What’s killing golf? Warren Ryan says it’s rising green fees and equipment costs, exacerbated by little or no concerted national effort to focus on new targets for participation—in particular women and juniors. Abysmal weather for the past two springs has not helped, says Al McMurchie, golf course manager at Inver Wood Golf Course in Inver Grove Heights. Late spring snows and rainy summers last year dampened enthusiasm and cut operational days from the normal average of 160–170 per season to 127, he says.
A weakening economy and growing unemployment has left some golfers without the financial means to enjoy their favorite game, one that costs at least thirty dollars for eighteen holes at a low-cost public course, and as much as eighty dollars at a high-end public or private course, adds Braemar’s John Valliere.
Mike May, communications director for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, sees societal trends such as bigger commutes, longer work days, and crowded kids’ schedules as culprits hurting the game. Learning and playing golf takes time, and Americans have less of it.
Believe it or not, computers may also be hurting this ancient, decidedly analog pastime. “There’s a lot of competition in the sports world and we’re seeing that the influence of the computer is zapping people’s free time—they’re spending time emailing and surfing the Internet instead of playing the game,” he says. Golf’s not the only victim of computer games and online obsession, he points out. His organization shows steep declines in tennis, racquetball, and other skill-oriented games.
Even natural athletes struggle to learn golf. And it cannot be played in, say, the backyard or at school. “It’s not an easy game. It takes time, patience, and hard work. It’s not like basketball, where you can dribble and shoot almost right away,” says May. “Golf takes a lot more time and commitment.” Curt Walker agrees, adding with a laugh, “We do not have a genetic imperative to swing a club in an awkward and unnatural way in front of the public.”
Devotion to golf course building, despite the game’s waning popularity, worries groups such as the Sierra Club. For the past several years the environmental group’s North Star chapter in Minneapolis has tracked the loss of public land statewide, and two of its top ten “endangered green spaces” were sites of proposed golf courses—Duluth’s Spirit Mountain and Plymouth’s Eagle Lake. The organization works with several communities on the issue through a grant provided by the McKnight Foundation, which has an open-space campaign under way in the region.
The Sierra Club and other open-space advocates lost one battle recently: Eagle Lake has become a nine-hole golf course operated by Three Rivers Park District. The decision was made more than a year ago, and this will be the Eagle Lake Golf Center’s first year of operation. Although the course takes up two-thirds of a 230-acre park, the park district left aside some land for trails and lake access.
Ginny Black, a Plymouth City Council member, recalls that the city had no choice but to approve the project. The park district owned the land, after all, and no public safety or environmental issues arose to stop the golf course. A group of citizens who opposed the course pointed out that there are already ten courses within ten miles of Eagle Lake, including one just two miles down the road in New Hope and a private one in Plymouth. It did little good. “There was public outcry. A lot of residents were really upset, and we really didn’t hear from the golfers as to whether they did or did not want the course,” she recalls. “The majority of people told us, ‘We don’t want a golf course here, and we don’t need one here.’”
Although environmental issues did not arise in Plymouth, they have flared up in debates over other courses in Minnesota. A 1999 article in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer details how links in heavily forested areas “fragment” the landscape and destroy the habitat of songbirds and rare species such as tree frogs and spring peepers. And then there are the numerous chemicals used to maintain the weedless greens. “Golf courses are one of the most chemically treated land areas in the United States, second only to fruit orchards,” reports Jay Feldman, executive director of the Washington-based Beyond Pesticides.
Feldman cites studies showing that golf courses average a rate of eighteen pounds of pesticides per treated acre, seven times that of agriculture, and that course superintendents suffer elevated rates of brain cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His organization’s research shows that of the thirty-six commonly used golf course pesticides in the country, fourteen cause cancer, another fourteen are linked to neurotoxic damage, and similar numbers kill birds, fish, and bees. While Feldman’s solution is to develop environmental principles for golf courses in the United States to reduce pesticides, several Minnesota courses have opted for certification by the Selkirk, New York-based group Audubon International. Not to be confused with the bird-loving National Audubon Society, the organization requires members to meet certain environmental guidelines regarding land management, water conservation, pest, and habitat management.
The cost of building courses can dissuade even wealthy suburbs when other arguments will not. When the Eagan City Council and mayor appointed a committee to look at buying a farm adjacent to Patrick Eagan Park and turning it, as well as part of the park, into an executive golf course, former mayor Bea Blomquist quickly mobilized a citizens’ group to fight the City Council—which initially was seen as being in favor of the course, even though the parkland had been paid for in the 1970s with federal money that strictly forbade the use of it for anything other than a park.
“I’m a golfer and I love golf—it’s my sport. But to take a piece of land that has never, ever been developed, farmed, or improved—other than to make it a park—and build a golf course on it was ludicrous,” she says. “There’s more than enough golf courses in and near Eagan, and this put the city into competition with private enterprise.”
The $21 million price tag for the course turned the City Council and Pat Awada, who was then the mayor of Eagan, against the proposal. Today, the city and a local citizens’ group are studying the possibility of buying the farmland and adding it to Patrick Eagan as parkland to create an “Eagan Greenway.” The city continues to make do with three courses, although a developer has recently hinted at trying to build one on the Eagan-Inver Grove Heights border.