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Golf at the crossroads: NCW on course in a struggling industry

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Dennis Sharp plays a round of golf at Three Lakes Golf Course.

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MORE INFO

Golf stats

Total golfers, age 6+ (millions):

2000 — 28.8

2005 — 30.0

2010 — 26.1

2011 — 25.7

2012 — 25.3

Number of U.S. golf courses:

1990 — 12,846

1995 — 14,074

2000 — 15,487

2005 — 16,052

2010 — 15,890

2013 — 15,516

Number of rounds played (millions):

2000 — 518.4

2005 — 499.6

2010 — 475.0

2011 — 463.1

2012 — 489.5

Golf courses in 2013 (nationwide):

Golf course openings: 14

Golf course closures: 158

Source: National Golf Federation

 

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WENATCHEE — The Gebbers family of Brewster this month opened their Gamble Sands golf course, a sprawling, green carpet of optimism and clipped fescue on the rocky, scrub-covered desert dunes of Okanogan County’s Columbia River shoreline.

It was the only new golf course to open anywhere in Washington this year.

In fact, last year nationwide, the golf courses that went out of business outnumbered new course openings more than tenfold. Larger numbers of people continue to shy away from the time commitment, cost, and intestinal fortitude needed to enjoy this ancient Scottish sport of difficulty and finesse.

Yet, the Gamble Sands folks are optimistic. In fact, course owners and managers around the Wenatchee Valley remain excited about their offerings and innovations.

There’s risk, like any other business,” Dave Christenson, general manager at Gamble Sands said of the region’s only Scottish links-style course designed by one of the industry’s biggest names, David McLay Kidd. “We don’t know for sure, but I’ve been encouraged by the online bookings and the attention we’ve received from all the golf magazines.”

McLay Kidd designed the Bandon Dunes links course that many say put that Oregon community on the map. Now with multiple, high-quality courses, Bandon is one of the world’s top golf destinations.

The Gebbers family has a similar vision for Brewster, but no set timeline, Christenson said. It all depends on the performance of their new venture.

The designer’s name gives Gamble Sands an edge, Christenson says. Links golf is a unique experience in this part of the state. Central Washington’s famous 300 days of sunshine allow golfers to experience it without the drizzle and bluster characteristic of links courses in most parts of the world.

Gamble Sands is somewhat remote, but we think it’s so special that it’s going to be a strong draw,” Christenson said. “It reflects all those elements that make golf fun, but also somewhat challenging, with so many tees and different angles of play.”

Challenging times

Interest in golf peaked in the 1990s when Tiger Woods’ aggressive style of play, and his success, sparked world interest in the sport and construction of many new courses, local experts say. The country ended up with more courses, many with designs too aggressive for the majority of golfers to enjoy. Some left the sport in frustration.

The industry’s slump is furthered by limits of time and expense. A round of 18 holes is often a four-to-five-hour commitment. Golf equipment costs hundreds to thousands of dollars. Green fees for 18 holes cost $40-$50 at a local municipal course. Gamble Sands charges around $150.

Baby boomers, now retired or reaching retirement age, have the leisure and the money for the sport, but as they become too old to play, younger people aren’t taking their places.

Young families and professional singles are busy people, local experts say, with lots of other leisure-time options that are less costly and time consuming.

That’s a challenge for the local golf industry, but owners of some of the region’s premier courses say they’re holding their own.

We have to have a pretty decent product, because we have to make it in 16 weekends,” Randy Anderson, coowner of the Desert Canyon Golf Resort in Orondo, and Bear Mountain Ranch at Lake Chelan.

Rounds of golf played at the courses has remained about constant over the years, he said.

Distant from typical amenities, Desert Canyon is a premier course with a lodge/hotel, condo-style cottages and a full-service restaurant and bar, so guests can stay a while and have some meal variety if they don’t want to cook in their rooms.

The course has relationships with hotels in Chelan and offers vouchers and special rates to entice golfing visitors to also play a round at Bear Mountain while they’re in town.

Anderson and his partner Don Barth, own the course and the restaurant only. Bear Mountain is also rimmed in parts by private residences.

Barth was unavailable for comment, because buildings at his Alta Lake Golf Course in Okanogan County had been recently destroyed by the Carlton Complex fire. Barth also owns Rock Island Golf Course, south of East Wenatchee.

