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Changing Demographics Put Some San Diego Golf Courses In Jeopardy

Reported by Katie Schoolov

The Farmers Insurance Golf Tournament tees off at Torrey Pines this week. Golf courses around San Diego hope the excitement generated will boost enthusiasm for the game, which has seen a marked decline in recent years. KPBS North County editor Alison St John says golf is facing a crisis on two fronts.

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The Farmers Insurance Golf Tournament tees off at Torrey Pines on Thursday. Golf courses around San Diego hope the excitement generated will boost enthusiasm for the game, which has seen a marked decline. But in San Diego golf courses face a crisis on two fronts.

One million golfers in the United States gave up the game in 2014 and another million dropped out the year before. That means the game is losing almost 5 percent of its players a year.

Courses like Oaks North Golf Course in Rancho Bernardo are trying new tricks to lure players back to the fairways.

Head Golf Pro Lloyd Porter showed off a new feature: some greens now offer holes big enough to sink a football: 15 inches in diameter.

“It’s just a lot easier to get the ball in the hole,“ he said.

Also, rather than the traditional 18-hole course, Oaks North is divided into three nine-hole courses.

“It’s something that’s going across the country now to make golf easier and faster to play, and to attract more new golfers," Porter said.

In today’s busy world, it’s easier to find three hours to play nine holes than five hours or more to play a championship course.

Porter said the dress code has relaxed too: it’s OK to wear a T-shirt without a collar on many courses now, and you don’t have to buy special shoes to set foot on the greens, tennis shoes will do. Players don’t want to have to go home and change before coming to play a round.

Changing Demographics Of Golf

John McNair, president of Southern California’s PGA, said the biggest decline is in golfers between the ages of 18 and 40. They used to make up more than 40 percent of the business, he said, but now they are closer to 30 percent.

“About 13 years ago, almost 12 percent of the population golfed,” McNair said. “Today it’s 8.8 percent.“

It seems that heading to the golf course first thing in the morning and reappearing again long after lunch doesn’t cut it any more for today’s fathers.

“The role of the male, the father figure, has changed,“ McNair said. “They’re going to soccer games and doing more things with their children, which is a great thing. What we’d like to do, though, is get more of those people out to play golf.”

The Farmers Insurance Golf Tournament tees off at Torrey Pines on Thursday and golf courses around San Diego hope the excitement generated will boost enthusiasm for the game. But even the draw of big names doesn’t do much for golf courses, McNair said: the so-called “Tiger Effect” is limited.

“It really didn’t grow golfers that much,” he said. “It grew people watching golf on TV and it was great for TV ratings, great for the purses of the PGA programs, but it didn’t have the same effect for the number of people actually getting out to play golf.”

Two Golf Courses Close In North County

Two golf courses in north San Diego County have closed down in the past couple of years. Escondido’s former Country Club shut down after a developer bought it out of bankruptcy, and declared it financially unviable soon after. He stopped watering the fairways and is now fighting the city and neighboring residents over his plans to turn it into a housing development. The greens have turned brown.

Then San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall closed down last year, to the distress of the homeowners living around it. The course was built in the 1960s and thrived as a golf club for decades before the owners said they were selling because it was losing money. In this case, the plan is to turn the golf course back into natural habitat and then sell it to developers, acre by acre, as mitigation for development on rural lands elsewhere. That plan still has to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

A glut of golf courses was built in the 1990s with the expectations that demand would increase with retiring baby boomers. Instead, 20 years later, the popularity of golf is decreasing and the costs, especially the cost of water to keep the greens green, is increasing.

The Second Major Challenge: The Cost Of Water

Chris Hayman, head of the Golf Course Superintendents Association in San Diego, said it’s a tough time for the industry. Hayman manages the championship course at Rancho Bernardo Inn, which, as a survival strategy, has invested almost $2 million recently in a state-of–the-art sprinkler system.

“We have several way of controlling that via our cell phones, radios or even our iPads,” he said, demonstrating how he could program the jets precisely on his mobile device. “We can control any sprinkler head on the golf course from anywhere in the world.”

Hayman has also found that spraying the fairways green is effective during the season when the grass tends to turn brown.

“A good example would be our first fairway here at Rancho Bernardo Inn,” he said, pointing to a verdant strip. “You can’t tell, but that’s a painted fairway.”

Hayman points out that California has just passed new ground water restrictions. Those could go into effect in San Diego in the next two to five years, he said. Those restrictions will be a blow for many golf courses that use ground water to keep their grass green.

Other golf courses have resorted to different strategies. Rancho Santa Fe, for example, took advantage of $1.6 million in rebates from the Metropolitan Water District to replace 18 acres of turf and pull up 84 trees.

Attracting The Next Generation

But to keep the number of players from drying up, the PGA is starting off the next generation early.

Solana Highlands Elementary in Carmel Valley is one school where PGA instructors teach children as young as five how to handle a golf club.

Calvin Holsenback is seven and he’s already learning the finer points of golf sportsmanship after school. He is one of half a dozen second graders practicing their swings on the sports fields behind the school, under the watchful eye of two instructors.

“I liked it,” Holsenback said after the class. “I got to putt, and that was kind of fun."

Junko Suzuki, who coordinates the junior golf classes for the PGA in San Diego, said it’s a good sport to start learning early.

“The nice thing about golf is there’s a lot of character development skills involved, like playing by the rules," she said. "It’s the one sport where there are no referees out on the golf course.”

Uncertain Future

But what’s keeping golf alive right now is retiring baby boomers, McNair said. That’s not a comforting thought.

”My biggest concern is if you fast forward 10, 20 years from now, when that demographic that isn’t playing as much and has dropped in the last decade, and the boomers aren’t playing as much or golf at all, that’s when the big challenge could be coming about," he said.

The Escondido golf course and San Luis Rey Downs are not the only ones that have succumbed to the changing financial realities. Some courses have been bought out of bankruptcy and revitalized. But McNair thinks that won’t solve the long-term problems.

“We need more golf courses to close in order for the ones that are left to survive,“ he said.

McNair predicts three more golf courses in San Diego will close soon. He wouldn't say which ones, but Carmel Highlands is reportedly discussing its options and Riverwalk Golf Course in Mission Valley already has a plan to close down in stages over the next decade.

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