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Weak economy takes slice out of golf green

Course memberships and greens fees are now at bargain prices

Cheaper greens fees are plentiful, rounds are down, good tee times are available, and the boom associated with the Tiger Woods phenomenon barely goes 'bleep' these days.

The golf industry hasn't been spared from the effects of a sour economy that has chipped away at Portland. Metro area country clubs are seeking members, municipal courses have seen nearly 10 percent less play Ñ with a drop of 27 percent since 1994 Ñ and managers have had to cut costs and scramble for revenue.

In many areas around the country, play has dipped 10 percent. According to the National Golf Foundation, rounds played in Washington and Oregon declined by nearly 6 percent from 1999 to 2001.

'Public courses are probably running 3 to 5 percent down right now,' says Jim Gibbons, executive director of the Oregon Golf Association. 'Players are still playing, but they're looking for better deals.'

Only three metro country clubs have a waiting list for memberships: Portland Golf Club, Oswego Lake Country Club and Waverley Country Club. Persimmon Country Club in Gresham and others have advertised memberships with lower entry fees.

Last year, Persimmon and Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains offered the Nike Golf Learning Center for golfers of all abilities, trying to land business.

'All golf courses and clubs are looking for different incentives to attract new members,' says Dennis Yamnitsky, president of the Club Managers of Oregon. 'The economy is trickling down to affect the entire industry.'

Tough all over

Take the five municipal courses (Eastmoreland, Rose City, RedTail and Heron Lake's Green Back and Great Blue). All five were down in rounds played in fiscal 2001-02, with a combined drop of nearly 44,000 nine-hole equivalents. That meant about $500,000 less in greens fees for the city, which still garnered about $5 million from golfers.

John Zoller, city golf manager, says the department has put off projects, such as building a clubhouse at Heron Lakes, and seeks mostly to maintain its courses.

But Zoller says the city is 'in a good position to see a perk' in play because other facilities, such as Pumpkin Ridge and the Reserve Vineyards & Golf Club in Aloha, have greens fees of $100 at peak times.

'We're kind of on the lower end of the scale' for greens fees, Zoller says, noting rates of $25 for 18 holes at Eastmoreland and Rose City and $37 at RedTail and Great Blue.

Marv French, a Pumpkin Ridge partner, says business at his course 'has been down the last couple years, but not significantly.' General Manager Todd Connelly says play has flattened out. As far as memberships, Connelly says 'we've met or exceeded our budgetary goals the past three years.'

Tom Maletis and his brother, Chris, are in the same position. They purchased Langdon Farms Country Club in January 2002, and immediately started offering incentives to get golfers to the Aurora course. Instead of penny-pinching, the brothers are spending up to $400,000 on capital improvements such as the driving range.

It's the same concept as what the city did with RedTail, updating the driving range and pro shop to raise the quality for the consumer.

'Yeah, it's a downturn, but we're bullish on the future,' Tom Maletis says.

For Maletis and other public-course owners, ancillary income Ñ from restaurant and bar business and golf shop sales Ñ remains of vital importance. It's the difference between making a profit or not.

The slow economy even affects the old-money clubs like Portland Golf Club. Manager John Manley says the club has been proactive in getting social membership business. This means limited golf, but with restaurant and bar access.

'For 10 years, we weren't focused on that,' he says.

Portland Golf Club, at $55,000, remains the most costly club to join, Manley says. Some are as inexpensive as $8,500.

Suffering in Seattle

Fewer courses have sprung up in recent years Ñ Green Mountain and Camas Meadows in Clark County and Stone Creek in Clackamas County are among the newest Ñ which helps the market. Because of the urban growth boundary, it is cost prohibitive to build a course in the metro area, and state planners do not allow construction on farmland any longer.

Still, 'you can cut a great deal for a golf course,' Tom Maletis says. 'It was very attractive for us to get involved.'

Most golf officials say the Portland area, with a nice blend of private, private-public and public courses, isn't 'overcoursed,' as is the case in Seattle and Sacramento.

In Seattle, scores of clubs are dropping greens fees, and the city recently took over operation of its three largest courses after a nonprofit's aborted attempt to run them rolled up $1.2 million in debt. The Seattle city courses have seen a 10- to 20-percent drop in play in recent years.

With low maintenance costs, and the city of Portland controlling the money as an 'enterprise' venture, the city can work through the lean times for its five courses, Zoller says.

Portland peaked with 626,139 rounds in 1993-94. The number has slipped jaggedly since then, sinking to 444,856 in 2001-2002.

As a result, we'll see more emphasis on special deals and cut-rate greens fees.

'We must have 40 of them,' Zoller says.