Business Trends | In the rough
February 27, 2009 2:01 AM
Doug Childers


Virginia golf courses still are busy on weekends, but it is increasingly easy to get a weekday tee time. Sobered by the recession, fewer golfers are playing these days. If that trend holds, they will have fewer courses to choose from next year.

Jamie Conkling is blunt about his sport’s short-term future.  “It’s going to be a very tough year,” says the executive director of the Virginia State Golf Association (VSGA). “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Few industries are prospering these days, but the recession is hitting golf at an especially bad time.  After building too many courses in the 1990s, the industry has seen course closings outpace openings across the U.S. for the past three years. The pattern marks the first period of decline since World War II, according to the Jupiter, Fla.-based National Golf Foundation (NGF).
Now, with a shaky stock market, plummeting retirement portfolios and soaring unemployment, some golfers may be wondering whether the game is a pastime they can afford. Nonetheless, some Virginia golf clubs have been able to increase their memberships and rounds of golf played by making renovations and using savvy marketing techniques.

The national golf numbers don’t look good.  Last year, 72 courses opened and 106 closed across the U.S., according to the NGF.  (The nation has 15,979 golf courses.)  Regions that overbuilt golf courses or have been especially hard-hit by the recession will see a disproportionately high number of closures, says Conkling.

The total number of golf rounds played in 2008 dropped to 492 million (estimated), from 498 million the previous year, according to the NGF.  “Rounds are only down 1.6 percent through November 2008 versus the same period in 2007, which may be surprising to some,” says Jim Kass, the foundation’s director of member research and communications.  “Equipment sales are down approximately 5 percent, however, as golfers delay equipment purchases.” Merchandise sales are typically 7 to 10 percent of total revenues for a golf course.

Even statistics that suggest growth are deceptive.  The number of golfers six years of age or older has climbed to 29.5 million, “up 2.4 percent since 2000, but that is slower than overall population growth,” notes Kass.

In a strong economy, Virginia’s golfing industry packs a punch.  The estimated annual economic impact of golf in the commonwealth is $3.1 billion, according to a study commissioned by the Virginia Golf Council and released in 2007.  And the sport employs more than 40,000 people statewide. But golf courses in the commonwealth are suffering, too.  “We’ve had at least two bankruptcies and two closings in Virginia since the fourth quarter 2008,” Conkling says.  According to the NGF, Virginia has 341 golf courses, of which approximately 300 are VSGA members.  Two new courses are scheduled to open this year — the Ballyhack Golf Club in Roanoke and The Club at Viniterra in New Kent County.

To stay afloat, some private clubs in Virginia are changing to semi-private or public, Conkling says.  Only club members or their guests are allowed to play on private clubs’ courses, and members typically pay initiation fees as well as monthly dues.  By contrast, anyone can play on public courses, and golfers typically pay only for the rounds they play.  “People today are doing the math and saying, ‘I can play all these rounds at public courses and pay when I play.  Do I really need to be a member of a private club?’  The whole mentality has changed,” Conkling says.

Waiting list at Willow Oaks
The news isn’t all bad.  A number of Virginia golf courses are beefing up marketing strategies and undertaking capital improvements to stay competitive.  For some, those efforts are paying off.  The Willow Oaks Country Club in Richmond, for example, has a waiting list for new members.  By contrast, some other clubs have waiting lists for members looking to leave, Conkling points out. “The policy with some private clubs requires that a new member has to come in before another member can relinquish his or her membership.”

Willow Oaks’ membership — more than 1,000 families — has grown about 12 percent in the last two years, a rarity for the sport today. It also has a waiting list for members interested in upgrading their membership to include unlimited access to the club’s golf course.  “We haven’t been as hard hit yet as other businesses, including golf courses,” says Chris Welles, the club’s general manager.  “We’re cautiously optimistic.”

The club’s success in troubled times derives in part from its newly renovated golf course. Willow Oaks undertook the $5 million project with the hope that it would help retain members and attract new ones. Planning for the renovation began before the recession hit, with construction starting in January 2007.  The renovated course opened in June before the stock market began its downward spiral last fall.  The new design improved the infrastructure and design of the course. “The old course drained poorly and did not play well following rainy and wet periods,” Welles says. “In addition, the incredible new topography of the land really makes it aesthetically pleasing.”

So far, the investment has paid off.  “I don’t know if we’d have seen the sort of growth we’re experiencing without making these changes,” Welles says.

