Getting back on course

During better economic times, San Luis Obispo County golf courses could count on a steady stream of players swinging their clubs on local fairways.

These days, courses are seeing fewer rounds being played, the result of a sagging economy that has left many tourists and resident golf enthusiasts with less disposable income. So the local courses are rolling out a variety of incentives, including discounts and frequent-player rewards, and enhancing their marketing efforts to attract individual customers as well as groups.

John Carson, general manager of Hunter Ranch golf course in Paso Robles, said many regular players were tied to construction and real estate — industries that took major hits when the economy tumbled.

“Those people need to get back to work,” Carson said. “People need to feel more confident they will have a job and a paycheck next week before they decide to spend money tasting wine and playing golf.”

The trend in local golf is similar to what’s occurring nationally, with rounds of golf down slightly in 2009 from the previous year, according to the latest data from the National Golf Foundation.

“The private clubs are trying various things to attract members — from trial memberships to reduced initiation fees,” said Jim Kass, director of research for the foundation. “With public courses, the best ones are offering player development programs and lessons for beginners, and club loaners, as opposed to just offering discounts.”

Down from the peak

Local courses showed a slight decline in golf rounds played in 2009 compared to 2008 because of the recession, said Gary Setting, owner of Sea Pines Golf Resort in Los Osos.

The county is home to 14 courses, ranging from county-managed courses to public championship golf links adjacent to housing developments. The sole private course is at the San Luis Obispo Country Club.

A survey of a half-dozen local courses showed that all have been affected by the recession in some way. In addition to seeing fewer rounds played, many have cut staff or chosen not to replace employees, or have taken other measures to remain financially healthy.

In a good year, Carson of Hunter Ranch said, the course would see about 33,000 to 34,000 rounds played. The course has been trending 30,000 to 31,000, he said.

Carson said its Players Club — a program that requires annual renewals — was slightly down in 2009 from the previous year. As well, customers have been spending less on hats, shirts and golf balls.

Hunter Ranch has “tightened its belt,” Carson said. The course has not filled vacant positions. Managers have taken on more responsibility, working shifts behind the counter, for example. But the course has not sacrificed maintenance or increased its rates.

Golf rounds have remained flat at Avila Valley Golf Resort and at Blacklake in Nipomo, the two properties owned by local developer Rob Rossi. Rossi, however, said that the courses have had to control costs, and to that end have made personnel and price cuts.

“We’ve made around five staffing cuts over the last few months in a variety of categories,’’ Rossi said. “We have one superintendent overlooking both courses with assistants, instead of having two separate superintendents.”

Rossi said he has no plan to sell the courses, although he acknowledged that he might consider it if someone approached him with the right offer — emphasis on right.

“We certainly hope we’re not selling them,’’ he said. “But there have been people who have inquired in the past, and we wouldn’t have even discussed an inquiry. But in this type of environment, we’re not closing any doors.”

Rounds played were also down about 11 percent in 2009 compared to the previous year at the San Luis Obispo County Country Club, said Doug Dannevik, head golf professional there. It is operating with about 30 percent less staffing than it had two years ago, while trying to offer the same level of service.

Unlike public courses, the private club relies on new members, and Dannevik said it is making an effort to spread the word in the community — through its current members — that it’s worthwhile to buy in.

“What we’re finding out is that people are definitely making decisions now on their membership based on the economy, where a year ago, they didn’t,’’ he said.

Current members also are making sure they get the most for their membership, asking whether they are going to pay upfront for things like using carts and other amenities.

“Two years ago, members of the club would say that all comes with the territory, and they didn’t think twice about it,” he said.

Golf’s tourism impact

Leisure and hospitality is the county’s leading industry, with visitors to the area bringing in more than $1 billion annually. While there’s no data to show how much golf adds to the local economy, those familiar with golf here say its economic impact is significant considering that it is a major attraction for out-of-town guests, generating business when players stay in local hotels, dine in restaurants and shop.

“Since SLO County is known for its outdoor recreational opportunities, golf is a very important part of that,’’ said John Summer, executive director of the county’s Visitors and Conference Bureau. “When you combine the attraction of a diverse range of golfing experiences in SLO County ... along with great value in very affordable green fees, we’ve got a powerful tourism asset that we need to support.”

The survival of local courses will depend on their ability to entice new players and give loyal customers more for their dollar.

San Luis Obispo city officials recently allowed alcohol sales at Laguna Lake Golf Course for the first time. The council also adopted a special reduced price of $10 for off-peak hours of noon to 3 p.m. and implemented a six-month pilot program allowing those who play after noon to buy a monthly pass for $109.

Jensen Lardizabal, head golf professional at Monarch Dunes, which shares the property with the Trilogy home development in Nipomo, said the course is touting its Royal Rewards program, which offers 30 percent off green fees for a year, discounts on merchandise and an end-of-the-year trip for the top 48 people who get the most points.

It’s also offering specials on its par-3 course.

Monarch’s rounds are down about 15 to 20 percent from where they were when the course opened in 2006, he said.

Bonnie Lauer, head golf professional at Cypress Ridge on the Nipomo Mesa, said the course is rewarding its regular players with its frequent-player card and offering specials every other week on its Web site. The course has had to trim staff, but it has not reduced its prices.

Rounds at Cypress Ridge were flat last year after being down in 2008 about 10 percent, Lauer said.

“I think we’re going to see probably another year of maintaining this level before things really change,’’ Lauer said. “That’s why it’s important to keep a good product and deliver good value to people.”

Setting of Sea Pines credits the Central Coast Golf Trail, a group of six local courses working together to sell golf packages and market to travelers outside the area, with keeping interest in Central Coast golf alive.

“Last year, one of our primary goals was to increase the size of our marketing database, and we were able to triple it through our marketing efforts going into 2010,’’ he said.

At Setting’s 9-hole course near Montaña de Oro State Park, the number of rounds played in 2009 was flat compared to the previous year. He says that, so far this year, play appears to be picking up.

Other local courses are also hopeful that 2010 could be the start of a rebound. But they understand that these are unprecedented economic times.

Josh Heptig, golf superintendent for the county of San Luis Obispo, said players’ comparison-shop, calling one golf course and asking another to match the price.

“They’re looking for the deals on anything and everything,” he said. “Whenever we get a phone call, they want to know, ‘What kind of specials do you have?’ If it’s a tournament, they want to know, ‘What’s the best deal you can give us?’ ”

The county courses — Dairy Creek, Chalk Mountain and Morro Bay — have suffered declines in rounds played, but they’re adopting several strategies to energize golfers. A junior program began recently, and the courses are looking at hosting free clinics.

Heptig said it’s difficult to say how 2010 will shape up. December was off to a slow start, and this month has been better, although Mother Nature (rain) could put a damper on any gains.

“At some point it eventually has to level off, but I don’t know whether it will be this year,’’ he said. “If we all had our crystal ball, we’d know exactly where to plan.”