In the end, they threw a party. It had been a two-year effort to finalize the sale of Bay Tree Golf Plantation, a 54-hole complex in Little River that had occupied its place on South Carolina's Grand Strand since 1972. The final days included a going-out-of-business sale that offered everything down to the tee markers. The capper was a farewell bash for the 59-person staff, all of whom received severance packages, and 58 of whom had new jobs lined up for the next day.
“We used it as a celebration,” said Tracy Conner, the club’s former general manager. “This isn’t a funeral, this is a celebration. Rather than make it a sad occasion, we tried to make it a very celebratory one.”
To some degree, it was a scene repeated throughout the mid-2000s in and around Myrtle Beach, which once boasted nearly 120 courses in the heady days when real estate loans were easy to come by and Tiger Woods’ dominance stoked golf fervor to unprecedented heights.
Things are much different now, a decade after a recession that brought golf plummeting back to reality and helped reshape the topography of a Myrtle Beach area that’s home to around 85 courses today.
Golf is big business in South Carolina — according a 2016 impact study done by the S.C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, golf in the Palmetto State generates $2.7 billion in direct and indirect sales, provides 33,188 jobs and $881 million in personal income, and accounts for $270 million in state, local, and federal taxes. The Grand Strand, destination for half of the state’s golf visitors, produces an economic impact of $650 million alone.
When golf hurts, the Palmetto State suffers.
And the pain from the recession is still being felt, even years after it officially ended in 2009. The number of courses nationally has declined 7 percent over the last 10 to 12 years, according to the National Golf Foundation. The amount spent on course construction has been declining since the recession, rounds played has remained sluggish even as the economy has picked up, and millennials are not taking up the sport in the same numbers as those in previous generations.
“There were two bubbles that burst at the same time — the Tiger bubble and the economy,” said Rob Fifield, CEO of Bauer International, a Charleston company that manufactures high-end furnishings and fixtures for golf resorts. “They both burst at the same time, and made it quite challenging.”
Woods’ 2009 downfall robbed the game of its biggest star ever and most bankable personality on the heels of a recession that forced many golf stores, courses and equipment providers out of business. While Woods is playing again, and occasionally in contention, many national indicators continue to suggest issues within the game. But in South Carolina, where coastal real estate is as sought-after as ever and golf is a critical component in the tourist economy, the consensus is that the state has weathered the worst of it.
“We’ve been through some tough times,” said Terry Sedalik, executive director of the South Carolina Golf Course Owners Association. “But I really think we’re on an upswing, and the people who have managed their courses and survived all this are going to be on an uptick.”
But the last decade left a mark. “The golf industry has always been, go to the counter, know the pro, know the greens fee, hot dog and a cold beer afterward. It’s been a pretty simple operation. But that’s changed,” Sedalik said.
Online tee time systems, high-tech equipment changes, relaxed dress codes, dynamic pricing, a digital and social media presence, wariness against overbuilding — in South Carolina, they’re all more top of mind than ever. The climb back has forged a new sense of perspective for a sport that can’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
“We are bullish on golf in this area. We know we have the tools and expertise to attract current travelers, potential new travelers, folks who haven’t been here in five or 10 years,” said Bill Golden, CEO of Golf Tourism Solutions in Myrtle Beach. “We continue to have the mechanism to make that occur, knowing there’s really no margin for error in the golf business.”
‘A perfect storm’
These days on the Grand Strand, the big problem is winterkill — a loss of greens due to harsher than expected winter conditions like those experienced on the South Carolina coast late last year. With sod farms running low on product, some courses have had to shut down to undertake repairs. At least 12 Grand Strand courses have closed nine or more holes this summer, according to the Myrtle Beach Sun News.
“Mother Nature hasn’t helped us at all the last few years, between the floods in Columbia and two years in a row of hurricanes and the winter weather that dropped snow on Charleston for five days,” said Biff Lathrop, executive director of the S.C. Golf Association. “It’s been kind of a perfect storm of things going against us.”
The closings due to winterkill, which has taken a toll on courses around the state, has led to a drop in rounds played compared to last year, Sedalik said. The Myrtle Beach area in particular “took a beating on social media because of the conditions we had,” he added. Nothing new for South Carolina’s golfing capital, which felt effects of the recession more than any other part of the state.
