Golf courses maneuvering out of sand-trap economy

June was the eighth straight month that golf rounds in the US increased, according to the PGA.June was the eighth straight month that golf rounds in the US increased, according to the PGA.After taking a clubbing from the recession since 2008, local golf courses are starting to see signs of membership growth.

The Ridge Creek Dinuba Golf Club, a municipal course, reported a 17-percent increase in net income, revenues and rounds played for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended in June, compared to the prior year.

Ridge Creek General Manager Joe Wisocki acknowledges the improved economy played a factor, but he doesn’t believe that accounts for all of the growth over the past year.

“Has the economy increased by 17 percent? Probably not,” Wisocki suggests. 

Although he would certainly welcome it, he’s not banking on another year of comparable growth in 2012-13 for his course, which has a United States Golf Association rating of 74 — tied for the second highest in the Central Valley.

“It’s too early to tell if the economy is going to turn itself around full heartedly, so we still have to work hard,” Wisocki said.

On the national scale, June marked the eighth straight month the number of rounds played increased, according to the PGA PerformanceTrak benchmarking service. Across the country year-to-date, the rounds played are up 14 percent in 2012.

The peripheral revenue streams for the courses also went up with the additional golf being played. The month of June 2012 saw increased revenue from golf fees of 4.6 percent, merchandise by 8.8 percent, food and beverages by 8 percent and total facility revenue rose by 2.6 percent, compared to the same period in 2011.

Steve Menchinella, the head pro at Sunnyside Country Club in Fresno, reports the club is being used more for banquets, weddings and other non-golf functions, which he estimates amounts to about 10 percent of the club’s business.

During the recession, country clubs in particular had to adjust their pricing structure in ways they’d never considered. Initiation fees, in particular, were getting sliced and cut just to maintain the clubs’ membership levels. 

However as business picked up again, most of the initiation fees have been restored.

“As the economy gets better, the golf industry will get better,” said Mike Springer, a local PGA touring professional who is a member at Sunnyside and Fort Washington country clubs. “It’s a deal when the golfers have extra income, they will play more. When they’re jobless they cut that out.”

In addition to the traditional membership, where members own shares of the country club, Sunnyside began offering non-equity memberships for the first time five years ago.

This past spring, Sunnyside, which is tied for seventh in the Valley with a rating of 72, grew its membership by 10 percent. 

“I think that’s because of a quality of product we’re providing,” Menchinella said.

Like most country clubs, membership fees are Sunnyside’s primary source of income.

Nancy Bocchini, owner of Hank’s Swank Par 3 Golf Course in Fresno, said her business is down about 30 percent since the recession but is coming off a good spring.

To stay ahead of the bills, Bocchini has reduced the staff to the bare minimum at the family-owned course. She genuinely feels for the large country clubs that need to maintain large staffs.

The additional workload from the reduced staff has prevented Bocchini from taking time off in more than a year, but she feels that a vacation is just around the corner.

Bocchini describes her clientele as “wonderful” and credits their loyalty as the reason her course is still in business.

“I don’t know what we’d do without our customers,” Bocchini said.

Ridge Creek had to figure out how to do business in a recession as soon as it opened in July of 2008 and the economy took a dive.

Ridge Creek made a big initiative to retrain its employees with an increased emphasis on customer service.

“We had to be focused on how to create happy customers,” Wisocki said. 

Another element beyond the control of the courses is the current dry spell of Tiger Woods, the sport’s most public figure.

The golf and pop culture icon’s impact on the industry may stretch to the local courses.

“When Tiger is playing, I can just tell by the tee sheet,” Wisocki said.

However there isn’t a complete correlation between Woods’ success and rounds played, as evidenced by the recent resurgence in the industry, despite Woods’ four-year drought without a win at any of the PGA Tour’s majors.

“Tiger Woods created fans, not players,” Menchinella said.

Menchinella believes an emphasis on families and younger golfers in addition to shorter courses will spur more growth in the sport.