During Lynnfield’s Town Meeiting on Monday, April 30th, you will be asked to invest in King Rail Golf Course. Below is an interesting perspective on the golf industry.
Golf has landed in the deep rough locally and nationwide
• By MIKE KIRBY firstname.lastname@example.org
• Mar 23, 2018
Bob Gay sees it every June when he stands on the balcony of Chemawa Golf Course in North Attleboro.
Gay and Bob Beach, co-presidents of the Attleboro Area Golf Association, use the elevated setting to address the participants in the AAGA Senior Championship before they tee off.
With the exception of the AAGA Championship — commonly called the “City Open” and the only four-day, four-venue golf tournament in Massachusetts — the competition for age 50-plus players is by far the most popular event the organization puts on each year.
Gay estimates the senior tourney annually attracts 100-110 players. The AAGA Junior Championship, meanwhile, draws about 30 participants. It’s been years since there was enough participation for the AAGA to hold a women’s championship.
“You look out and you see a lot of guys who have been playing for a long time, guys who once played in the City Open and now play in the Senior,” Gay said. “They still love the game. But you just don’t see as many younger players with the same enthusiasm.”
That, say those in the local golf industry, sums up the problem: The game, still loved by millions, is failing to attract a younger audience or women. Young adults strapped by student debt don’t have the time, the money or the focus to invest in a sport that can easily consume half a day — not counting the 19th hole.
Participation in the sport is down from its peak of about 12 years ago, and golf course closings, nationally and locally, are on the rise.
Both have occurred in the Attleboro area.
Local golf courses are not nearly as full as they once were. At many local public courses, players can walk up at many hours of the day, pay their greens fee and tee off — unheard of 15 years ago.
Local private clubs have all stepped up membership drives, particularly hoping to attract younger players and families.
The City Open was, in Gay’s view, “the biggest sporting event in town next to the Thanksgiving Day football game.” In its heyday, roughly 250 competitors would try to qualify for the tournament, forcing the AAGA to hold morning and afternoon sessions for competitors to play their way in.
“There were big crowds around the scoreboard, everybody trying to see who got in,” Gay said.
Now, the qualifier attracts a little more than 100 players.
But the biggest impact in the area is the golf course closings.
In 2015, Willowdale Golf Course, a tiny, nine-hole, par-30 layout nestled in a Mansfield neighborhood, closed. It is now a housing subdivision.
In 2016, Locust Valley Country Club, a nine-hole public course in Attleboro beloved by players for its funky layout, abruptly closed. Owner David Bourque
In 2017, the owners of Heather Hill Country Club in Plainville, a 27-hole public course first established after World War II, announced they planned to turn the vast tract of land into 55-plus housing. That closing would hinge on the developer securing permits, a task that is probably several years from completion if it is done at all.
The real shocker came in January when the board of directors of Highland Country Club filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Established in 1901, Highland is the granddaddy of local golf courses and one of the oldest clubs in Massachusetts.
Long considered the gathering place of Attleboro’s moneyed elite, Highland got weighed down by debt and, like much of the golfing industry, failed to grow its membership. Stung by frequent assessments added to their dues and attracted by offers from other private clubs in the area, dozens of Highland members quit the club this winter, leaving the board little choice but to seek bankruptcy protection under the section that does not allow for reorganization.
Highland may, in fact, still operate as early as this year. Many members told The Sun Chronicle they have heard of several parties interested in buying the club and operating it as a golf course. That would have to happen very quickly, however, for the nine-hole layout near Mechanics Pond to be ready for the traditional start of the season at the beginning of April.
“What a shame,” said Gay, a longtime member.
It’s a phrase echoed by nearly everyone interviewed for this story.
Jesse Menachem is among them. He was somewhat surprised by the bankruptcy filing, but he sees a bigger picture when it comes to golf.
Menachem is the executive director of Mass Golf, the Norton-based organization that oversees the sport in the Bay State. Golf is a game, he said, but it’s also a business, one that he believes is now coming out of an upheaval.
Golf peaked around 2006 when, according to the National Golf Foundation, more than 30 million Americans considered themselves golfers and 550 million rounds were played on U.S. Golf courses, many of them nestled in expensive housing developments that popped up across the country.
Economic times were good. And golf had a charismatic, biracial superstar in Tiger Woods who many investors expected would attract players of all colors.
The Tiger Boom, as it was called, spurred the construction of long, challenging golf courses that demanded exorbitant greens fees to play. Many took up the sport, found it too difficult or too expensive or too time-consuming to play, and gave up.
The number of players fell by 20 percent, leveling off to about 25 million and 455 rounds over the last five years.
It was inevitable that some courses would close due to the over-expansion, says a report by the National Golf Foundation, which adds that more courses are likely to close in the years ahead.
“Although there will be excellent new golf courses being built in the future, the gradual market correction is expected to continue for the next few years,” the report said.
“It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” Menachem said.
Some private clubs may have to change their business model, Menachem said, and that may have contributed to Highland’s difficulties. Many clubs like Highland that are owned and managed by members have struggled, he said, while clubs operated by companies have been more successful.
Norton Country Club, for example, is owned by the Jan Companies. Besides a handful of other golf clubs in Massachusetts, it owns several Burger King franchises and other restaurants and can bring management expertise and economies of scale to a course.
Golf, Menachem believes, is still a strong business in Massachusetts. With more than 350 member courses, Mass Golf is the nation’s seventh largest golf association. Golf generates employment for 25,000 workers in Massachusetts and raises $74 million for local charities.
The sport does face challenges, he acknowledged.
“We’ve got to break down the barriers that golf is an elitist, male-dominated game,” Menachem said.
One way to do that is to attract more women. That’s one of the reasons that the Massachusetts Golf Association merged with the Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts at the start of this year to form Mass Golf.
That organization is now offering more competition for the state’s top female players. It is also working with member clubs to attract more women, who are outnumbered 7 to 2 nationally in the sport.
Among those incentives are shorter, more playable layouts, nine-hole or even six-hole events and child care, so Mom can play with Dad or with her friends.
“If your gym can offer it, why can’t we?” Menachem said.
Nationally, the United States Golf Association has been pushing a Play 9 initiative, seeking to overcome the notion that only 18 holes of golf is legitimate.
The other big challenge is getting younger people to play. Many in the industry are concerned that attracting millennials to an expensive game that takes a long time to play and isn’t prone to instant gratification will be next to impossible.
However, two efforts right here in the Attleboro area (see accompanying story) make the case that young people will grow to love the game. You just have to put clubs in their hands.
The Barend family of North Attleboro has founded the Girls Independent Golf League — GIGL for short — with the idea of letting girls play and have fun without the potentially intimidating presence of boys. The league and a pair of daylong clinics draw 500 players from Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It’s being used as a model for similar programs across the United States and even into Australia.
Mike Michel of North Attleboro began 24 Hours of Golf, where he and a buddy play around the clock to raise funds. The Mike Michel Golf Fund has raised more than $100,000 in just a few years, supplying clubs, memberships and lessons to any youngster who wants to play the game but can’t afford it.
Menachem says golf needs to escape the idea that the game is something men use to escape for long hours on the weekend.
“We need more flexibility to the needs of golfers,” he said. “We need to be more family-oriented. This is a game that Dad can play with Mom and the kids. It’s a game you can play your whole life. What other sport can say that?”