GOLF: 'We've got golf heaven'
Steven Bagley of Farmington remembers what it was like to be a Wasatch Front golfing fanatic in the 1990s. Bagley and his buddies would take turns waking up at 5 a.m. Thursday mornings to stand in line at Davis Park Golf Course in nearby Fruit Heights to get one of the prized weekend tee times at the popular 18-hole layout.
"I went over there the other day with my son on a weekend afternoon," he said. "I asked if we could get on even though we didn't have a tee time. The starter pointed to the first tee and said, 'All yours.' "
If you are a recreational golfer in Utah right now, industry leaders say, you are in golf heaven. However, if you happen to own or operate one of the 100 or so public facilities in the state, nobody needs to tell you this fact: until the last few years, it was a struggle to make a profit after the turn of the century.
"We are at the zenith of golf in Utah," said Joe Watts, executive director of the 30,000-member strong Utah Golf Association. "I look at it from the player's point of view, because that is who [the UGA] serves. And from the player's point of view, we've got it good - very, very good."
From the owner-operator side of things, however, the picture has not been nearly as lush as a green fairway at ultra-popular Bonneville G.C. on Salt Lake City's east bench.
"If you own or operate a course, the feeling is we might have built too many courses too fast," said David Terry, who oversees nine courses as Salt Lake City's Director of Golf. "The market from [the owner-operator] standpoint is very competitive, which is obviously a good thing for the average golfer."
However, Terry said the owners are rebounding.
"Revenue-wise, overall, we will do $500,000 more this year [when the fiscal year ends on June 30] than we did a year ago," he said. "So, yeah, things are looking up."
Watts, Terry and Scott Whittaker, executive director of the Utah Section PGA, can all agree on one thing, however. Green fees at public courses are relatively low (compared with the national averages), the courses are maintained as well or better than anywhere in the country, and the availability of even the most desired tee times is as good as it has ever been, they say.
Roughly, golfers can play 18 holes with a cart on a well-maintained public course in Utah for between $35 and $40. Whittaker said those who travel beyond the state's borders to play golf in locales such as Nevada and Arizona are accustomed to green fees at least double that amount.
"We have got the best public facilities in the country," Watts said. "We don't have any top-100 courses. But across the board, we've got golf heaven.
"Almost all the population [of Utah] has a choice of 25 golf courses within a half-hour [drive] of their home. It is just amazing, how much opportunity there is to play, and they are all good golf courses."
The industry leaders say it started in the 1950s and 1960s when municipalities such as Salt Lake City, Davis County, St. George and Bountiful City had the vision to set aside relatively cheap land for golf courses. As a result, Utah has more government-owned golf courses, per capita, than any state in the country, according to National Golf Foundation figures.
Seeing the golf revenue that the aforementioned municipalities were raking in through the 1980s and early 1990s, more cities and counties joined in with courses of their own, creating a golf construction boom that didn't slow until just a few years ago.
"We had an explosion of golf facilities for about five years there," Whittaker said. "So supply was outpacing demand, and still is, currently. That is a great benefit to the player - it keeps fees low and it keeps golf facilities hungry. But it makes it tough on the guy trying to meet [budget] projections. I don't care what kind of operation you have. If someone moves into your neighborhood with a new course, you are going to lose some play."
Mike Booth, head professional at one of the few privately owned public courses in the state, South Jordan's Glenmoor G.C., said that the 1990s were "crazy busy" for his course, but business slowed drastically from 2000 to 2005, only to pick up again the last few years.
"Last year was our best year [revenue-wise] in 10 years, and this year we are ahead of where we were last year at this time," he said.
Booth noted that in the 1990s he would take weekend tee times nonstop for three straight hours on a Thursday morning. He takes tee times a week in advance now, but as of Tuesday afternoon he still had a few prime-time openings for both Saturday and Sunday morning.
Salt Lake City's Terry, who is also on the UGA's board of directors, says that prior to 1990, there were 495 golf holes in the Salt Lake City metro area (roughly, Layton to Orem and Tooele to Heber City). Some 468 holes have been added the past 17 years, an increase of 94.5 percent.
Although the city was part of that boom with the development of its Wingpointe G.C. and 18 additional holes at Mountain Dell, the city's golf coffers took a hit from the doubling of holes, as did almost every owner-operator in the state, Terry said.
"We took a 20 percent hit from [our] high-water mark on the number of rounds played," he said. "Salt Lake City fared relatively well, compared to other [municipalities and golf course owners], but there wasn't a lot of cushion financially to handle that 20 percent decrease."
The result has been a virtual halt to new public course construction in Utah, a stoppage that pleases existing owner-operators such as Terry and Glenmoor's primary owner, Cecil Bohn, but worries people such as Watts, spokesperson for the "common" golfer.
"We've got it good now, but I am a bit of a pessimist," Watts said. "It is going to be short-lived, so we better love it while we can. Unless government leaders get some land banked and purchase some within their city limits or county limits [for future courses], we are going to be in trouble, long term. We are going to be another Nevada."