The Missing Links

And in Fridley, a struggle is now erupting over the fate of Springbrook Nature Center as the City Council, facing a shortfall of $2 million, threatens to close it and to study the option of using the land for a golf course. More than 300 people rallied July 10 to protest the center’s closing. Though Fridley does not have a municipal golf course within city limits, the surrounding area has seven links within a five-mile car ride. The debate will continue in Fridley, Duluth, and elsewhere, as open space evaporates and golf promoters push to build courses on often environmentally sensitive public and private land.

For all the state’s alleged love of the game, golf has steadily lost players over the past three years. Many public golf courses are sopping in red ink, and many communities are protesting the amount of land being shaped for greens and fairways. The game has taken a beating from the weather, the economy, and a hurried society with little time for a leisure activity designed by Scottish aristocrats centuries ago. Golf is declining in popularity. The rise of Tiger Woods and the growth of televised golf notwithstanding, the game has shown no growth through the past decade. Even so, the number of courses in the Twin Cities has skyrocketed.

The National Golf Foundation reports that five hundred thousand Americans pick up golf annually, and the same number drop it. The NGF reported in March that total rounds dropped three percent last year, and golf course openings slid thirty-eight percent from a fifteen-year peak in 2000. “NGF research shows that from 1986 to 1990, demand outpaced supply, but from 1991 to present the opposite occurred,” according to a startlingly frank press release from earlier this year. “The ratio of golfers to courses today is returning to 1986 levels, about nineteen hundred golfers per eighteen-hole equivalent.”

The Fort Lauderdale-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association reported last year that golf participation rose just 11.3 percent since 1987, around the same time the NGF suggested the game was growing so fast, the country would have to build a course a day just to keep up. Golf ranks as the country’s fourteenth most popular sport, well behind such stalwarts as bowling, billiards, basketball, bicycling, and walking. Golfers would argue that the game takes more skill than any of these pursuits. But that is part of the problem.

John Valliere, the gregarious general manager of Braemar Golf Course in Edina, is a longtime observer of golf’s status, a consultant to a variety of local courses, and a former chairman of the Explore Minnesota Golf Alliance. In 1980, the metro area had 79 public courses and 30 private golf courses. Today it has 159 public (about a third are municipally owned courses, the rest privately owned but opened daily to the public) and 34 private golf links. “I can’t say I’m really an advocate of building any more courses in the state,” he says. He points out that the last three years have been very painful, as rounds played in the state plummeted from 58.3 million in 2000 to 52.4 million last year, almost a nine percent drop during a time when the game’s popularity on television increased and many casual observers believed more people were golfing than ever before.

Warren P. Ryan, communications director of the Minnesota Golf Association, says the state has added ten new facilities every year for the past fifteen years, bringing the total number of courses in the state to 490. Brainerd added so many golf courses that national magazines began to highlight it as a mecca for the sport. Giant’s Ridge in Biwabik added a course with the idea that Twin Cities golfers would hop in their cars and drive three hours for a chance at a new course. In the past decade, the state went crazy building golf courses, as every suburb and small town sought to cash in on what they perceived to be the booming popularity of the sport.

Part of the growth was driven by surveys that showed 700,000 golfers in the state, the highest participation rate in the country. The numbers give a lopsided view of Minnesota as Fairway Heaven, however, since to be labeled a golfer, a respondent typically had to play just once a season, says Ryan. The MGA’s membership of serious golfers, those who join leagues and play, on average, twenty-five rounds a year, is around eighty-seven thousand. “What are the other six hundred thousand doing?” he asks. “Are they playing once or twenty times a year? What’s the secret to getting a high-level commitment? How do we get them to play golf?”

Evidence of trouble on the courses can be found in daily newspapers, where golf courses are advertising dramatically lowered green and membership fees. And last year an analysis by the St. Paul Pioneer Press showed that in Ramsey, Dakota, and Washington counties six of seventeen courses lost money, with River Oaks in Cottage Grove showing a $1 million loss and Bridges at Mounds View struggling with a $300,000 deficit that taxpayers had to absorb.

Ramsey County’s golf budget shows more than $300,000 annually moving from the general Parks and Recreation budget to the budget for golf course operation and maintenance. Kevin Finley, the county’s golf manager, calls it an “indirect expense” for operating and maintaining facilities, but it looks as though golf cannot pay for itself—a common problem, according to the Pioneer Press survey. To be fair, the county’s other sports-related facilities, such as parks and beaches, do not pay for themselves, either. Yet these are not built with expectations of making money. While communities continue to eye courses to create a revenue-producing vehicle and upscale their image, they may be banking on the wrong sport.

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