South Carolina as a golfing destination is back in the global spotlight this weekend, courtesy of the U.S. Women's Open at the Country Club of Charleston.
The burst of international exposure could provide the industry with a boost that, based on a new financial analysis of the industry, would be warmly welcomed.
The report from the state's tourism department in conjunction with the S.C. Golf Course Owners Association showed declines in several key categories compared to the previous study released in 2016, including overall economic impact, employment and wages.
The author cautioned against reading too much into the slippage, partly because the comparisons are likely muddled by updates to the software that crunches the numbers. More importantly, the volume of raw data that went into the two reports was different, said Dudley Jackson, research director for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
"This latest sampling was more representative than the one we did in 2016, which is not to say we got a bad read in 2016," he said last week.
Golf is a longtime anchor of the South Carolina tourist trade. The state plays host to one annual tour stop each spring — the RBC Heritage held on Hilton Head Island — and numerous one-off events, from the legendary Ryder Cup in 1991 to the U.S. Women's Open championship that got underway Thursday to the return of the PGA Championship to Kiawah Island in 2021.
"Golf generates more income than any other single entertainment or recreation activity in South Carolina," the tourism department said in its recently released analysis of the game.
Still, the industry as a whole has struggled to grow.
The number of U.S. courses peaked in 2006 at more than 16,000 after a 20-year unchecked building spree that added 4,000 tracts to the mix. When participation stagnated or slacked off, the industry slowly began recalibrating to bring supply back in line with demand.
About 1,100 U.S. courses have been shuttered over the past decade or so, including dozens along the Grand Stand and other parts of South Carolina. One of the latest casualties was the Sanctuary Golf Club on Lady Island near Beaufort.
But it's hardly all gloom-and-doom, as golf still has game in the Palmetto State, Jackson said.
"My overall takeaway is that while golf and its overall impact isn't growing at some exponential number, it's pretty steady, and overall it's a contributor to the tourism economy in the state," he said.
The state's latest temperature check pegged the total economic impact at about $2.6 billion last year, down about 4 percent, or $100 million, from 2015. Jackson described the new figure as "pretty respectable," especially given that about 50 South Carolina courses have disappeared between then and now.
Consequently, employment was off by about 5% to 31,400 jobs from three years earlier, while wages slipped almost 3% to $857 million.
The weather didn't help either in 2018, a challenging stretch that included a frigid coastal ice storm and a couple of unwanted visitors from the tropics named Florence and Michael.
The market correction is showing signs of a financial recovery for the roughly 300 properties that remain in business around the state. The average number of rounds played at an 18-hole course in South Carolina last year rose 6% from 2015 to about 27,000, according to the study. Revenue also increased, jumping 17% to nearly $53 per player, helping drive state and local tax collections up by 14% to $309 million.
"We had our peak some years back and then some tough times a while back," said Terry Sedalik, executive director of the S.C. Golf Course Owners Association and head of the group's Charleston chapter. "I think we're definitely in an uptick. There's ample evidence of that."