2011-11-30 / Business News

Golf on t uphsewing

Local courses buck the national trend
Special to Florida Weekly

Golf, among the legions of industries affected by the economic recession, is on an upswing — at least in Southwest Florida. After years off declining rounds played — a trend that continues nationally — more players are returning to the game locally, according to the National Golf Foundation, the Jupiter, Fla., association that tracks the economy of golf.

While rounds played nationwide this year are off 3.5 percent as of Sept. 30, courses in the Fort Myers/Naples area are reporting a 6.6 percent gain during the same time period, according to year-to-date data compiled by the NGF and Golf Datatech. This, despite a weak September: Rounds at local courses — daily fee, private and municipal facilities — were down 5.8 percent in September and 4.4 percent across the country.

Still, local golf experts are preparing to host more golfers during the coming months as visitors and part-time residents return. Golf memberships at area country clubs are also on the rise, according to membership directors at several Lee and Collier facilities. Ditto for requests from resort and hotel visitors.

The golf course at the Verandah Club in Fort Myers. 
COURTESY PHOTO The golf course at the Verandah Club in Fort Myers. COURTESY PHOTO “Golf used to be a huge request for guests staying with us,” says Cathy Christopher, director of sales and marketing for the Inn on Fifth in Naples, which partners with some of the area’s more exclusive country clubs. “As the recession closed in, golf declined in equal proportion. I suppose it was one of those things people dropped or cut back on. For a while we didn’t offer any golf packages because there really wasn’t a demand.”

Ms. Christopher says the inn’s regular golf following declined from 30 to eight groups. More requests, she says, has prompted the inn to offer golf packages in 2012.

“We have always had a great following with golf groups,” she says. “They love our location because they can play golf during the day then come back to Fifth Avenue, have a pint or two, and walk to many bars and restaurants. They don’t need a car.

“We’re getting back into the golf business. We feel this season we’ll start picking up golf groups.”

Also helping to lure local golfers back are discounted country club initiation or joining fees, which during the height of Southwest Florida’s real estate market boom reached upward of $300,000. For a one-time $15,000 nonrefundable joining fee and about $580 monthly, players can become full golf members at Verandah Club in Fort Myers, which offers 36 holes designed by Bob Cupp and Jack Nicklaus and son. That’s a fraction of the former $50,000 hey-day initiation fee, which was marketed as fully refundable — a plan that prompted lawsuits against Verandah’s developer Bonita Bay Group after financial difficulties prevented it from living up to that promise at its other Southwest Florida golf communities.

“Everything we offer now is nonrefundable,” says Jay Severson, director of membership sales and marketing, who notes that membership numbers and rounds played are up. “We did lose some folks because of the issues Bonita Bay went through, but even in this economy we have managed to turn it around and even gain members.”

The club, says Mr. Severson, has added 44 new golf members during the past 13 months, and currently has a membership roster of 354 — less than half of its 750 cap. It also offers corporate membership opportunities. “We’re working on a few programs for this coming season, including a non-resident membership that offers the same full golf program we offer to residents. The joining fee and monthly dues would still be the same.”

During peaking playing months — January through April — the club recorded in excess of 350 rounds a day. “Play also picked up in September and October,” says Mr. Severson. “November has been pretty good, too. There’s a trend here: Members come down during the fall to get their house ready for season. They play golf then go home until after Christmas or New Year’s.”

Golf and home sales, intertwined in the creature known as the golf course community, have also proven beneficial to would-be members. Some communities have discounted golf memberships for homebuyers; others are granting buyers immediate golf privileges while their homes are under construction.

Since its Jerry Pate-designed course opened in 1999, The Colony Golf & Country Club in Bonita Springs has yet to reach its 325 capacity for equity golf memberships, says Bob Radunz, general manager. But its current membership of 217, helped by the addition of 28 equity members in 2010 and 18 so far this year, is the highest it’s been.

“We’re one of the few clubs that has a great success story to tell,” says Mr. Radunz. “We continue to increase our membership numbers even in inarguably the worst of times. The last three years have been the most challenging in our club’s history.”

Equity membership, which entitles members who resign to a 90 percent refund of what they’ve paid in, carries a $75,000 initiation fee and includes privileges at club restaurants, a sports club, six-court tennis complex, onsite spa and pools. The club also has 33 other golfrelated members: six non-resident golf members and 27 associate members, the latter who pay a $15,000 nonrefundable joining fee, knowing they’ll forfeit their membership once the club approaches its capacity.

“Most of our members live here in the community, which currently has 824 doors,” he says.

And the membership is playing. According to Mr. Radunz, annual rounds were up slightly in 2010 — 193 more than in 2009 for a total 27,876. March was the busiest with an average 118 rounds played daily.

“We’ve budgeted in an increase in rounds for next year,” he says. “Sixty-six percent of our rounds are played in season, from November through April.”

As the regional manager for other WCI Communities golf facilities, Mr. Radunz also oversees the Raptor Bay course at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort in Bonita Springs.

“Raptor Bay is enjoying a good 2011, too.”

His colleague Jim Magnusson, director of marketing and membership sales at Tiburón Golf Club at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, says member and resort golf rounds are also on the uptick.

“Since 2008, Tiburón Golf Club has seen a slight increase of rounds of golf, growing approximately eight percent year over year,” he says. “Our resort rounds of golf from the two Ritz-Carlton resorts in Naples have increase 12 percent year over year during the last two years.”

Industry analysts also expect modest but continual improvement in the game’s popularity as an influx of baby boomers turn 65 and retire to Florida.

“I think the future is good,” says Mr. Radunz. “As long as the snow falls up north and we have sun and beautiful beaches, people are going to gravitate to this market.” ¦

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