Originally created 11/05/02

Sour economy means bad times for golf-course operators



ATLANTA -- Golf courses have overgrown the metro Atlanta area in the last few years, and just at the wrong time - when people suddenly can't afford to play.

"The Atlanta market is overgrown, geographically," said Scott Kleisen, general manager of the Trophy Club of Gwinnett in Snellville. "There are too many good courses for the number of players out there."

Golfers "definitely have the upper hand now," he said.

Golf course managers are feeling the pinch of an economic downturn that has left their greens with fewer big-spending business outings.

Making matters worse, golfers looking for cheaper rounds are finding them in abundance as course operators slash their rates to attract customers in an area where supply exceeds demand.

According to the National Golf Foundation, 151 new public and private golf courses sprung up in Georgia between 1992 and 2001, bringing the total to 483.

But while players have nothing to lose by not getting in that extra round of golf, course operators must balance attracting customers with rising costs. Those can easily cost more than $1 million each year for a top-tier course layout - and at least half goes to basic upkeep.

"Everybody's watching their spending, calling around for specials," said Steve Hope, general manager of Stone Mountain Golf Club. "If people don't get a deal from you, they go to your neighbor."

Either way, courses lose money.

Pros at some of the area's top courses say business is down from 2001 by as much as 10 percent, though official data from the National Golf Foundation isn't yet available for 2002.

Many courses are choosing to lower their rates to boost the number of rounds being played. For example, it's not uncommon for operators to reduce greens fees to $20 on weekday afternoons where fees on weekend mornings once topped $65.

Other courses are offering specials to reward loyal customers, such as free rounds or personalized service. Some daily-fee courses are granting preferred tee times or even exclusive booking.

Part of the lost income comes from fewer business golf-outings. Businesses' reluctance to pay for perks such as meals, drinks and merchandise are hurting the courses' revenues.

Don Miller, general manager of Cherokee Run Golf Club in Conyers, said business expense accounts are down this year from 2001, the club's best year.

"Fact is, people don't have as much disposable income as in the late '90s," said Aaron Blinstrub, general manager of Cobblestone Golf Course in Acworth. "They're worried about the stock market, and they should be."