The apex of the Grand Strand boom — including a few courses over the North Carolina state line — was the late 1990s, when a National Golf Foundation study intimated that the area needed more product to meet the demand. The result was a golf-course building boom that in hindsight proved unsustainable.
“We had a lot of people get into the golf business,” said Will Mann, a past president of the PGA of America and now director of the PGA golf management program at Coastal Carolina. “It just got oversaturated with golf courses.”
The recession was only part of the dynamic that ultimately cut into that bloat. The first Grand Strand course to close, Gator Hole in North Myrtle Beach, shut down in 1999, almost a decade before the recession. According to a Sports Illustrated story on Myrtle Beach — forebodingly entitled “The Final Days” — visitors flocked to newer resort courses booked as part of travel packages, and older local courses began to wither. That’s partly what happened to Bay Tree, which shut down in 2006.
And then there’s the other part of it: development. Bay Tree was bought by Centex, which builds subdivisions. As the Grand Strand’s population grew, older golf courses with narrower profit margins became ripe for the picking by developers with fat checkbooks. Even newer courses weren’t immune; Belle Terre was open just three years before it was bought by a development company. Burning Ridge, Crown Park, Deer Track, Raccoon Run, Wild Wing Plantation, the list went on and on.
“The real estate value of where that course was located physically drove that closure. Not the financial performance,” said Conner, now executive director of the Myrtle Beach Golf Course Owners Association. “(It happened to) golf courses that were older, and golf courses that had just come out of the ground.”
The practice was in full swing, slashing the number of courses on the Grand Strand to around 100 well before the markets crashed. But it was part of a 1-2 punch, the other half coming when the recession hit in 2007, draining retirement savings and discretionary incomes and sticking a pin in the real estate bubble. Suddenly, any potential development money golf course owners might have been hoping for was gone. In fact, many developers defaulted on projects planned for courses only recently purchased, as was the case with the Bay Tree property.
Courses overleveraged in real estate were especially vulnerable, all those fairway lots becoming an anchor. And membership rolls suffered. “People had to go back to work, especially our retirees,” Lathrop said. “They’re playing a lot of golf, and all of the sudden they’re 65, 70 years old and they’re going back to work again.”
Heather Glen, Island Green, Heron Point, Black Bear, Brierwood, Cypress Bay, John Daly’s signature Wicked Stick course in the touristy heart of Highway 17, Waterway Hills and its unique gondola ride over the Intracoastal Waterway from the parking lot to the clubhouse — eventually, the post-recession struggles of the golf industry claimed them all. With so many courses in an area so dependent on golf tourism revenue, Myrtle Beach inevitably took a hit.
“Given the fact that the Grand Strand attracts golfers from every metro market, certainly east of the Mississippi and at some levels beyond that, it’s really a question of the state of the game nationally,” said Golden, who markets the Myrtle Beach area as a golf tourism destination. “We’re not a three- or four-course facility that may be immune to certain fluctuations in the game of golf. Myrtle Beach relies on the health of the industry, because of the size we are.”
Compare that to the Charleston market, where Sedalik said the number of golf courses has remained a relatively steady 29, excluding municipal layouts. The most notable recent closure, Kings Grant in Summerville, was in 2005. Charleston’s status as a tourist destination somewhat insulates the local golf market, Sedalik added, because golf is but “one ancillary part” of the whole tourism puzzle.
“Courses (in Charleston) have done well to survive and continue to do well,” he said.
In Myrtle Beach, expectations have been adjusted to meet the new reality. There were 3.2 million rounds of golf played last year on the Grand Strand, Golden said, “off a few hundred thousand rounds at least,” from pre-recession highs. But over the past five years, that total has remained steady. And Conner said revenue from Myrtle Beach-area courses showed “a sharp improvement” in 2017 over the previous year.
“It’s difficult to compare where we are in 2018 with where we were in 2007 or 2008 from an aggregate standpoint, because the reporting tools have changed,” Golden added. “It’s safe to say, from a rounds and revenue standpoint, it hasn’t surpassed where it was at that point. But it has stabilized, which is the silver lining.”
‘Adjusted lower ceiling’
The PGA Merchandise Show, usually a lively winter gathering in Orlando of all the cool gear on offer for the upcoming season, was a somber place to be in 2009. The recession was still months away from ending, and golf — an expensive leisure sport dependent upon discretionary incomes and free time — was feeling its full effects.
“Very dark” is how Fifield described it. “That 2009 PGA Show was not a whole lot of fun.”