Willow Oaks is marketing itself aggressively as a family experience. That strategy, golf industry executives say, is critical for private clubs trying to retain and grow membership. The club now offers a family rate for members’ adult siblings, parents and adult children to play together.  “We’ve tried to do everything we can to encourage our families to participate and keep together,” says Welles.  “I’ve discovered that even in tough times, people remember their families.”

Unlike many clubs, Willow Oaks hasn’t lowered its initiation fees or green fees, which range from $60 to $75. “We’re not feeling the [pressure] so much” to lower fees, Welles says.  “That depends on how things go.  Like everyone else, we’re holding our breath.”

Growth at municipal course
Laurel Hill Golf Club in Fairfax County is also bucking the trend by having a waiting list for membership.  Each year, the award-winning municipal course allows up to 60 individuals to pay $4,300 for an annual membership and the opportunity to play an unlimited number of rounds at no extra charge.  (Laurel Hill is the first of the county’s seven golf courses to offer memberships.)

“We’ve not had a problem filling it to 60, to date,” says Kirk Mason, Laurel Hill’s general manager.  “We have a waiting list — over 100 on January 1 — when it came time to fill membership for the year.”
To attract nonmembers during the recession, the club has lowered its green fees.  For its nonprime season (Nov. 1 to March 31), weekend prices fell from $79 to $74.  Weekday rates fell even more, from $64 to $54.  In addition, the club lowered its twilight fees (for tee times after 1 p.m.) from $69 to $54 on the weekends and $54 to $34 on weekdays.  (All prices include cart rental and a bucket of range balls.) The club also offers multi-round golf passes to Fairfax County residents. The passes, sold in five-, 10- and 15-round increments, offer up to a 35 percent discount depending on age and number of rounds purchased.

Laurel Hill, which opened in October 2005, saw a 20 percent increase in the number of rounds played last year, in part because of a new clubhouse and the club’s aggressive pursuit of tournaments.  In 2008 the club hosted more than 30 tournaments. “The clubhouse changed the dynamics of the destination,” Mason says. The clubhouse, which has 8,000 square feet of public-use space, houses a restaurant, a pro shop and a banquet facility that can seat up to 147 people. “The tournaments came with the clubhouse opening.  We did approximately the same number of general public rounds in 2008 as in 2007.”

Condos at Rivanna
The Rivanna Resort & Golf Club near Charlottesville also is experiencing strong growth, with a 14 percent increase in the number of rounds played last year as compared with 2007. 
The growth is due in part to a change in ownership and improvements to the course under the direction of golf course architect Ed Carton.  Earlier this year, the club also offered a 14-month membership for the price of 12 months. (A family membership costs $1,400, and a single membership is $750.) In addition, the resort is building 64 condominiums, which are now for sale. Recessions offer good opportunities for capital improvements because construction costs drop, says Phil Carrow, one of the club’s owners and a general partner. So far, construction costs have been about 10 percent lower than they would be in a stronger economy, Carrow says.

Prices for the condos start in the low $200,000s. Construction won’t be finished until late this year or early next year, but 35 condos already have been sold.  Investors account for 27 of the sales, with another eight units sold to retail buyers. “The recession has slowed things, but people also understand that now is the time to buy,” says Carrow. “The appraised value of our units has actually increased for this type of product in the past six months, which speaks to the value of the project.”

So far, most of the condo buyers have come from outside Virginia. “However, as more people in Virginia are discovering our project, there is a growing interest in ownership from everyone from U.Va. alumni and parents of U.Va. students to Charlottesville, Richmond, Norfolk and Washington, D.C., residents,” Carrow says.

The VSGA, with 75,000 members, is aggressively marketing golf as well, hoping to reach golfers who are leaving private clubs.  “People leaving private clubs can join a VSGA club at a public facility or form a VSGA recreational golf club and get all the VSGA benefits,” Conkling says. “VSGA members can play in our championships and get access to private clubs through the VSGA One-Day program.  Additionally, members can establish a handicap, receive the bi-monthly Virginia Golfer magazine and Member Club Directory.”

The terms for forming recreational clubs are simple:  Any group of 10 people can form a club.  “We have about 50 recreational golf clubs, but the market is relatively untapped,” Conkling adds.  “Furthermore, we have established 10 Internet-based clubs.  Any individual golfer can join one of these clubs if he or she isn’t interested in joining a private, public or a recreational golf club.”
The association also is promoting its VIP program, which offers complimentary green fees with the rental of a cart at more than 200 courses in Virginia and West Virginia. One half of VSGA’s VIP cardholders are members of the association.