Green fees, Anderson says, sustains his golf businesses. Other services, including range fees, food, drink and pro shop sales are necessary but not always big money makers.

Every golfer I’ve ever seen will buy a shirt or a hat from a course he’s played, especially if he shoots a good round there,” Anderson said. “Golfers are looking for service and the quality of the course. Our greens are great at both courses.”

Country clubbing

Founded in 1923, the Wenatchee Valley Golf & Country Club is the only one of its kind in the Wenatchee Valley. It’s approximately 500 current members play on an immaculately maintained, uncrowded garden course, but even so, membership has slipped over the years. It’s felt the effect of golf’s decline and variety of competing activities in the recreational wonderland that is North Central Washington.

Take a look at just about any type of club in the U.S., and membership is down,” said Clint Prescott, the club’s new general manager, who worked in the athletic club business in San Francisco before coming to the valley. “Look at the athletic clubs. There’s Gold’s, 24-hour Fitness, yoga. They’re all in competition for members. It’s the same with golf.”

Many very good public courses within an ease drive of each other make it easier for golfers to opt against club membership.

But advantages are also many, Prescott says, including top-quality, uncrowded golf, a restaurant with a skilled, accommodating chef, a swimming pool that appeals to entire families and a sense of community.

We do about 19,000 rounds of golf a year. At a public facility you can be pushing two-to-three times that number,” he said. “That’s one of the things you pay for when you belong to a private club — we try to make it so you enjoy your time on the golf course.”

The course is the “number-one asset” for the club, Prescott says, but other offerings, including a fitness center, could become part of the its future to make membership appealing to a broader audience.

It’s nonprofit status prevents it from actively advertising its services.

We can’t take out a big ad in Seattle. We have to look at it from a different perspective,” he said. “Membership is by invitation. Members are our best sales people.”

Golf for the people

Chances are, many of the golfers who grew up in the greater Wenatchee area got their start at Three Lakes Golf Course, a nonprofit, 501(c)(4) course founded in 1953 on old orchard land in Malaga donated by Harold Weed.

Billing itself as the Wenatchee Valley’s “best golf value,” the course is both beautiful and well maintained, with lessons, leagues and plans to make the sport even more accessible.

We live in a valley where you can mountain bike, go to the river or Lake Chelan — so many activities, and we’re competing for that recreational dollar,” said Robbie Hendrickson, Three Lakes’ general manager and head golf pro.

What we do as a staff, whether through golf instruction or leagues, is try to retain players and attract new players,” he said.

The golf industry has been abuzz with talk of making the sport easier by increasing the size of the hole, or finding new uses for golf courses by introducing new kinds of sports like “foot golf” — played with a soccer ball.

Hendrickson said Three Lakes hasn’t gone to those lengths — changes that would horrify a true-blue, tradition-loving lifetime golfer — but it’s about to launch a program, “Get Golf Ready,” to entice new golfers to the sport.

The program, which is already in place at many courses nationwide, is about creating a package that includes golf lessons, an introduction to the game, including rules and golf etiquette, and a special price. At Three Lakes, it’ll cost around $100, Hendrickson said.

This game can be intimidating. We’re going to help take away from that,” he said. “We flat-out need golfers. We need people to use the golf course.”

A new course like the prestigious Gamble Sands could help identify Central Washington as a golf destination — and that could help everyone, Hendrickson said.

That’s what the Gamble Sands folks say, too. Economics are already in its favor.

The Gebbers family hasn’t revealed the course’s total cost, but it falls in the $2 million to $3 million range, Tory Wulf, the course’s project manager said last month.

The family already owned the land. No imported materials were used in construction. The greens are all built on natural sand. The course contains no concrete or asphalt paths for golf carts and it caters to a niche market for links golf.

Wulf estimates the cost at about one-third the typical price of a golf course.

We’re a high-end resort course,” Wulf said. “We didn’t build it to just be another golf course. We built it because we knew we had a special site. We’re going to maintain it up to those levels, too.”

Course manager Christenson added, “Alta Lake, Bear Mountain, Desert Canyon, the courses in Wenatchee — we see those all as partners, because people will come to the area to play multiple golf courses. We don’t really see that as competition.”

 

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