Golf awaits new wave of retirees to rescue struggling courses

Golfers, from left, Brian Scherling, Overland Park; Michael Nicolotti, Lawrence; Ryan Wedel, Overland Park; and Dick Barton, Lawrence, prepare to tee off Thursday on hole one of Alvamar Country Club. Earlier this year, Alvamar hired a director of sales and marketing to help boost the club's membership.

Mike Reeves, left, watches as Jesse Nguyen, both of Lawrence, tees off Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 on hole one of Alvamar Country Club.

Rob Gremminger, from left, of Shawnee, David Nimz, of Overland Park, and Krystal Parker of Olathe, talk about a fairway Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 at Alvamar Country Club.

Area golf courses are turning to time-tested business tactics to survive and thrive in a game that’s been around for more than 500 years.

Aggressive marketing, timely price adjustments and opportunistic capital upgrades are putting Lawrence courses in position to accommodate the next big wave of players: baby boomers, who are just now preparing to collect their Social Security benefits.

The moves come as, nationwide, more golf courses are closing than opening, reflecting the effects of a building boom that crested in 2001 and only now has settled into a period of relative market equilibrium.

“You have to be competitive,” said Dick Stuntz, president of Alvamar Inc., owner and operator of a public course and a private course in Lawrence. “There’s no doubt about it: We have to be competitive with what’s around us.”

With a number of challenging courses having opened during the past decade in the Kansas City area – including Falcon Ridge Golf Course in Lenexa, Falcon Lakes in Basehor and Nicklaus Golf Club at Lions Gate in Overland Park – Alvamar knew it needed to step up its efforts. That was among the reasons it spent $80,000 a few years ago to rebuild its greens on the public course.

Earlier this year Alvamar hired a director to handle sales and marketing – a first for the company that previously didn’t need to worry about making a name for itself – and now has 395 golf members, up 140 since the change.

“It makes a difference,” said Jerry Waugh, an Alvamar board member and former Kansas University golf coach. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we haven’t turned the corner yet by a long shot, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Across town, Lawrence Country Club has been reaping the benefits of its own work: a 15-month reconstruction, completed last year, that included new tee boxes, bigger greens, different sand for bunkers and more opportunities to land shots in the water.

Such renovations and upgrades are becoming increasingly popular, as relatively new public courses have created a niche – “the country club-for-a-day experience” – that has siphoned away club members, said Steve Mona, a Lawrence resident who recently became director of the World Golf Foundation.

Courses are finding that the best way to attract and retain golfers is to provide a top-quality golfing experience, Mona said, starting with the course itself.

“Lawrence Country Club, what you see there is not that uncommon nationwide,” Mona said. “But they’ve pulled off quite a coup – they’ve added to their membership, and raised their initiation fees and dues. That’s quite a coup.”

Eagle Bend Golf Course used discount ticket prices to help drive record levels of play during June and July, and Orchards Executive Golf Course continues to provide its nine-hole public course, thanks in part to a conservation easement that pumped money back into operations.

Courses, more than ever before, are realizing that golf is a “perishable commodity” under which an unfilled tee time is potential revenue that has been lost forever, Mona said. And that means course leaders are taking a business approach for filling those slots.

“Going forward, this is good because we’ll be stronger when the next inevitable boom comes along,” Mona said. “We’re just about on the precipice of one again.”