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A shot of hope has arrived for the Gulf Coast golf industry mired in a decade-long struggle.

It comes from a bold move orchestrated by Manatee County-based University Park Country Club executive Charles Varah and his business partner, homebuilder John Neal. The duo's gambit: That it could reinvent Big Summer Golf Card, a business that sells individual golfers a seasonal card for preferred rates at a host of area courses from May through October. Membership is free for courses.

“There are a lot of golfers still out there, even though the industry is in decline,” says Varah, who oversees 50% of University Park for the Pasold family, which has co-owned it since 1980. “You have to create the right environment for them. Our job isn't to just sell the card. Our job is to go out and actively market these clubs to golfers.”

Varah and Neal, who oversees the other 50% ownership stake in University Park, have spent at least $1 million on Big Summer Golf Card since they bought it in 2013. That includes buying the business; a rebranding effort and new marketing materials; more than $75,000 on revamped software for an internal database; and an outreach effort to courses outside the Sarasota-Manatee market, from Tampa to Orlando to West Palm Beach.

Results, after two summers, are mixed.

On the plus side, the Big Money Tour side of Big Summer has been a hit. The tour is an incentive for golfers to play on more courses: Every five rounds a month is good for one entry to win up to $1,000. The amount of rounds played in the Big Money Tour doubled this year, Varah says, from around 15,000 in 2013 to around 30,000. That's 30,000 rounds in golf course coffers that wouldn't exist without Big Summer.

On the other side, membership ranks, where Big Summer makes its money, have flattened at around 10,000 people a summer. That's down about 15% to 20% from the previous few years before Varah and Neal acquired the business. Membership for golfers costs from $40 to $60 a person.

Past the figures side of the business, several challenges swirl around Varah and Neal, son of Neal Communities chairman Pat Neal. One is, which allows golfers to find courses and book tee times through the Web, email and an iPhone mobile app. Some of those courses are at discounted rates, which bumps up against the Big Summer model. Varah says GolfNow, an Orlando-based unit that's part of NBC Sports, is a “big elephant” that lurks over Big Summer.

Another challenge is to simply get more golfers on more courses. The well documented industry malaise includes these statistical nuggets: Golfers played 462 million rounds in 2013, the lowest total since 441 million in 1995, according to Golf Datatech; more golf courses closed than opened in the U.S. in 2013 for the eighth straight year, reports the National Golf Foundation; and 4 million golfers left the game in 2013.

Data like that are partially why Varah had little interest, in first, in buying Big Summer Golf Card. But Varah and Neal reconsidered when the previous owner, Linda Talbot, decided to exit the business in 2012. It would have been a big blow to University Park if the business simply stopped.

“This was very tangible for us. If we lost it, that it would be a big chunk of money,” Varah says. “We acted defensively. We wanted this company to carry on and no one else wanted it.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon


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