Changing economics impact golf in the Northwest
Twelve Puget Sound area golf courses have closed in the past four years, although one of those has recently reopened. Some public courses and private clubs remain in trouble even as the economy improves and rounds increase.
Special to The Seattle Times
Puget Sound-area golf course closings
Tanwax Greens (Eatonville)
Ballinger Lake (Mountlake Terrace)
Wellington Hills (Woodinville)
Tall Chief (Fall City)
Sea Links Golf Course (Blaine)
University Golf Course (PLU campus, Parkland)
Carnation (reopened 2013)
Holmes Harbor Golf and Beach Club (Freeland, Whidbey Island)
The Links at Olson Mansion (Maple Valley)
Trail Nine at Resort at Port Ludlow (18 holes still open today)
New World Golf Center (Par 3) (Bellingham)
Baker's Edge (Maple Falls, Whatcom County)
Riverside Golf Course (Ferndale)
Lobo Country Club (par-3) (Snohomish)
Christy's Par 3 and Golf Range (Federal Way)
Evergreen Golf Course (Everson, Whatcom County)
Monroe Golf Course
Meridian Greens (par 3) (Puyallup)
Buckle up, golfers. Tremors continue to rumble through the industry in the Puget Sound region as it tries to escape from deep rough.
Twelve golf courses have closed in the past four years, although one of those has recently reopened. Some public courses and private clubs remain in trouble even as the economy improves and rounds increase.
Lynnwood is deciding what to do with its money-losing golf course, and the city of Sumner has hired a company to arrange the sale of Sumner Meadows. Mountlake Terrace made a decision early this year after the company that ran Ballinger Lake Golf Course walked away. The city shut down the course and is turning it into a park.
A Tacoma-area country club, Oakbrook, became a public course in late 2011 and is part of the trio of courses that constitute Ryan Moore Golf, the company owned in part by the PGA Tour winner from Puyallup.
Much of the shakeout is coming at low-key, affordable courses where players new to golf felt comfortable.
Troy Andrew, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, said, "It's sad, very sad to see these courses go away."
"There are too many golf courses for not enough golfers," Andrew said. "Unfortunately, it is the smaller golf courses that are suffering. That's interesting to me because they are the most cost-effective way of playing."
Before it closed last fall, Wellington Hills outside Woodinville had greens fees of $12 for nine holes during the week. The course was on property owned by the University of Washington, which had purchased it decades ago as a possible site for a branch campus that wound up being built in Bothell. The property will become a regional athletic facility with playing fields to satisfy a mitigation agreement to offset construction of the nearby massive Brightwater sewage treatment facility.
Jani Japar, who operated Wellington Hills with a business partner and once operated Ballinger Lake, said Wellington Hills' golf fate was imminent because it was a low-key nine-hole course doing under 18,000 rounds a year on property worth nearly $10 million.
One result of the closings of Wellington Hills and Ballinger Lake is that unpretentious Wayne Golf Course in Bothell is reporting an increase in rounds.
"We're getting golfers from both places," an employee said.
Course growth in 1990s was a flawed plan
Japar said the golf industry was overbuilt and "only the strong will survive." She said the "build it and they will come" mentality about course construction in the 1990s was flawed.
These have been tough times for golf throughout the nation for two major reasons: the recession and, for many, a lifestyle that makes the five-hour golf round incompatible with parents, who have child-activity obligations and are often putting in longer workweeks as well.
Casinos have hurt golf, too, a former club manager said. An additional factor in the Puget Sound area was worse-than-usual golf weather during the recession — last year's remarkable stretch of 48 rainless days notwithstanding.
Health clubs often are a better fit for time-starved adults, and a hot topic at some private golf clubs is whether to add fitness rooms and exercise classes.
Two of the newest clubs in King County — TPC Snoqualmie Ridge and The Plateau Club — have exercise facilities and swimming pools.
During golf's downturn, two upscale courses opened in Washington, both in 2011. Both were long-planned and had been delayed. Rope Rider opened at Suncadia outside Cle Elum, and Salish Cliffs opened outside Shelton. Salish Cliffs, which has attracted national attention, is a tribal course owned by the Squaxin Island Tribe and is located about a 3-wood from the parking lot of the tribe's Little Creek Casino.
Golf is trying to get back players who have taken a break from the game
While golf courses have been vanishing, TV ratings for the PGA Tour have remained strong.
Golf wants to grow its way out of its problems by getting more people to take up the sport, getting what are termed "lapsed players" back on courses and encouraging current golfers to play more rounds.
There are four common complaints about golf: It takes too much time, it's too expensive, it's too difficult and it can feel unwelcoming to newcomers.
Taking up golf is not like taking up hiking, where you just start walking in the woods. Golf has its own code of conduct and its own vocabulary. Experienced golfers can be impatient at etiquette breaches or slow play by newbies.
There are national movements to grow the game among kids (First Tee and PGA Junior League Golf) and adults. There is the "Tee It Forward" drive to persuade golfers to toss their egos aside and play from whichever set of tees (for example whites instead of blues) that will give them a better chance of success and enjoyment.
The PGA of America, the national organization for club and public-course pros, has instituted a Golf 2.0 program with a goal of increasing the number of golfers to 40 million by 2022.
Monte Koch, who lives in Kent, is one of the PGA's nine "regional player development managers" working to grow the game. The message on his phone ends with him saying, "Please remember that golf is all about family, fun and friends. So why not play more golf?"
Koch is a big fan of a program called "Get Golf Ready," a series of classes for new golfers to make them feel comfortable with the game. Participants do everything from learning to drive a golf cart to repairing the small sinkhole created when a ball lands on the green.
Koch said he relates well to new players because when he was a high-school freshman trying out for his school team, he was on a green about to putt when a senior asked, about as politely as a senior can ask an underclassman, "Aren't you going to take the flag out?"
Koch also preaches to public-course managers that they might do well to "loosen up" and become more tolerant of foursomes that play with uncharacteristic informality.
There is reason for hope
There are signs of optimism in the industry locally. Rounds were up more than 2 percent in Washington last year, according to the National Golf Foundation, and they are up this year too.
Bill Schickler, president of Premier Golf, which operates 10 courses including municipal courses in Seattle, Bellevue, Everett and elsewhere, said that in terms of rounds being played, "Essentially, we've recovered to close to where we were in 2007 before the economy was turned off and the rains were turned on."
Jeff Ellison, who heads the Northwest Section of the PGA of America, the club pros organization, said the mood in the state is "upbeat this year" and declared, "The game is still healthy."
Amid all the gloom of smaller course closings is the resuscitation of a course that closed in October 2011. Carnation Golf Course has come back to life with a new owner, Reza Yasseri, and a new name, Blue Heron Golf Course.
Yasseri, president and CEO of the Redmond firm Cascade Engineering Services, has retained Dan Tachell, whose family started the course in the mid-1960s, to help get it running again.
"Everyone I've talked to is glad to see us back," Tachell said. "It's good for the industry. We all have to work together to get more people involved in golf."
The clubhouse is being remodeled and elevated to prevent potential flood damage, and the course has undergone months of restorative work.
Tanwax Greens, a nine-hole course outside Eatonville, closed last year and owner Ray Henricksen said, "We got taxed out of business — $28,000 a year for a little nine-hole course." The course had been open for a dozen years and was profitable for the first three, he said.
"We hated to close," Henricksen said. "People loved the course."
But close it did. Just like several other Puget Sound courses.