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Some Sunbelt courses facing hard times, but metro courses faring well

Too many golf holes in the Deep South?

The Sunbelt — with Mississippi smack in the middle of it — has been inundated with golf courses in the last several years, prompting many links owners to sell, slash prices, go public or bail.

In 1990, the National Golf Foundation reported about 14,000 golf courses in the U.S. By the end of 2001, that number should climb to nearly 18,000. But the number of rounds played on U.S. golf courses plateaued in 1999 and 2000 and has dropped nearly 7% this year. Hoping to attract golfers, many golf courses have slashed green fees from $80 to $100 to less than $40 a round.

In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the famed Inverrary Country Club, once host to presidents and celebrities, was sold at a loss, and now weekly passes to ICC and other area courses can be scooped up for $29.95 a week. The site of the former Gator Hole Golf Course in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is now home to a new Home Depot.

Similar stories have been reported in metro Jackson, though no golf courses are closed. In Madison County, Northbay reopened its nine-hole golf course in May after being closed for nearly a year.

Shady Oaks Country Club in Clinton is now The Word of Faith Conference Center. Callers to the center are told, via recording, that the facility is available for weddings, reunions, banquets, meetings and other special events. Golf is not mentioned, and even though the course remains, it is not in use, according to an unidentified source at the center.

Jeff Morton, executive director of the Mississippi Golf Association, said golf courses in metro Jackson “are sustaining themselves very well.”

“There are more golfers, so they support more courses,” Morton said. “There are so many outside factors that affect the success of a course like weather, the economy, course conditioning, or time of year. But everyone I’ve talked to says they’re doing very fine.”

Golf courses continue to sprout in upscale communities. The Madison County Planning Commission is reviewing plans for a 2,116-acre development, which includes an 18-hole championship golf course, off Highway 463. Developed by Community Development Group, which includes Keith Kent, Buster Bailey and Randy Watkins, it will be marketed as “The Country Club of Madison County.”

Yet industry insiders partly blame homebuilders “who install new courses as loss leaders to raise house values in their upscale subdivisions” for the golf glut in the Sunbelt, according to an article in the July 16 issue of BusinessWeek.

Developers can tack an extra $20,000 or more onto the price of a house for homes built on the edge of or near golf courses. That’s $30 million in extra profit for a 1,500-home development, more than enough to offset construction costs for a new course, which runs about $9 million, BusinessWeek reported.

“People have grand plans when building a course and say ‘hey, we can put 1,000 houses around it to make some money,’ but the course has to be self sustaining because you won’t necessarily get enough members to make it work,” Morton said. “Maintenance, irrigation and chemicals are very expensive.”

Stephen Christopher, golf pro and general manager of Annandale Golf Club, a private golf course in Madison County, said developers “sometimes make a grave error by using the best property for the real estate and not the course. That has a bad long-term affect because if you don’t have a quality course, you don’t want to live on it anyway. I’ve seen that happen in Birmingham. A company built a development with the course on the worst property and then had some nice real estate for the homes, but then no one wanted to live on the course anyway. I haven’t seen any of that in Jackson.”

In Deerfield’s case, Morton said, “They shut down to completely rebuild their greens and you don’t do that unless you’re on sound footing. It may not be impossible to get a tee time but everyone is staying busy.”

Alternate measures have proven successful. On May 16, Martty Golf Management, a golf course management firm based in Baton Rouge, La., which manages a dozen or so golf courses in the south, mailed 500 letters to Northbay residents and other golfers, announcing the reopening of the Northbay Country Club as a semi-private golf course. The pro shop and golf course opened the next day. Since then, 106 golfers have signed up and paid the $16.05 joining fee and $69.55 monthly fee.

“They like the golf course, the management and what we’re trying to do,” said Joe Trahan, golf pro, director of golf and club manager of Northbay Golf Club, LLC. “But we have a long way to go.”

Many area golf courses report brisk business. Jay Jordan, golf pro at The Refuge in Flowood, said their monthly figures for 2001 “are well above last year’s.”

Anthony Price, golf pro at Eagle Ridge Golf Course in Raymond, reported more players than usual, while Stella Benavides, assistant manager at Willow Creek Golf Course in Brandon, reported “considerably more” golfers this year.

“We’ve seen about the same number of golfers, but we’ve had some construction this year,” said Ross.

Christopher also reported more golfers this year, adding that, “we’re a private facility so it’s different for us.”

Despite the good reports and with an aging Baby Boomer population that

developers were counting on to hit the links en masse, why is the number of golfers on the links status quo in the South?

“Some friends of mine, and others I know, have young kids and don’t have as much time to play,” Christopher said. “The soft economy and stock market has also had some affect. In some cases, the quality of public golf has gotten better so it’s easier to drop the dues at private clubs and play when it’s convenient versus paying dues throughout the winter.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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