8 Tips for Improving Municipal Golf Courses: Put the Swing Back in Your Game

By Singer, Richard; Richardson, Forrest | Parks & Recreation, January 2009 | Go to article overview

8 Tips for Improving Municipal Golf Courses: Put the Swing Back in Your Game


Singer, Richard, Richardson, Forrest, Parks & Recreation


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Municipal golf has played a vital role in the democratization of the sport in the United States. These city courses host the highest number of rounds at the lowest cost to the golfer and have been integral to providing nonthreatening learning environments for beginning golfers. Given that much of the industry's future growth opportunity will be among minority and lower-income households with traditionally low golf participation rates, maintaining affordable municipal golf is becoming even more important.

Historically, municipal golf courses were often crude as compared with their private counterparts. Not only was it rare to find them on the best terrain, but maintenance conditions and customer service were often below the standards of private clubs. The ability to move massive quantities of soil to contour golf courses was only realized after World War II. During the 1950s and '60s, municipal golf in the U.S. took deep roots, with a majority of courses constructed in this era. Park and recreation departments from coast to coast got on the bandwagon, discovering that it was not only popular to build golf courses; it was profitable. In the 1960s, a well-run municipal golf operation had the ability to return more than $100,000 to the bottom line. Put that in today's dollars, and it was quite a business. Dig deep into the finances of nearly any busy golf course run by a city in the 1960s or '70s, and traces of profit will be discovered. Often banked in enterprise funds or simply returned to the general fund, the money from golf was hard to pass up. Even small communities got into the action.

Then came the 1980s, '90s, and the leap into the 21st century. The golf course market and the role of the municipal golf course changed dramatically, making it more difficult for municipal golf operations to turn a profit. Ultimately, what was once a windfall component to a park's operation--at least in many instances--became a tough business model to sell. What happened?

First, a dramatic increase in the supply of public golf courses over the last 15 to 20 years has raised the competition for golfers' business. (More than one-third of the nation's current inventory of public courses opened after 1990.) And second, the number of golfers and the rounds of golf they play reached a plateau around the beginning of the 21st century, just as new course construction was peaking.

Today more than ever, trends share common ground, and research shows that golf has lost its way in much of the public sector. No set of solutions can be applied to address the problem in every situation, but what follows are the top eight areas of concern in municipal golf. They represent a checklist for public-sector golf courses. Hold up your facility to each, asking whether everything that can be done is being done. Is your current operation paying attention to each area? What are you doing about future planning? In nearly every situation, researchers found that if more priority had been given to these essential areas, the results would have been far better.

1. Imitation and Big Budget Mentality

There is something to be said for imitation. Very often it is the lessons gained from private sector models that get applied to government-run operations. The trick is to adopt the positive and avoid the pitfalls. Choosing the best land for a golf course, for example, has always been key to the success of the operation. Far too often--especially in modern golf development--leftover land is put to use for golf, an approach that typically requires more investment to create a favorable transformation into a golf course. And in nearly all instances, such a decision requires more operational costs.

Another pitfall is the temptation to invest too heavily in golf. While the higher-end municipal course may be the ideal model in one community, it is a very tough path to take when competitive facilities have already embedded themselves in a market. …

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