Exceptional year for golf in Minnesota

By David Peterson
Published on

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sensational spring and summer weather has Minnesota golf heading for perhaps the fastest year-over-year rebound in the nation.

And there are other signs that a seeming decadelong death spiral is being reversed as courses -- including many public tracks -- scramble to punch their way out of the rough.

Ramsey County's historic Keller Golf Course is overrun with golfers after an award-winning renovation. Woodbury's Eagle Valley has pulled out of a long tailspin after a country-club-esque clubhouse makeover. Chaska is luring crowds of nongolfers to dine in its clubhouse. Edina is building what is being billed as the area's biggest driving range in a bid to bring back the bucks after a slow-motion collapse and a course closure.

"It's just a different world," said Eden Prairie-based golf course architect Kevin Norby, who reports that his firm is having its best two years in a quarter-century.

Much of the turnaround is just the flip side of the slide. A shakeout in which more than a dozen private and public courses closed in less than decade has strengthened some of the survivors.

The most recent figures available for public and private golf this summer place Minnesota, and notably the Twin Cities, at or near the top nationally in growth in rounds played, compared to 2014.

By the end of July the number of outings in Minnesota had grown by 15 percent over the same period in 2014, according to Michael Abramowitz, spokesman for the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) of America. Nationally, the number of golf rounds played was up by 1 percent.

Minnesota ranks third among the 49 states followed by the PGA's PerformanceTrak database. The National Golf Foundation puts the state (up 13 percent) and metro (up 14 percent) tops among states and metros, fractionally ahead of Washington state and Seattle, where golfing interest was raging -- this summer saw the first-ever U.S. Open in the Pacific Northwest.

The big reason? Good weather, everyone agrees.

"I've been doing this a long time and we will never have a year like this again as far as weather is concerned," said Mark Foley, golf pro at Keller. "You couldn't make it any better. We've had an incredible year. We started as early as we ever will and [a week ago] Thursday was our first rain day. It's been crazy."

Another big lure, the PGA reports: cheaper rounds. Minnesota's median 18-hole greens fee was $26.68, below the $28.28 recorded for 2014 and a sign that rugged competition continues. Indeed, revenue in many places remains bleak for public operators.

Reducing fees, good for golfers if bad for the bottom line, helped Woodbury pull out of a long nose-dive at its Eagle Valley municipal course. Rounds played peaked at nearly 32,000 in 2005, then sank to a low of 26,421 by 2011.

That was not unusual around the metro as a boom in new courses during the '90s left the region overbuilt heading into a pair of recessions. But last year's total of nearly 31,000 rounds at Eagle Valley left it within hailing distance of its pre-slump peak.

Statewide, reports the PGA, the recession years from 2008 to 2011 saw a 16 percent drop in rounds played. But since then, "rounds per 18-hole course," as the organization puts it, have grown 16 percent.

Keller's clubhouse is lined with pictures of Arnold Palmer and other legends who've played there. A $12 million renovation of the course and clubhouse has drawn so many golfers over the past year that course managers closed it early last fall -- and likely will do so again next month -- because it was so heavily played, said Ramsey County parks chief Jon Oyanagi.

Friends Beverly Collova and Laura Bakk, teeing off together Friday morning, reported that they both joined Keller in the past year or so after, in Bakk's words, "we kept hearing how nice it was."

Year-to-date revenue for golf alone at Keller has already eclipsed $1 million, compared to a full-year total of $830,000 five years earlier, according to a spreadsheet the county released. A banquet hall for 75 has been enlarged to 300, and a sign at the front door speaks of "two seasons" these days, "golf season and Winter Grille," a revealing glimpse at how operators now seek to leverage their facilities.

Similarly in Brooklyn Park, said parks director Jody Yungers, a $2 million renovation completed late last summer, which cut the number of bunkers from 81 to 63 and total sand by 25 percent, made a round a touch less exasperating for duffers while speeding up play. Now "the course is on pace for its best revenue season ever," she said, up by more than $225,000 over 2013, its last open season.

Still, the financials of golf continue to be challenging.

City after city in recent years have been paying off golf course debt, giving up on the hope that golf can pay its own way. Brooklyn Park forgave $1.3 million in loans to golf in 2013. Ramsey commissioners are considering paying operational costs from the general fund for the Ponds at Battle Creek rather than counting on it to pay its way. Keller is in the black on an annual operating basis, Oyanagi said, but not when millions in renovations are penciled in.

In the private sector, country clubs have seen much of the same turmoil. Their data are private and reports on how they are faring are mixed. Norby said the Waconia club he belongs to and another that a work colleague is in are both back to having waiting lists.

Tom Ryan, executive director of the Minnesota Golf Association, was more muted on that point.

"I don't know that you can say as a blanket statement that private clubs have waiting lists," he said. "Maybe a few smaller ones. But they are close to full, and most report that they are comfortable with their membership numbers and in the black and doing OK -- that things are better for them. A lot better."

This article was written by David Peterson from Star Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.