“We touch about 80,000 golfers out of the 615,000 who play golf in Virginia, as reported by the NGF, and we’re trying to reach out to that remaining 535,000,” Conkling says.  “However, if we can hold flat in 2009, I’ll be very happy.”

Golf Courses in Virginia


(434) 293-4653
18 holes, par 72, 6,865 yds.

(804) 739-8800
18 holes, par 71, 6,630 yds.

Brookwoods Golf Club
(804) 932-3737
18 holes, par 72, 6,498 yds.

Glen Allen
(804) 266-2254
18 holes, par 72, 6,674 yds.

First Tee Chesterfield
(804) 275-8050
18 holes, par 66, 4,608 yds.

Glenwood Golf Club
(804) 226-1793
18 holes, par 71, 6,464 yds.

Greene Hills Club
(434) 985-7328
18 holes, par 71, 6,400 yds.

(804) 796-4800, ext. 1
18 holes, par 72, 6,565 yds.

Hobbs Hole
Golf Course
(804) 443-4500
18 holes, par 71, 6,653 yds.

The Hollows Golf Club
(804) 798-2949
27 holes

Hunting Hawk
Glen Allen
(804) 749-1900
18 holes, par 71, 6,832 yds.

Golf Club
(866) 463-2582
27 holes

Ivy Hill Golf Club
(434) 525-2680
18 holes, par 72, 7,047 yds.

Jordan Point GOLF Club
(804) 458-0141
18 holes, par 72, 6,585 yds.

Keswick Club
(434) 923-4363
18 holes, par 71, 6,360 yds.

Country Club
(804) 374-8822
18 holes, par 71, 6,449 yds.

Lake Chesdin LANDING GOLF Club
(804) 590-0031
18 holes, par 72, 6,327 yds.

London Downs
Golf Club
(434) 525-4653
18 holes, par 72, 6,938 yds.

(434) 392-2244
18 holes, par 72, 7,214 yards

Mariners Landing Golf & Country Club
(540) 297-7888
18 holes, par 72, 7,155 yds.

Mattaponi Springs
Golf Club
Ruther Glen
(804) 633-7888
18 holes, par 72, 6,937 yards

Golf Course
(434) 977-0615
18 holes, par 70, 6,596 yds.
Mill Quarter Plantation Country Club
(804) 598-4221
18 holes, par 72, 6,943 yds.

(804) 448-4727
18 holes, par 72, 6,635 yds.

Golf Course
(804) 276-1865, ext. 8
18 holes, par 71, 6,504 yds.

Ringgold Golf Club
(434) 822-8728
18 holes, par 72, 6,588 yds.

Rivanna Resort
(434) 589-3730
18 holes, par 71, 6,350 yds.

River’s Bend Golf CLUB
(804) 530-1000
18 holes, par 71, 6,671 yds.

Royal Virginia
Golf Club
(804) 457-2041
18 holes, par 72, 7,106 yds.

Shenandoah GOLF CLUB
(540) 832-9543
18 holes, par 72, 6,208 yds.

(540) 832-0744
18 holes, par 72, 6,501 yds.

Sycamore Creek
Golf Club
Manakin Sabot
(804) 784-3544
18 holes, par 70, 6,269 yds.

Tanyard Country Club
(540) 967-1889
18 holes, par 72, 6,555 yds.

Wintergreen Resort
(434) 325-8250
45 holes

Winton Country Club
(434) 946-7336
18 holes, par 71, 6,833 yds.

Hampton Roads

Bay Creek
Cape Charles
(757) 331-8620
18 holes, par 72, 7,260 yds.

Bide-A-Wee Golf Club
(757) 393-8600
18 holes, par 72, 6,863 yds.

Bow Creek MUNICIPAL Golf Course
Virginia Beach
(757) 431-3763
18 holes, par 70, 5,917 yds.

Cahoon Plantation
(757) 436-2775
27 holes, par 72, 7,141 yds.

The Colonial Golf CLUB
(757) 566-1600, ext. 3
21 holes, par 72, 6,824 yds.
(757) 645-2030
18 holes, par 72, 6,889 yds.

Cypress Creek
Golfers’ Club
(757) 365-0495
18 holes, par 72, 7,047 yds.

Cypress Point
Country Club
Virginia Beach
(757) 490-8822
18 holes, par 72, 6,541 yds.

