As golfers and local officials debate what to do with Litchfield’s 18-hole course, the city has had to confront a difficult truth: across the country, the sport’s boom days are over.
Like boom-era poster boy Tiger Woods, golf’s popularity has fallen precipitously since the golden days of the 1990s and early 2000s. Since 2005, 643 golf courses have closed and the sport has suffered a net loss of four million golfers, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Here in Litchfield, a recent report by J.J. Keegan — a consultant for Golf Convergence, a golf operations consulting company — augured a shaky future for Litchfield’s course.
Keegan’s report, which was commissioned by the city council, concluded that the city is losing as much as $150,000 a year on the golf course — a fairly typical deficit for a Minnesota municipal golf course, according to a 2012 report by the State Auditor’s Office. (See map and table.)
An uncertain future
Other area cities are also grappling with how to handle declining participation and operating incomes.
Becker’s Pebble Creek Golf Club, located about 50 miles northeast of Litchfield, racked up a $241,008 operating deficit in 2012, according to the report.
Ranked by Golf Digest as a four-and-a-half star facility, Becker’s course has become a thorn in the side of public officials. Becker Mayor Lefty Kleis says he is “100 percent” behind the city selling the course, according to the Sherburne County Citizen.
When cities sell municipal golf courses, “generally, they’re not being sold to a private interest to run as a golf course,” said John Jernberg, an analyst with the State Auditor’s Office. “They’re being sold for development.”
The golf courses listed in the analysis are those that cities fund through enterprise fund accounting, which is a more business-like way to run a municipal golf course than, say, putting a city-owned golf course under the auspices of the parks and recreation department.
With enterprise fund accounting, “it’s supposed to, in general, have fees cover most of the costs of the operation,” Jernberg said. “Generally I wouldn’t expect (a golf course) to be a profit generator, but somewhat close to breaking even. … It’s always a crap shoot.”
And, since the “boom” cycle of golf ended roughly nine years ago, the odds in that crap shoot have gotten markedly worse, causing cities to rethink golf course ownership.
“There was the boom of the mid-to-late ‘90, early 2000s, where golf was really big,” Jernberg said. “But since that time — and for sure once the Great Recession hit — the numbers have declined, and certain cities have said, ‘We’ve had enough of this trying to run a golf course.’”
The city of Litchfield runs its course as an enterprise fund, according to City Administrator Dave Cziok.
The city took over the maintenance side of the golf course in 2010 and the pro shop and duties operations in early 2013; Litchfield Golf Club Inc. had previously run both.
The Litchfield Civic Arena, which is also run as an enterprise fund, is the city’s closest analog to the golf course, Cziok said, and the arena’s deficits are balanced by a $59,000 subsidy from the city-owned liquor store.
Cziok said that a similar arrangement for the golf course could potentially happen in the future, “but right now we’re not really ready to make that jump.”
A demographic quandary
From behind the counter in the pro shop at Litchfield Golf Club, Steve Fenton, 66, who has worked part-time at the pro shop for the past five years, has had a good view of golf’s “bust” period.
Fenton sees the golf course’s popularity drop-off as a problem of demographics, not course quality.
“This is as fine a small-town, municipal golf course as you can find anywhere,” Fenton said.
Fenton’s son Tom, who served on the board of directors of Litchfield Golf Club Inc. in 2000 and 2001 (and previously worked at the Independent Review), agrees.
“I don’t think the quality of the course has changed any,” Tom Fenton said. “… That’s a beautiful course.”
Keegan’s recent report bears out the demographic difficulties the golf course faces: ideally, Litchfield would have 2,264 golfers in the area in order to sustain the course; there are 1,051 within five miles, a number that Keegan’s report characterizes as a “Mayday” scenario.
Ray Haugland, 80, has been a member of Litchfield Golf Club since 1998 and has watched membership and participation among his peers decline — primarily because of age and health concerns — with few younger golfers joining the club to fill the void.
“I’m worried about it,” Haugland said. “I’m concerned.”
George Pederson, 78, was a member at Litchfield Golf Club from 1970 until 2010, when he began spending half his summers at his cabin in Canada.
“I just don’t have the time,” Pederson said.
Senior members often leave golf clubs or bowling leagues or civic organizations; but the real problems arise when these members are not supplanted by the younger generation.
“They (seniors) are not being replaced by that younger demographic,” Steve Fenton said.
“They’ve got to come from somewhere,” Haugland said.
Getting the kids involved
The solution to increasing membership and participation at the Litchfield Golf Club seems simple enough: reach out to the community’s youth.
At a June City Council meeting, Golf Club Inc. Board President Carl Minton highlighted the club’s youth outreach push, including a $1,500 purchase of golf equipment and supplies for children and additional funds that will lower the cost for 56 participants enrolled in a new youth golf program.
By building a base of young golf enthusiasts, the hope is, as Steve Fenton put it, “they get the parents out too.”
Matt Thomas, 21, is the co-manager of the pro shop at the Litchfield Golf Club.
Thomas recently completed his schooling at the Professional Golfers Career School in California, and attracting young golfers to the sport was an oft-discussed topic there — specifically wooing Thomas’ demographic, the coveted 18-to-35 age group.
“My age level, it’s tough to get kids out,” Thomas said.
Thomas grew up in Litchfield and began playing golf at age 3; he’s heartened by the revitalized youth golf program, and hopes that it’ll help boost middle school golf participation, which he said has lagged since his years playing.
“A lot of it is the older people now,” Thomas said.
As the city and Litchfield Golf Club Inc. strive to spread the gospel of golf to the next generation, perhaps they can be encouraged by the fact that all of the United States is wrestling with the golf bust; they are not alone.
“This is a national problem,” Steve Fenton said. “This isn’t just Litchfield.”