LANSING — In March 2012, golf courses across the state were in full swing. This year, some were still buried in snow.
Last year brought the first signs of growth in a sport that had seen substantial declines in participation in recent years, but lingering winter weather threatens to stop that progress cold this time around.
“Last year we were golfing by now, and this year there’s still 6 to 8 inches of snow on the ground,” Joy VanDrie, executive director of the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau, said in late March.
With eight courses within 30 minutes of each other, the Cadillac area is one of many parts of the state that benefitted from last year’s early spring. They contributed to a 10.7 percent increase in rounds played in Michigan compared to 2011, according to PGA Performance Trak, a golf data collection service.
By comparison, there was a smaller increase nationally in rounds played: 6.4 percent.
Michigan’s performance was a welcome sign of improvement for a sport that lost more than 4 million golfers nationwide between 2005 and 2010, according to the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla.
The state uses golf to promote travel through the Pure Michigan advertising campaign, Travel Michigan communications specialist Michelle Begnoche said.
“We put a big emphasis on it because people might not know just how great of golf we have,” Begnoche said. “And folks who do play golf — they travel.”
Pure Michigan is running two golf commercials as part of a 10-spot, $13 million national advertising campaign set to run through June.
Jeff VandenBeldt, the golf professional at Winding Creek Golf Club in Holland, said he hopes for another successful season this year despite cold spring weather. Winding Creek opened March 27.
Unlike last year, there hasn’t been an early push to get out on the links this year, VandenBeldt said, but a few golfers did brave sub-50-degree weather during the opening days of the season.
“Last year was probably the best year on record, and this March is probably one of the worst on record, but what can you expect when you’re in Michigan?” he said.
Despite overall positive experiences, last year’s early spring was bad for business for some courses, and this season doesn’t appear to be much better, one club owner said. Although Michigan courses were able to open earlier in 2012 because of warm March weather, the cold that followed in April and May did more harm than good for some, such as Falcon Head Golf Club in Big Rapids.
Falcon Head owner Tim Dawkins said he brought his staff back early, only to have them sit idle when the temperatures dropped.
“I would rather see a gradual spring,” Dawkins said. “The early spring was nice, but it didn’t stay that way — it got cold, rainy, windy and miserable. Contrary to what most people think, it wasn’t a banner year.”
With snow still on his fairways in late March, Dawkins is concerned he won’t be able to open until mid-April. “There are only so many days to make money in this business each year,” he said.
According to the National Golf Foundation, the east region of the upper Midwest — Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin — has the most golfers and highest participation rate in the country. With 5.2 million golfers, the region is home to more than 20 percent of the national golfing population.
However, the eastern Midwest region averages fewer rounds played than its sunnier counterparts in the South and West.
Cost also can limit participation, Dawkins said.
Though both locals and visitors use his course, Dawkins said a poor economy has restricted the amount of disposable income in surrounding communities while higher gas and food prices made it more difficult for tourists to travel, resulting in a decline in participation.
“If you were to lower the gas prices back down to a $1.50, I’m sure a lot more people would have the disposable income to go golfing,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”