the recession. Unwilling to absorb more losses, the trust scheduled its closing for Oct. 31, 2011. In the nick of time, a Brazilian businessman stepped up to save the course. Juliano Hannud, owner of the Emporium grocery chain in Sao Paulo, first visited Hillandale three years earlier when he brought his 8-year-old son Henrique to Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center for leukemia treatment. The father and son became fixtures at the course, a therapeutic diversion after doctors restricted Henrique’s access to restaurants and other places where people congregate in tight spaces. The Hillandale staff gave Henrique his first set of clubs. “Golf has many wonderful qualities, and one is that it’s very good for sick children,” Kimball says. “Juliano would park his cart 30 yards away and make Henrique walk to the cart. Sometimes he would drive off and wait for the boy to catch up. Golf built up his strength, it got him out into the fresh air.”

Henrique was released from the hospital after three bone-marrow replacements, but he returned to Durham for follow-up treatments, visiting Hillandale on each trip. When Hannud learned of Hillandale’s pending closure, he and Kimball formed Amerazil Golf LLC to run the course and pro shop. The Hillandale trust donated the property to the city, which is leasing the course through 2016 at no cost to Amerazil, with an option for another five years.

Since taking over the course, the new owners have invested more than $500,000 in improvements, including rebuilding greens and planting them with Bermuda grass. ”When I stand on the first tee and look down the fairway, I try to envision what it will look like in 20 years, and I take that very seriously,” Kimball says. “The city of Durham is not in the golf business, and they won’t want to expose taxpayer dollars to running a golf course.”

But Durham’s isn’t the only city course adjusting to the changing industry. Wilmington Municipal Golf Course, designed and built by Ross, opened in 1926 sporting sand greens at a time when few courses in Virginia and the Carolinas had grass-covered putting surfaces. The course attracts as many as 60,000 rounds a year. When David Donovan became the head pro in 2007, he suspected that the greens and putting surfaces were not what Ross drew on paper. “I had played a number of Ross courses and knew what to look for,” he says. “It wasn’t here. I did some research at the library and talked to old-timers and learned that Ross built sand greens in the ’20s, but they never got irrigation until 1953. There was never any grass on the greens for 25 years, and by the time they did put grass on them, Ross had been dead five years.”

Donovan pitched the city of Wilmington on a restoration project that, among other things, had the greens rebuilt as drawn in plans on file at the Tufts Archives historical collection in Pinehurst. John Fought, a former PGA Tour player and now a golf-course architect in Scottsdale, Ariz., was hired in fall 2013 to improve the layout. The $1.4 million project included new greens and 24 new or rebuilt tees. Fought removed trees to improve sunlight and airflow and repositioned or nixed some cart paths. It was completed a year later, and the course is self-supporting through green and cart fees and revenue from the golf shop and snack bar. Green fees have increased to $35 on weekdays and $39 on weekends for local residents, helping pay for an expanded maintenance budget. Players who are members at the region’s top private clubs opt for the city course on Mondays, when many others are closed. “I think this has put us on the map,” Donovan says. “Now we have the caliber that will draw people from out of town. An authentic Ross course right in Wilmington for under $40 — that’s a draw.”

In Mooresville, a $4.3 million project will change the front nine of a course with vestiges of Donald Ross that didn’t evolve according to plan. Ross’ office issued the design for the Mooresville Municipal Golf Course near Lake Norman about two months after his death, in June 1948. J.B. McGovern, his longtime associate, managed the course’s construction. A back nine was added in 1977. Over time, playing conditions became ragged, with adjacent traffic posing safety issues as the city’s population jumped almost 75% between 2000 and 2010 to 33,000. Now Mooresville plans a renovation with new holes built as much as possible in Ross’ style. “We promote restoration and preservation of Ross when it makes sense, but it’s not possible here to restore that golf course,” says Kris Spence, a Greensboro architect hired by the city. “But we were able to show them we could route the course in a fashion that would very much mimic and be representative of Ross’ philosophy.” It is expected to reopen late this year.

Black Mountain Golf Course, owned by the town of the same name 16 miles east of Asheville, takes an unusual approach to its maintenance.  Crews of 10 to 15 inmates from state prisons in Swannanoa and Morganton regularly help clear creek banks, blow underbrush and rake sand traps at the course. Course operations manager Brent Miller estimates the town has benefited from 20,000 man-hours over the last two years. “The prisoners are somewhat limited in what they are allowed to do,” he says. “Most of the machinery they can’t use, but they can use weed eaters. The number we get depends on the availability of guards to supervise them. But they certainly help. It’s free labor.”

Everything about golf is changing, particularly an effort to expand golf’s popularity beyond its base of higher-income, well-educated white men, says Del Ratcliffe, owner of Charlotte-based Ratcliffe Golf Services Inc., which manages four daily-fee courses and owns one. “The old days of appealing to the male 25 to 45 who plays golf with his buddies is changing,” he says. “There’s more diversity in the market — more ladies, families, couples, parents and children together.” Industry leaders and entrepreneurs are testing many ideas to juice the game, including increasing the diameter of the cup from 4.25 inches to 15 and promoting a soccer-golf hybrid that allows players to kick soccer balls toward 21-inch cups. Dallas-based Topgolf International Inc., which is considering a Triangle site, has 16 centers in six states that include multilevel hitting bays with technology tracking each shot’s accuracy and distance. Inside, music is blaring in a clubhouse filled with wide-screen TVs, pool tables and a full assortment of food and drinks.

Ratcliffe’s courses have embraced initiatives like the PGA Junior League Golf, the sport’s answer to Little League baseball. “You’ve got to be quick to adapt and learn new ways of reaching your market,” Ratcliffe says. “The dad doesn’t run off and spend all weekend at the club playing golf like he used to. If we can get the kids interested in the game, we’re much more likely to get the parents as well.”

Golf technically remains the same as it was centuries ago when Mary, Queen of Scots scalded a ball across the pastures with a crude wooden club. But much about the sport is changing in the blink of an eye.

Lee Pace has chronicled the state’s golf scene for 30 years; his latest book is The Golden Age of Pinehurst.

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