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There Aren't Enough Golfers To Keep All Of The U.S. Courses In Business


There are more golf courses in the U.S. than anywhere else - about 2 million acres of green space all told. But there aren't enough golfers to keep them all in business. Wisconsin Public Radio's Phoebe Petrovic reports on the consequences.

PHOEBE PETROVIC, BYLINE: To understand what's happening today, you need to understand what occurred about 30 years ago. In the late 1980s, golf was surging, and the National Golf Foundation encouraged the industry to build a course a day for 10 years.

Jeff Davis, with the firm Fairway Advisors, says that encouragement was taken to heart.

JEFF DAVIS: The genie was out of the bottle. Developers - all they heard - and the mantra became - was build a course a day. And they did it.

PETROVIC: Over a 20-year period up until the early 2000s, they built more than 4,000 new golf courses. Greg Nathan with the National Golf Foundation says many of those courses fit the same mold.

GREG NATHAN: There was a lot of expensive-to-build, expensive-to-maintain, high-greens-fee golf courses.

PETROVIC: And Jay Karen, who's with the National Golf Course Owners Association, says it wasn't the golf industry building the courses.

JAY KAREN: It was the homebuilding industry that really drove much of the boom. Homebuilders made new golf courses the central amenity in the communities that they built around the country.

PETROVIC: Communities like this one built in Florida in 2000.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Waterlefe Golf & River Club, a one-of-a-kind residential community...

PETROVIC: In Florida, California, Pennsylvania, developers gobbled up land and built lush, rolling courses, surrounding them with expensive homes and hotels. Tiger Woods was in his prime, and residents sometimes paid millions to live in gated communities alongside golf courses.

But Karen says exclusive, expensive courses weren't the only ones built in the '90s.

KAREN: A lot of municipalities were also getting this exuberance around golf and wanted to add these crown jewels to their parks and recreation divisions and portfolios.

PETROVIC: But soon, there was too much supply and too little demand. The number of golfers and rounds played began to decline in the 2000s. And across the U.S., courses began to close - 10% of them since 2006. The National Golf Foundation says that reflects the market correcting itself. And for the remaining 14,000 courses, competition for players is fierce, especially for the almost 11,000 courses that are open to the public - whether daily fee courses owned by companies or municipal courses run by cities.

Madison, Wis., has more than a dozen golf courses in the area, and the city's four municipal courses are in crisis. They've lost money for the last decade - almost a million dollars last year alone.

Brad Munn grew up playing on Madison's municipal courses and now works on them. He's at the Monona Golf Course today driving in a cart.

BRAD MUNN: This is one of my favorite ladies.

PETROVIC: Oh, yeah?

MUNN: Yeah. OK, I got the reporter here, Nancy. We're ready to watch.

PETROVIC: Munn and Nancy Poole have known each other for about 30 years. She's played this course nearly every week with her women's group.

NANCY POOLE: We feel very strongly that it's part of the Madison parks, like bike paths and ball diamonds and everything else. We need to keep it open.

PETROVIC: City leaders say they're considering every option for the struggling courses, including closures. That worries Madison's parks superintendent, Eric Knepp. He says losing municipal courses could limit access for everyday golfers.

ERIC KNEPP: American golf has always had a stodgy, affluent, elite feel. Now, I know that's not our golfers, and I don't think it's good or healthy to have a space where we have 750 acres that are viewed as for these other people. That's for golfers.

PETROVIC: The municipal courses make up almost a fifth of Madison's park land. And Knepp says the best way to try to save them is to treat them as a public commons.

For NPR News, I'm Phoebe Petrovic in Madison.


Phoebe Petrovic