Ford’s Colony
(757) 258-4130
54 holes

Golden Eagle
Golf Club
(804) 438-4460
18 holes, par 72, 7.025 yds.

Golden Horseshoe Golf Club
(757) 220-7696
45 holes

tHE GOLF CLUB AT Brickshire
Providence Forge
(804) 966-7888
18 holes, par 72, 7,221 yds.

The Hamptons
Golf Course
(757) 766-9148
27 holes

Hell’s Point Golf CLUB
Virginia Beach
(757) 721-3400
18 holes, par 72, 6,597 yds.

Heron Ridge Golf CLUB
Virginia Beach
(757) 426-3800, ext. 3
18 holes, par 72, 7,017 yds.

Honey Bee Golf Club
Virginia Beach
(757) 471-2768
18 holes, par 70, 5,996 yds.

Kempsville Greens municipal golf course
Virginia Beach
(757) 474-8441
18 holes, par 70, 5,886 yds.
Kiln Creek Golf club AND RESORT
Newport News
(757) 988-3220
18 holes, par 72, 6,968 yds.

(804) 435-7842
18 holes, par 71, 6,802 yds.

Kingsmill Resort & Spa Golf
(757) 258-1623
63 holes

Lake Wright
Golf Course
(757) 459-2255
18 holes, par 70, 6,157 yds.

Nansemond River
Golf Club
(757) 539-4356
18 holes, par 72, 7,241 yds.

Newport News Golf Club AT DEER RUN
Newport News
(757) 886-7925
36 holes

Piankatank River
Golf Club
(800) 303-3384
18 holes, par 72, 6,658 yds.

Quinton Oaks
Golf Course
(804) 529-5367
18 holes, par 71, 5,888 yds.

Red Wing Lake
Virginia Beach
(757) 437-2037
18 holes, par 72, 7,124 yds.

Riverfront Golf Club
(757) 484-2200
18 holes, par 72, 6,735 yds.

the Signature
at West NECK
Virginia Beach
(757) 721-2900, ext. 1
18 holes, par 72, 7,010 yds.
Sleepy Hole
Golf Course
(757) 538-4100
18 holes, par 72, 6,951 yds.

Stumpy Lake
Golf Course
Virginia Beach
(757) 467-6119
18 holes, par 72, 6,846 yds.

Tartan Golf Course
(804) 438-6200
18 holes, par 72, 6,538 yds.

(757) 566-2200
18 holes, par 72, 6,779 yds.

tHE Traditions GOLF CLUB aT Royal New Kent
Providence Forge
(804) 966-7023
18 holes, par 72, 7,372 yds.

THE TraditionS GOLF CLUB AT Stonehouse
(757) 566-1138, ext. 2
18 holes, par 71, 6,979 yds.

Virginia Beach National Golf Club
Virginia Beach
(757) 563-9440, ext. 1
18 holes, par 72, 7,444 yds.

Williamsburg National golf club
(800) 859-9182 or
(757) 258-9642
36 holes

Northern Virginia

Algonkian Golf Course
(703) 450-4655
18 holes, par 72, 6,930 yds.

Augustine Golf Club
(540) 720-7374, ext. 6
18 holes, par 71, 6,817 yds.

Blue ridge shadows golf club
Front Royal
(540) 631-9661 or
(866) 631-9661
18 holes, par 72, 7,209 yds.

Bristow Manor
Golf Club
(703) 368-3558
18 holes, par 72, 7,000 yds.

Bull Run Golf Club
(866) 285-5786 or (703) 753-7777
18 holes, par 72, 6,979 yds.

Cameron Hills
Golf Links
King George
(540) 775-4653
18 holes, par 72, 6,531 yds.

Cannon Ridge
golf club
(540) 735-8000
18 holes, par 72, 6,853 yds.

Fairfax National
Golf Club
(703) 631-9226
27 holes

Forest Greens
golf club
(703) 221-3498
18 holes, par 72, 6,808 yds.

The Gauntlet
Golf Club
(540) 752-0963
18 holes, par 72, 6,857 yds.

General’s Ridge
Golf Course
(703) 335-0777
18 holes, par 72, 6,653 yds.

Goose Creek Golf Club
(703) 729-2500
18 holes, par 72, 6,444 yds.

Kastle Greens
Golf Club
(540) 788-3144
18 holes, par 72, 6,734 yds.

the golf club at landsdowne
(703) 729-4071
45 holes

Places to Golf
Places to Golf
Places to Golf

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