MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The Theodore Wirth Golf Course in Minneapolis opened in 1916. It’s one of the oldest golf courses west of the Mississippi River.
Keller Golf Course in Maplewood, Minn. was a regular stop on the PGA Tour from the 1930s through the ’60s and hosted two PGA Championships.
“That’s one of the things that make this place so special, is the history,” Paul Diegnau, Keller’s superintendent, said.
The great history of the game is evident on many of Minnesota’s courses. But more and more of them are becoming just that — history.
The Fred Richards Golf Course in Edina, Minn. will close for good at the end of this year, turned back into the park it used to be.
“As our golf courses are aging, we have investments that need to be made in the courses,” Ann Kattreh, Edina’s parks and recreation director, said. “And we just didn’t have enough money to make the investments.”
It’ll join a growing list of closing courses, with golf’s popularity on the decline.
“I think this is something that you’re seeing all over the country,” Kattreh said. “Twenty years ago, golf was booming, and everybody added courses.”
The Richards course was built in 1993, during the boom, part of a national trend that saw golf’s popularity soar and a surge of new courses built.
“Really, 25 percent of all the golf courses in Minnesota have been built since 1990. Certainly the number of golfers hasn’t gone up by that number,” Tom Ryan, executive director and COO of the Minnesota Golf Association, said. “There’s an oversupply of golf courses. We overbuilt.”
Golf’s popularity peaked in 2005 and has been declining every year since. A net loss of four million golfers, and 643 courses closed nationally since 2006, according to the National Golf Foundation.
“The national trends are reflected here,” Ryan said.
According to the MGA, 41 new courses opened in Minnesota from 2000-2006. Since then? Just one, Wedgewood Cove in Albert Lea – five years ago. The last course to open in the metro area was the Meadows at Mystic Lake back in 2005 – nearly a decade ago.
Since then, 15 Minnesota courses have closed — and counting.
Most of them are older, built before the boom. And most, like Parkview and Carriage Hills in Eagan, Minn., have been turned into housing developments.
That’s a big deal in a state where golf is incredibly popular.
“I don’t think we can overemphasize either how golf is important to a state like Minnesota,” Ryan said. “Minnesota really is a golf crazy state.”
Minnesota has the most golfers per capita in the country, and the industry contributes $2.4 billion to the state’s economy every year. Minnesota’s 500 courses support 35,000 jobs. And the state is one of the most popular golf destinations nationwide, pulling in $350 million annually in tourism revenue.
“It’s a big deal economically,” Ryan said.
The economic impact of golf’s decline?
St. Paul lost about $1 million on its four courses last year. This year, it turned two of them over to be privately run. That’s something Minneapolis is considering as well. It lost more than $500,000 on its six courses last year — the same six courses that totaled a $1.8 million profit in 2000.
“The health of the golf courses is, it’s tough,” Sara Ackmann, the director of golf for the Minneapolis parks and recreation department, said.
Since 2000, Minneapolis has seen a 46 percent drop in the number of rounds played on its courses, a problem compounded by decisions to delay necessary improvements.
“In the heyday of golf and money flowing in, decisions were made to use some of the revenues in other places of the organization that were hurting,” Ackmann said. “Some decisions to defer capital expenses, and it just has caught up with the [park and recreation] board.”
In January, a consultant’s 151-page report labelled the golf department “a failing enterprise” which had “spun” into a “death spiral,” and said $34 million in capital improvements are needed. Short of that, it called for $14 million just to address “critical needs.” A series of recommendations will be presented to the park board for some big decisions later this summer.
“Our courses are really at a critical point where they need some serious investment,” Ackmann said. “Or we’re going to probably lose them.”
So how did we get here?
Golf’s decline has been traced to what you could call the “Trinity of Trouble” – time, money, and difficulty. It’s not easy to learn, and if you do, it’s time-consuming, and expensive.
Or maybe it’s something else.
“When I was a kid, junior golf was everything,” Alan Cull, the general manager of TPC of the Twin Cities in Blaine, said. “The industry got fat, sassy, greedy and the corporate dollars started coming in, and then kids got put to the side. And I think today, we’re paying the price for that.”
Cull said TPC has actually, somehow, managed to buck the trend.
“We’re up,” he said. “We’re at an all-time high for membership.”
Cull says TPC initially started falling into that downward trend, but then they came to terms with what was happening and got smart about their business model.
“We opened the club, we were 80 percent corporate, 20 percent family,” he said. “We’re now 50-50.”
In order to survive the decline, many private clubs, including TPC, dropped their initiation fees, some even to zero. And added other amenities, like pool, fitness and banquet facilities.
“Finding other ways to be more relevant,” Cull said. “Even though it’s not golf, it keeps them here spending their money.”
Which is true at many golf courses these days.
The ones that are surviving are doing so by and large because of weddings, events and catering, not golf. And more and more courses in Minnesota are adding things like lawn bowling and foot golf.
“We needed to try something different,” said Rick Sitek, the golf pro at Hyland Greens, which just installed a foot golf course. “Cash flow, bodies on the golf course.”
But not all of them will survive.
“The National Golf Foundation predicts that we’ll probably lose nationally about 1,000 golf courses over the next decade,” Ryan said.
In an effort not to become one of them, historic Keller doubled down, with a $12.2 million renovation.
“We were at a breaking point,” said Jody Yungers, the director of arena and golf operations for Ramsey County’s park and rec department. “We needed to make a decision. Were we going to invest or weren’t we?”
The hope is that golfers reconnect with the past, “and all the legends of golf that played here,” Diegnau said.
And more importantly, the future.
“There are more junior kids playing golf now and getting exposed to the game than ever,” Ryan said. “There’s still an appetite for the serious golfers, but we’ve got to get those young people to replace those baby boomers. That’s the theory, anyway. It still remains to be seen. Because as you know, as you expose kids to anything, they’re not always going to stick with it.”
The future of the sport depends on it.
But there have been some signs of hope.
Statistics from 2012 reported by the NGF showed the first sizeable increase in golf outings since 2000. And a number of private clubs, including TPC, have felt confident enough to begin raising their initiation fees once again, now that the economy is improving.
And as tough as things are in Minnesota, it’s doing better than most places. A national golf “think-tank” ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul as the 11th healthiest golf market in the country this year.