Pondering unsure future

IAN HUTCHINSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

Winter looks to be colder than usual for golf course owners in the Greater Toronto Area and it really has nothing to do with inclement weather, which already has plagued them throughout most of the 2008 season.

As owners scramble to make up what they lost over a cool, damp summer, looking into the future can be a little troubling with all of the bad economic news that's hitting the headlines these days.

Of course, the prospect of a severe economic downturn is troubling for any business, but particularly those that rely on discretionary spending in an era in which consumers are more concerned with keeping their jobs and being able to provide food and shelter for their families, depending on how bad it gets.

"The feedback I'm getting from owners and operators of golf courses is that they are wary of the implications of what the media is bringing us on a daily basis," said Vince Kishimoto, regional director of the Central Ontario chapter of the National Golf Course Owners Association in Canada.

"The magnitude of what's going on in the media today is going to have an effect on people's general outlook on discretionary spending," he added.

"What the golf course operators are looking at -- and they'll be spending the winter doing this -- is to come up with innovative programs that will entice the golfers to still keep up their habit and play golf."

While news of slumping stock markets, big bailouts for financial institutions and a burst bubble in the American housing market is a concern for all businesses, golf course owners also need pay attention to reports coming out of the United States that more courses are closing than opening.

It may not get that bad here, but consider the fact that the Toronto area is an oversaturated market in terms of high-end public courses. To the delight of golfers, that competition could mean falling prices, but that could trickle down to those courses that have been affordable all along and can't go much lower.

"There is that danger. What we have seen is more golf courses changing hands," said Kishimoto, adding that many longtime owners who are getting close to retirement may decide to opt out now instead of staying on and battling through a Canadian recession, should it come to that.

"The other area that we obviously worry about, and we've seen some of it this summer, is proximity/travel for golf," he added. "Some of the outlying areas of the GTA have noticed some decline in travel, ostensibly because of the gas prices. On the other hand, the courses closer to Toronto are seeing a bit more traffic."

So, it would appear that golfers already were counting their pennies and that would only become more prevalent if the economy tanks. It's generally accepted, based on previous experiences in economic downturns, that golfers will continue to play, but just cut back on their number of rounds.

Owners from across the country will gather in Niagara Falls next month and how to deal with a faltering economy and to what degree it will hit will be a hot topic. The innovative programs that Kishimoto mentioned earlier might include straying away from the perception of golf being an 18-hole game.

"I think the future growth of the game, to perhaps make up for some of the attrition that we will be seeing in this area, will be to accept the non-traditional pattern to the requirement of the game that it be an 18-hole, full-round deal," Kishimoto said.

Nine-hole rounds offer several benefits. For one thing, it will cut in half the time it takes to play a round, a constant complaint among those who play regularly.

It also offers the opportunities for players to bring their families. Perhaps, even lower prices for junior-aged players or family rates may increase participation. Make it a nine-and-dine deal, in which munchies are thrown in, and that sweetens the deal.

Tough economic times may even swing the focus to shorter courses.

"What we are seeing is some opportunities for the executive golf courses and there are several around now in that class that are offering a pretty good experience," said Kishimoto, adding that stand-alone nine-hole courses may also attract attention.

All ideas are on the table and whether individual owners accept them remains to be seen as they look into an uncertain future. The calls they make now may be an important factor going forward.

"The mood that I feel is that, despite this up and down weather, it has been an okay year. People have gotten by, some people are down in rounds," Kishimoto said.

"I would say, at this point, that the general mood is one of hold the course, stay steady, hunker down and be ready for the eventualities that could come."


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