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Out of the Rough

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  • | 10:43 a.m. November 23, 2012
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Golfers are teeing up more frequently.

Because golf involves spending discretionary spending, it's a good economic barometer that the numbers are up over last year.

In an analysis prepared for the Business Review, PGA Performance Trak reports that the number of golf rounds has risen in September and the first nine months of the year compared with the same period last year in the four major cities on the Gulf Coast. Golf-fee revenues are up too from Tampa to Naples (see chart.)

Talk to golf course managers and operators and you hear the anecdotal evidence that business is improving. And some developers are even planning new golf course communities.

For example, homebuilder Taylor Morrison recently announced it plans to build a new golf course community off Immokalee Road in Naples, three miles east of Interstate 75. The 6,900-yard course will be open for play in 2014. In addition, Taylor Morrison is acquiring 400 acres next to the Esplanade community in Lakewood Ranch, where it plans to build an 18-hole golf course. It is renaming the community Esplanade Golf and Country Club at Lakewood Ranch.

“Overall, we see some strength in the number of rounds and interest in memberships,” says David Matheson, partner with Fort Worth, Texas-based Escalante Golf. Escalante operates Black Diamond Ranch near Tampa, Waterlefe in Bradenton, Kings Gate in Port Charlotte, Spanish Wells in Bonita Springs and Tarpon Cove Yacht and Racket Club in Naples.

Golf course development came to a halt during the bust. “I can't think of 10 courses that have been built in the last two years,” says Matheson. “A number of courses have closed.”

Gordon Lewis, a Naples golf course architect, says future courses will be built almost exclusively to help sell homes. “Memberships have dropped so much that I don't see anyone opening up a new one with just golf,” he says.

Lewis says the improving residential real estate market could lead to future courses being developed such as the one Taylor Morrison is planning in Naples. “When the homeowners own the course, those are doing good,” he says.

The challenge now is that golfers aren't willing to pay huge initiation fees to join a members-only club. Ed Rodgers, the former vice president of the amenities division at developer Bonita Bay Group, remembers when people paid six figures in initiation fees to join a golf club in Southwest Florida. “When I left in 2004, there were 21 clubs charging $100,000 or more,” he says. “That's how ridiculous golf became.”

Today, Rodgers is the general manager of Cypress Lake Country Club in Fort Myers, the oldest private, member-owned club in the city. He's instituted a new membership model that conforms better to consumer demand.

Traditionally, golf clubs such as Cypress Lake sold memberships to couples. But Rodgers found by looking at the last 50 people who resigned that a major reason for their departure was because their spouse or partner no longer played golf.

In addition, the club was getting requests for single memberships if they were less costly. “We figured out a way to create a single membership,” Rodgers says. “The success of it has been more overwhelming than we expected.”

Instead of the 30 new memberships Cypress Lake planned to sell during the season through April, the club got 60 new members by dropping the annual fee from $6,850 for a family to $3,950 for singles, Rodgers says. Many of them are working fathers who seek a few hours of peace on the course away from their familial and work duties.

Looking back, Rodgers says the pricing change should have been implemented earlier. “You could have salvaged a bunch of members who didn't want to leave when the economy turned south,” he says.


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