Tall grass and deep bunkers can be common hazards for casual golfers. An even greater one has emerged in recent years: finding a reasonably priced place to play 18 holes.
For eight years in a row, the number of golf courses that have closed in the U.S. has by far eclipsed the number of new courses to open, according to the National Golf Foundation. Mobile has mirrored the national trend, with at least four local courses closing in roughly the same time period, leaving few lower-priced options for those who play the game.
“We lost Linksman, then Brookley closed and then Silver King and the course on Dauphin Island,” said Semoon Chang, chief economist at the Gulf Coast Center for Impact Studies, and a former professor of economics at the University of South Alabama.
An avid golfer, Chang laments the loss of Silver King Golf Course in Irvington, he said, because it was nice for those who enjoy walking an 18-hole course instead of driving in a motorized cart. And it drained well, following the kind of drenching thunderstorms for which Mobile is famous.
Losing so many public courses in a city the size of Mobile, Chang said, essentially becomes a quality of life issue for residents and visitors.
Even with a high average yearly rainfall total, Mobile’s location on the Alabama Gulf Coast gives it nearly ideal conditions for year-round golf play. “We have beautiful weather in south Alabama, and we really should have more public courses,” Chang said.
The local courses that have closed in recent years in the Mobile area include: the University of South Alabama’s course at Brookley Field near downtown Mobile; the Isle Dauphine Golf Club on Dauphin Island, which shuttered after Labor Day weekend in 2012; Linksman Golf Club, formerly St. Andrew’s Golf Club, located off Halls Mill Road; and Silver King Golf Club off Edgar Roberts Road in Irvington, which was formerly known as Bay Oaks Golf Club.
Silver King is situated in a residential neighborhood and is privately owned by the Graham family. It closed early in 2014.
Many of the courses in Mobile and across the country have shut down for financial reasons, citing the increased cost of maintenance and other overhead expenses to maintain pristine greens and lush fairways, and a steady decline in attendance by casual golfers.
Some industry professionals blame fewer golfers on the price to play and the rise of other, less expensive youth sports such as year-round soccer leagues. One idea is that moms and dads have less time to play golf on the weekends or after work, because they are taking their children to more sports-related activities.
Chang has watched warily in recent years as each local course closed, giving him and his friends fewer affordable options to take part in the pastime they love.
“The local golf community can easily support at least one more public golf course in Mobile,” Chang said. “So many people in Mobile are playing at Whispering Pines in Hurley, Miss., now.” The drive to Hurley is about 20 miles from west Mobile, a shorter distance than public courses found on the Eastern Shore in Baldwin County.
While he loved the game, Chang admits he might not be the typical golfer. An avid player for more than 20 years, he and a group of three other men like to walk as they play for the exercise and don’t bet money on their games: “I enjoy walking, even in the heat of summer, even if it’s 100 degrees. Sometimes our group is the only one walking.”
Like so many other industries, the recession has had a major effect on golf course owners and operators, as many Americans have less money to spend on recreation than they did in better financial times. “Recovery has been slow,” Chang said, “so probably people with borderline incomes may not be able to play golf as much as they used to.”
The National Golf Foundation recorded 14 golf course openings in the United States in 2013, which is measured in 18-hole equivalents. Golf course closings, however, far outpaced the openings.
The NGF logged 157.5 closures in 2013, for a total net reduction of 143.4 courses. The closures were disproportionately seen in lower priced public facilities, with some 66 percent of total closures among golf courses where the highest green fees were less than $40. Of the 157.5 closures, some 151.5, or 96 percent, were public courses.
Industry experts say the overall reduction in the number of golf courses is a gradual market correction of the existing imbalance of supply and demand, according to the NGA’s 2013 Golf Course Openings and Closures Update. Since the market correction began in 2006, which was about a year before the U.S. stock market plunged, there has been a continued increase in the number of closings each year.
Before 2006, there was a 20-year boom in the market. Between 1986 and 2005, U.S. golf courses grew by more than 40 percent, according to the NGA.
In the 1950s, there were approximately 5,000 or so courses in the U.S. By the end of the 1980s, that number had swelled to more than 10,000 courses, industry records show.
Jeff Collier, Dauphin Island’s mayor and a longtime golf pro at Isle Dauphine Golf Course before it closed, said the reason so many courses have shut down nationwide and closer to home is a complicated matter that involves factors ranging from societal shifts, to a changing economy to characteristics unique to each location.
“Each course is different,” Collier said. “There are common issues that cause them to fail, but each one has its own internal characteristics that cause the demise.”
