A few years ago, Gary Player sent me his thoughts about Donald Ross, the golf course architect who had built his career in Pinehurst. Gary wrote, “I think Donald Ross did more for the golf industry than any other American golf course architect.”
I wrote Gary that Donald Ross didn’t think of it as an “industry,” but as a sport. Today that sport or industry is in serious trouble, and that does not bode well for the Sandhills. The Pilot recently noted a depressing statistic from the National Golf Foundation: A total of 643 18-hole layout golf courses closed between 2006 and 2013. More nine-hole courses closed as well.
Before the golf cart was invented, almost every golf course provided caddies and pull carts. The caddies were usually young boys and girls who not only earned a buck but more importantly, learned the game. They watched adults play and absorbed the rules and course etiquette.
Many became excellent golfers and took up the game for life. Kids who caddied were usually allowed to play free at certain times. For many the money they earned helped their families when times were tough. Those young caddies grew up to play the game and to watch it avidly on television. Today those former caddies are dying out. Youngsters today do not share that rare experience.
Although there are now many excellent programs for kids to learn the game, the total number of youngsters who play regularly is in significant decline. Low- and moderate-income kids, who might have caddied in the past and played for free, are denied that unique opportunity to learn and enjoy the sport. For most kids, it has become too expensive to take up.
I play the local courses open to public golf every Tuesday morning with the Titanium Whistles golf group. Often the courses are almost empty of players. Beacon Ridge is for sale. Forest Creek is re-examining its future. Pinehurst Resort has expanded its range out to 60 miles for new memberships and no longer requires members to own Pinehurst property.
The Pit, owned by Pinehurst Resort, lies fallow, and the Carolina, closed for several years, has no plans to reopen. Woodlake Country Club still offers play, but the property is seriously inhibited by dam problems and lawsuits. Seven Lakes has seen an increase in annual play, but only by creatively offering free breakfast and lunch with beer to attract players.
Because we live in the so-called Golf Capital of the World, understanding what happens nationally and internationally to the game is important to our own economic well-being. A report from St. Andrew’s, Scotland, in 2015 said that the U.S. had 15,372 courses, down from a peak of 16,052. It noted that there are only 153 projects in development, with the number of new courses being opened at an all-time low. The report noted that there are 34,011 golf courses in the world; 71 percent are open to the public, with 45 percent located in the United States.
A book I wrote in 1999 about Ross-designed courses included 100 of his courses open to public play. A new edition describes only 94 courses. Two Florida courses, Ponce de Leon and Punta Gorda, no longer exist. The Roosevelt Memorial Golf Course in Warm Springs, Georgia, is closed and may only reopen with new financing. In Massachusetts, Petersham Golf Course’s land was sold to Harvard and the course destroyed. Richmond Pines Golf Course in Rockingham closed. Rogell Golf Course in Detroit is a cemetery. The Balsams Resort in New Hampshire is closed and seeks new financing.
Moore County, which has historically led in golf innovation, has no municipal or county-owned golf course. Seniors can play local courses at reduced rates, but other players in this weak economy often cannot afford to play with regularity, nor can their children. Moore County would benefit by purchasing a financially challenged course when it comes on the market. A public owned course need not be a drain on the taxpayers. It can be run like all military courses, which operate on budgets generated by player fees. It is healthy for the sport that as many youngsters learn and play the game as possible. Public courses ensure that happens.
Golf is vitally important to the economic health of Moore County. It might benefit from greater public concern for the future of the game, particularly by our elected officials.