Golf courses upgrade in hopes of an upswing


The expanded clubhouse at The Mines includes an additional 1,000 square feet for products and services that enhance the golf experience. Courtesy The Mines Golf Course

With the number of rounds played dipping over the last decade, golf courses are scrambling to attract players to the game.

Golf nationwide has struggled during the past decade, peaking at 30 million “active golfers” — those who have played at least once during the year — in 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation. The number shrank to 26 million in 2010 and 24.1 million in 2015.

But NGF noted that approximately 80 percent of the golfers in 2015 played 94 percent of the rounds, and the number of younger adults increased: There were 2.2 million beginner golfers in 2015, near the all-time high of 2.4 million in 2000.

Numbers of “latent golfers” — those who didn’t play golf but wanted to — grew to 37 million in 2014, from 27 million in 2011, according to NGF.

Meanwhile, a 10-minute drive from downtown Grand Rapids, The Mines Golf Course is having its best year ever.

On the southwest corner of the city, the 11-year-old course is up 7 percent in the number of golfers playing this year, including more than 400 rounds of league play each week, said Gary Smithson, The Mines’ director of golf.

Smithson said owners of the 200-acre course knew it was important to reinvest and update the clubhouse to help attract more golfers as the area continues to lose public courses — such as Thousand Oaks Golf Club, which joined the Watermark Properties group of courses last fall.

The new clubhouse includes an additional 1,000 square feet to help accommodate more food, beverage and retail service, with the hopes of adding more hospitality to the experience along with the Mike DeVries-designed course.

“We had a small clubhouse, and our ownership recognized we needed to invest a little bit to go along with the golf course, which has always been good,” Smithson said. “We’ve made an investment and we’re seeing the benefits. Golf in Grand Rapids is alive and well again.

“People are spending money, buying equipment and playing golf.”

This year’s weather likely helps attract more golfers to the courses, but Smithson, who spent 17 years at Thousand Oaks, thinks there’s more in play: the course’s age and the number of people now aware how near the course is to downtown.

With a relatively new course and a “fair-market peak rate” of $54, Smithson said, The Mines is a perfect outlet for Grand Rapids golfers.

Still, he’s discouraged when he hears a person say they had no idea the course was there.

“In this business, you cringe when you hear that,” he said. “We’re kind of this hidden gem, and everything we’ve done here, we’re very proud of it.”

Golf business is up across the state, at least according to Smithson’s observations of courses he’s played this year.

The rapid decrease in the number of golfers nationwide from 2005-15 likely has a lot to do with the Great Recession, as the sport is often considered luxury entertainment. Smithson said a day on the links with food and beverage can easily approach $100.

“We sell entertainment, and the first thing people do in hard times is pull back those discretionary dollars,” Smithson said. “I talk to equipment guys day in and day out, and they’re selling more, so people are spending money. Everywhere I’m going, it’s busy.”

Private clubs, such as the Watermark Properties, have also had a busy year thanks to ideal conditions, Watermark COO Craig Smith said.

The 10 years have been difficult for public golf courses as more continue to either turn private or shut down, such as Grand Rapids Golf Club and The Highlands, which is being bought by Third Coast Development.

The disappearance of courses available to a casual golfer will lead to more business at courses such as The Mines, The Meadows at Grand Valley State University and The Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe, Smithson said.

“Public golf is not what it used to be,” he said. “Those rounds have to go somewhere. We don’t need them all, and that’s not what we’re looking for, but by default they need to go somewhere, and we’re really on an island on the west side of Grand Rapids.”

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