By the mid-1980s, Collier said, there was a real push to build more courses. Golf continued to gain in popularity, people were earning more money, and America’s president – Ronald Reagan — was giving many residents hope for a bright future. Golf courses couldn’t be built fast enough.
“The biggest factor with golf courses was there were too many. I think the market got glutted and the popularity declined for multiple reasons. Society changed,” Collier said.
Golf gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, back when it was an exclusive men’s club, when business deals were sealed over 18 holes and contracts were signed on cocktail napkins in wood-paneled clubhouses.
“Dad would go play golf and mom would stay home with the kids,” Collier said. As more women entered the workforce and began demanding more support from spouses, sports such as golf took a hit.
“You can’t play golf quickly,” Collier said. “It takes a lot of time and time is a precious commodity. Today, everybody is in a little bit more of a rat race and every minute is important.”
The high price of golf also is a restricting factor that limits its appeal among the budget conscious. The game requires at the very least a set of clubs, special shoes and gloves, which can run into thousands of dollars all before you ever step foot on a well-manicured tee. Then, there are the fees to play, either hundreds or thousands for annual memberships at private clubs, or paying greens fees and cart rentals at public and municipal courses.
Collier said there could be room for another public course in the Mobile area, if it were centrally located, among other factors. “It would depend on where it was, plus the playability, of course,” he said. “There are so many variables and it’s very complicated.”
Collier, who worked and taught lessons at Isle Dauphine for more than three decades, said he was always honest with beginners about the complexity of the sport: “When I used to teach golf, the first thing I would tell people is it’s not an easy game. It’s very dynamic.”
Some of the best professional players in recent history started out early in life, taking years to move from bogeys to birdies as their game improved.
The Tiger Woods effect
TJ Jackson, the women’s golf coach at the University of South Alabama for the past 14 years, said courses may be closing, but the game of golf continues to rise in popularity among young people.
Jackson grew up in the Mobile area and was the assistant golf pro at Azalea City, playing professionally before transitioning to coaching. “I’ve played all my life,” Jackson said. “It’s a game you have to play consistently. If you play four times in a week for about two years, and then all of sudden you are only playing once every few weeks it takes a toll. You need a daily routine to get your game in the best shape you can get it.”
The seven-member women’s golf team at USA travels to tournaments across the southeast, sometimes heading to spots as far away as California. Jackson said more women and younger girls are taking up the sport once exclusively played by men.
“You see it on a daily basis,” he said. “You see a lot of women, really all ages, out at the golf courses. That just wasn’t the norm when I was growing up. Now you see a lot younger girls that are getting involved with the game and that’s exciting. It’s good for the game.”
Jackson said annual tournaments such as the one hosted by the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Magnolia Grove Golf Course in west Mobile for the LPGA should encourage even more interest among players and fans. “It’s been out here for about 15 years,” Jackson said. “Those are the best players in the world. I think the younger generation is noticing that.”
Jackson said his team practices at the 18-hole Azalea City and at Magnolia Grove, where there are two 18-hole championship courses and an 18-hole par 3 course.
Jackson said while there are now fewer lower-priced courses locally, it appears to him the number of players entering the game at the college level is growing.
“I think the allure of the lifestyle and the money that’s out there plays a big part in that,” Jackson said. “Tiger Woods and his influence on the game has been a big part of it for the younger generations.”
While interest among young players and women may be higher now than it was a decade ago, research conducted by the National Golf Foundation show declines among both groups.
From 2009 to 2010, according to the NGF, more than a million people left the game of golf, while fewer than a million took up the sport. Roughly 9 percent of Americans now play golf, the research showed.
Collier, who said he stopped playing golf after a back injury a few years ago, has noticed another trend among those who take up the sport casually.
“I think most golfers now days are looking to go out and just hit balls. They are not overly serious. They are not looking to spend high dollars.”
Despite local golf course closings, there are a number of courses in Mobile that remain open to the public.
Azalea City Golf Club is owned and operated by the city of Mobile and is considered a municipal course.
Spring Hill College’s golf course near the intersection of Interstate 65 and Dauphin Street, and Magnolia Grove in west Mobile, also operate as public courses where no membership dues are required to play.
Magnolia Grove, with 54 holes, is part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. For about 15 years, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) has played an annual tournament there, bringing media attention and players from across the globe to the Mobile area.
MillCreek Golf Course, located in Citronelle some 25 miles north of Mobile, also is open to the public.