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Business Brief: Members-Only Golf No Longer A Hole In One

Bfi Bussiness Furniture via Flickr

Jacksonville’s Hidden Hills Country Club is opening its golf course to the public after suffering declining membership. Arlington’s Hidden Hills is just the latest indication that golf as a business is in the rough.

The nationwide downturn in the golf business accelerated with the 2008 recession. For 10 years in a row now, more golf courses across the country have closed than opened, and people in the business say it’s only getting worse. Golf stores are closing, and golf equipment makers are losing money too.

Golf — with its equipment, club memberships and lessons — is expensive. Let’s not forget that golf is traditionally a rich person’s game, and frankly, there are a lot fewer people since the recession who can afford it.

Also, the days of men earning the salary and women being homemakers are pretty much dead. With two adults working, that makes weekends the only real time available to take care of all the things that the family needs. For this and other reasons, it’s just not cool anymore for Dad to disappear for six hours on a Saturday and hit a little white ball around a golf course.

Another factor: more people want to get some real exercise in their leisure time. M.G. Orender, who runs golf-course operator Hampton Golf, has been quoted as saying he sees packs of guys riding bikes on Saturday mornings, all of them 50 or older. Those guys’ dads spent their Saturday mornings at a golf course and drinking gin in the clubhouse afterwards.

At the same time golf courses are declining, the new Topgolf driving range and entertainment venue is flourishing at the St. Johns Town Center. It addresses golf’s two big weaknesses: cost and time investment.  It costs a fraction of playing a round of golf, and you can go for an hour or two, have a great time, and leave.

And some golf courses in Florida have started to offer what’s called foot golf as a way of attracting customers. The game involves kicking a soccer ball down the golf course and scoring by kicking the ball into big holes on the green. It has more of an exercise factor than golf, and it capitalizes on the popularity of soccer.

In Northeast Florida, the golf downturn has been less severe than in the nation as a whole. There are 68 golf courses here, which is down from a peak of 72 in the late 1990s. The trend is former private golf clubs are scrapping the membership model, like Hidden Hills is doing, and trying to attract the general public.

It’s pretty clear that only the most exclusive clubs can survive these days without opening up their course to the public. Another factor that helps us: The weather is great nine months of the year for golf, and we have a fair number of retirees living here.

But you don’t see young people taking up the game, by and large, and you don’t see subdivisions being built anymore with golf courses running through them. And most importantly, you don’t see investors wanting to invest in the game.

WJCT Business Analyst John Burr is a veteran journalist who has been been directing news coverage and reporting in Jacksonville since 1983. He is currently also a news analyst for WJCT, where he can be heard regularly on the "First Coast Connect" media roundtable.