It was a dark time for many in the golf business, which by necessity underwent a contraction not limited to the number of courses on the Grand Strand. Equipment shops began to disappear from commercial areas, dropping from over 1,600 to around 750 in 2017, according to Golf Datatech. A Chicago Tribune story from the time reported that some courses slashed initiation and greens fees, cut back on maintenance, or just rode it out by temporarily shutting down.
The hurt was universal. “There obviously was concern,” Lathrop recalled. “Nobody knew what was happening.”
Even now, with the recession a decade in the rearview mirror, some of those concerns persist. The number of U.S. golf courses further contracted by 1.5 percent in 2017, according to the National Golf Foundation’s most recent annual participation report. The total number of “traditional golfers” remained flat at 23.8 million — not a decline, to be certain, but also not the growth some would prefer to see in an improved economy.
“The golf industry was confident that once the economic times rebounded, golf would rebound as well,” Golden said. “On some level, it has. It just hasn’t rebounded to the extent where we’re seeing more people play as the economy improves, which was a fact in previous recessions.”
Online, it’s easy to find blogs and columns about how millennials have little interest in golf, despite the number of stars in their same age group dominating the PGA Tour. Enjoying a few drinks while taking a whack at an electronic target in Topgolf, some would argue, isn’t quite the same as ponying up for lessons or a club initiation fee. But the real growth area may be found in the next generation down.
Junior golf is booming, both in South Carolina and nationally. The American Junior Golf Association, whose membership typically hovers around 5,000, is on pace to break 7,000 this year for the first time in the organization’s history. Drive, Chip and Putt, which started in 2014 with 110 local qualifiers, now has 290. The PGA Junior League, a team format involving boys and girls, has ballooned from 9,000 competitors in its first year of 2013 to 50,000 today.
Lathrop has seen similar a similar increase in South Carolina. “We just had our Grant Bennett Junior at Florence Country Club and had to turn away 65 kids,” he said. “We’ve not had a junior event this year where we haven’t had to turn away 50 to 100 kids because we didn’t have room for them to play. So from a tournament standpoint, we’re seeing our numbers really rising.”
There are other hopeful indicators as well. In South Carolina there are roughly 35 fewer courses now sharing total rounds played, which Sedalik said helps offset stagnancy in that area. Spring inbound air traffic to Myrtle Beach was up 20 percent over 2017, Golden said, a positive sign for the region’s golf tourism business. The Grand Strand’s reputation as a “buddy trip” destination remains intact. The PGA management program at Coastal Carolina has not seen a drop in applications, said director Will Mann.
Fifield said clubs are once again spending money on capital improvements, to him a sure sign of growth. But there remain limits — talk of a rebound comes with what Fifield calls an “adjusted lower ceiling” of expectation.
“We’re back to where we were pre-Tiger, before that huge buildup. Which is not a bad place to be,” he said. “I read all the articles about, oh, nobody can afford it, it’s the death of golf. But what’s happening is, a lot of those clubs that have closed down probably shouldn’t have been built. Those numbers have matriculated to the courses that did stay in business.”
The results of this past winter may have skewed the results in the short term, but Sedalik believes the trend in South Carolina is a positive one. “For those operators who were doing good and managing correctly and efficiently, they’re saying, ‘We’re doing good, and we’re coming out of this.’ There’s been a cycle, and we’re getting through it, and we’re OK, the winter notwithstanding.”
OK is better than where the golf business, in South Carolina and nationwide, was trending a decade ago. The interim demanded the industry make changes, from better online reservations systems to improvements in marketing and cost reduction. The PGA has a pair of initiatives, one encouraging nine-hole golf and another hitting from the front tees, to try and make the sport quicker and more enjoyable. Some see further incorporation of technology as critical in enticing a video-game generation.
And in the meantime, there are the physical scars of the past 10 years, evident in the terrain of the Grand Strand. Big-box stores standing where golf courses used to be, the ghostly remains of greens and bunkers in never-completed developments — all the remaining vestiges of a boom that went bust.
“We’ll never get back to the Tiger-crazy mayhem and the economy we had in 2006 for golf,” Fifield said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see that happening again. I think there were too many things that worked perfectly. That was just a crazy time and I don’t think that was a good indication of what a strong golf industry should look like. I think this is a more realistic area.”
Contact David Caraviello at firstname.lastname@example.org.