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Local golf scene evolves amid national downswing

Published: Sunday, May 18, 2014 5:40 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, May 19, 2014 9:31 a.m. CDT
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(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Despite cooler temperatures retired Johnsburg teachers Bruce Harbecke and Judy Miskowicz head out for nine holes at Boone Creek Golf Club in Bull Valley. Every week, Harbecke and a group of other retired teachers gets together for breakfast and golf.
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(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Ryan Slaughter of McHenry cuts the green on the fourth hole at Boone Creek Golf Club in Bull Valley as local golf courses prepare for the busy season ahead.
Caption
(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Retired Johnsburg teachers Bruce Harbecke and Judy Miskowicz head out for nine holes at Boone Creek Golf Club in Bull Valley.
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(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Brian Zeunert of McHenry and Dave Shake head to the fifth hole at Boone Creek Golf Club in Bull Valley.

CRYSTAL LAKE – As golf courses around the nation continue to close at a rapid rate, some local clubs have found success.

The National Golf Foundation reported that more golf courses closed than opened in 2013 for the eighth consecutive year with 14 courses opening and 157.5 closing. The foundation measures every nine holes as half a course. In McHenry County, several local courses have closed, changed hands, faced foreclosure or been taken over by other companies in recent years.

The trend, which has seen 643 18-hole golf courses close since 2006, does not concern Foxford Hills Golf Club general manager John Miles, who said the industry is still recovering from oversaturation.

“I don’t think it has contracted to the point where there will be no more closures,” Miles said. “Clubs will still be challenged. People are playing on price alone and not necessarily the quality. I think that will continue to go on for the foreseeable future.”

Plum Tree National Golf Club may be the latest course to hit the rough. Calls to the course have gone unanswered in recent weeks and regulars have moved their events to other courses, according to area golfers.

The Cary Park District golf course has maintained its rounds played per year at 26,000 or more during the downswing, but has had to make pricing adjustments many public courses were pushed into because of the economic recession.

Of the 157.5 courses that closed in 2013, 66 percent charged less than $40 during peak hours. Foxford Hills Golf Club has not dipped below that threshold and Miles said club officials have created other ways to attract players other than just discounted rates.

New this year is a PGA Junior Golf League for players 13 years old and younger. He said the team would play groups from other area clubs and help spark interest in a key demographic moving forward.

“We’re going to see that older population go away slowly,” Miles said. “The demographic has changed.”

It also is important to offer events out of the ordinary as people have less free time and more options, he said. Club events such as Pars Under the Stars give golfers the chance to play on an illuminated course with glow-in-the-dark golf balls. The annual, 72-player event sold out in less than two weeks.

While Foxford Hills has navigated the challenges facing public golf courses, private clubs also face difficulties, though not as many, said Mike Picciano, head golf professional at Bull Valley Golf Club in Woodstock.

Private courses have been much more successful in recent years as only six of the 157.5 courses that closed last year were private.

“As a private club, it is a little different,” Picciano said. “You have that built-in group of members so there isn’t that struggle for us to continuously fight the price wars with discounting green fees.”

Bull Valley Golf Club hasn’t been immune to the struggles of the wider golf industry. It was bought for $7.7 million in 2005, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. On the brink of foreclosure in 2011, it was rescued by Capmark Bank in Utah for less than $4 million, before being sold to the Rabine Group for less than $2 million in 2012. In 2013, Rabine brought in KemperSports to manage its day-to-day operations. KemperSports manages golf courses across the country, and is no stranger to taking over financially strapped courses. It was hired in 2010 to turn around Turnberry Country Club in Lakewood.

Picciano said private clubs also must evolve with the times if they want to remain successful.

With more competition for people’s time and money, Picciano said the golf industry as a whole needs to adapt to the fast-moving pace of today whether it is offering three-hole options or charging by time on the course instead of by 18- or 9-hole packages.

“Time is incredibly valuable to people and we need to address that concern,” he said. “We have to keep getting people to want to come out, whether that is for four and a half hours or a half hour.”

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