Southern Beaufort County's golf industry has taken its licks from the Great Recession. During the economic downturn, the number of rounds played declined, and some courses were put on the market, eyed for other uses.
Golfers who were cash-strapped couldn't afford to play as often or pay as much for a round. The number of rounds played between 2006 and 2011 declined by about 20 percent, according to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
And, as in much of the rest of the country, there were indications that the market was over-saturated with newly built golf courses, particularly those tied to real estate. Currently, about 100 courses a year are being closed and redeveloped for other uses, according to Mike Hughes, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, a Charleston-based trade group.
Locally, Old Carolina Golf Club in Bluffton built an apartment complex in 2006 on land that once was occupied by several holes and a driving range. More recently -- just this past March, in fact -- the Heritage Golf Group sold holes 2 through 16, comprising 102 acres, of the Planter's Row Golf Course in Port Royal Plantation to the Town of Hilton Head Island. There wasn't enough demand to keep the course active, according to Gary Dee, executive vice president of the Heritage group. The town says it has no plans for the property.
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And the owners of Hilton Head National in Bluffton recently requested a zoning change that would allow housing, hotels and commercial development on land that is now an 18-hole course.
Bleak as the landscape appears, some believe the bad times have run their course -- last year, for the first time in six years, the number of rounds played began inching upward.
And some believe that if the business model is tweaked sufficiently, sound footing is just a 9-iron away.
Sea Pines Country Club's golf course, originally designed by Arnold Palmer and Frank Duane and renovated by local architect Clyde Johnston in 2001, long had been open only to the community's residents.
At least until about two weeks ago, when residents voted to allow non-residents to be invited to join the club. The aim was to bring in new members, who will have exclusive access to play the club's course.
The change had been considered for years, according to Greg Clark, chief operating officer at the country club.
"One of the things we saw, year after year, was that there were a fairly significant number of members who would leave the club, because they moved outside of Sea Pines," Clark said.
Clark added that lifestyle changes, particularly "the availability of (people's) time and competing interests," had an adverse effect on membership and rounds played.
"If you can increase your membership, it just stands to reason that you are going to see gains in revenue and improvement to the bottom line," Clark said.
Long before Sea Pines Country Club made the change, other clubs had done the same thing. Indeed, open membership is now more the rule that the exception, according to Cary Corbitt, president of the Lowcountry Golf Course Owners Association and director of sports and operations at Sea Pines.
Only a handful of clubs in the area -- among them Wexford Plantation and Long Cove Club on Hilton Head and Colleton River Plantation Club in Bluffton -- still restrict membership to property owners.
Changes in Hilton Head Island itself helped bring about the new membership rules, Clark said. As the island matured over the years, it became "more of a town than a series of developments" and it grew a sense of community that extended beyond plantation gates, he said.
Opening up the club's membership to non-residents "goes hand in hand" with that evolution, he said.
It was the recession, though, that made many club owners realize the old ways of doing business weren't working anymore.
That was true for Sea Pines Resort, which owns Harbour Town Golf Links, Heron Point and Ocean Course, Corbitt said.
"We had to become accustomed to running our operation more efficiently," he said.
The resort looked for ways to cut costs without affecting the quality of a golfer's experience, Corbitt said. Instead of offering free bottles of water throughout the courses, refillable ice water stations were installed. Instead of putting golf tees out for people to grab by the handful, small packs of them now are offered.
The courses in Sea Pines Resort also began offering more discount packages to players interested in multiple rounds, as well as discounts for tee times during non-peak hours and months.
Making golf cheaper to get more people playing is a worthy trade-off, Corbitt said.
"We're trying to build value rather than trying to go after rate -- because rate is not everybody's friend," Corbitt said. Once the volume increases, price can follow suit, he said.
Nationally, rounds increased by about 5 percent, according to Hughes, of the National Golf Course Owners Association. Golf revenues have increased by about the same amount, he said.
A BUYER'S MARKET
The golf market is shrinking and morphing, but course owner John Brown of Brown Golf Management thinks he knows how to read the green ahead.
Since Brown, a Bluffton resident, co-founded the company in January 2011, it has purchased 15 golf courses in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, including two in Bluffton -- Pinecrest Golf Club and Island West Golf Club.
In the next 45 days, he expects to close the sale of another two courses in Bluffton: Crescent Pointe and Eagle's Pointe.
"Quite frankly, we're taking advantage of the marketplace," he said. "Buying stuff for pennies on the dollar."
Brown says his concept is different from his "father's and grandfather's private club."
The company buys courses in clusters. A membership to one gives access to all. Proximity allows the courses to share staff and equipment, which saves the business money and gives members more variety. The courses also offer resort rates and daily rates for locals who are not members.
Family memberships are $175 a month and include free private golf lessons for everyone in the family. Offering free lessons keeps people from getting frustrated with their play and eventually leaving the game, Brown said.
Golf resorts need to be more willing to adapt to what members want, Brown said, adding that his clubs already are turning profits.
"These things are cyclical. It's a buyer's market right now. There is no funding available, but golf will get strong again. There are a lot of people betting that it doesn't," Brown said.
"I'm betting that it does."
Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.