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A decade after a building boom, number of golfers coming up short

Area golf course owners avoid the foreboding numbers like a bogey-filled round, and those pesky figures aren't on their latest scorecards. In the 1990s, the golf industry was booming with an abundance of new golfers and courses with a high number...

Area golf course owners avoid the foreboding numbers like a bogey-filled round, and those pesky figures aren't on their latest scorecards.

In the 1990s, the golf industry was booming with an abundance of new golfers and courses with a high number of rounds played. Since 2001, however, those birdie-like figures have become pars, bogeys, even double-bogeys.

Here's a scorecard, according to the National Golf Foundation:

par

* There has been a slight 0.8-percent decline in rounds played in the Upper Midwest from 2005 to 2006.

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Bogey

* There were 1.6 million fewer core golfers -- those who play eight or more rounds a year and represent 87 percent of allgolf-related spending -- in 2005 than in 2000.

Double-bogey

* Twenty-six facilities -- or 18-hole equivalents -- closed nationwide in the past year, the first decrease since World War II.

"In the 1990s, golf was so popular they just kept building courses," said Silver Bay Golf Course manager Norma O'Leary. "Now there are more courses than golfers."

The shrinking numbers have left area course managers searching for ways to remain viable. Owners and managers have increased promotion, improved customer service or made changes to their image.

"[Courses] have to keep existing customers happy," said Jim Kass, research director at the National Golf Foundation. "No. 1 is course conditions. That is the top complaint and praise. Service is also important and building a brand. Don't drop prices. If you have the most scenic course in 50 miles, hire a marketing firm and expose it. Those are the main things I've seen courses do."

Mesaba Country Club in Hibbing saw membership dip 25 percent from 300 members in 2000 to 225 now. They've dropped their private status, changed membership criteria and joined Wild North Golf, a collection of seven area courses, to increase promotion.

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"We joined last year for more exposure and publicity as a semi-private [club]," said John Kokotovich, president of the Mesaba Country Club board of directors. "We have plenty of tee times."

Wild North Golf, which started in 2002, includes the Legend and the Quarry at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, the Wilderness at Fortune Bay in Tower, Superior National at Lutsen, Hoyt Lakes and Eveleth Municipal.

"The Wild North Golf alliance allows area courses to advertise as a destination," said John Kendall, Wild North president and manager of Giants Ridge. "We couldn't do it as one. Our group helps the smaller courses reach people they otherwise wouldn't have."

Wild North bought four 30-second TV commercials during this weekend's EDS Bryon Nelson Championship on CBS3. Funds for Wild North Golf come from each individual course and Iron Range Resources, a regional economic development group.

"I get the best deal," said Eveleth Municipal manager John Rinne. "People driving up from the Twin Cities or Duluth will stop for a quick nine [holes] because of Wild North."

Smaller courses that don't have the luxury of a joint venture with destination courses like the Legend and the Quarry -- both ranked in Golf Digest's top 100 public courses to play -- have tried other measures.

The Silver Bay Country Club changed its name to the Silver Bay Golf Course this year to attract more golfers after 25 years of city ownership.

Sandstone Area Country Club, a public course seven miles north of Hinckley, hired a consulting firm last fall after a few tough years. The firm suggested that a name change to Sandstone Area Golf Course likely would result in more rounds.

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The consultants also suggested placing another billboard on southbound Interstate 35 and cost-cutting measures in their kitchen.

With no area closures this year, the same number of courses will compete for fewer golfers.

"With the shrinking market, we really have to sell golf," said Steve Miller, an independent consultant for the Wilderness.

Winner of the NGF's 2006 customer loyalty award, the Wilderness prides itself on service with free range balls, tees, a golf towel and club cleanings included in every round.

"In the past, you didn't have to be nice to have people play," O'Leary joked.

Area courses remain in a favorable position because Minnesota has one of the highest golf participation rates per household in the nation, according to the NGF. In Minnesota, 25 percent of every household has one golfer, compared to 18 percent nationwide.

"It's easier to find a golfer there than almost anywhere," Kass said.

Still, Tahkodah Hills, a nine-hole course in Cable, Wis., is one of a few area courses to lower rates this year in response to the shrinking pool of golfers.

"Things have been stagnant or declining for seven or eight years," said Terry Pogwizd, owner of Tahkodah for 32 years. "The numbers aren't good. I would not be investing today, not with this [return on investment]."

ANDY GREDER covers area golf for the News Tribune. He can be reached at 723-5315 or by e-mail at agreder@duluthnews.com .

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