Why Public Golf Courses Are in the Rough
Life + Money

Why Public Golf Courses Are in the Rough


Jasmine Stringer of Minneapolis is the kind of amateur athlete you’re likely to find on the 9th hole of a golf course anywhere in the country. At 32 years old, the enthusiastic recreational golfer has the potential to turn into a lifelong player.

So why is she playing less golf?

“I play 90 percent on public courses, but these days they’re closing or not being kept up very well,” she says. They’re also cutting back on their hours. 


Stringer is not the only one taking to the links less often. The percentage of Americans who play golf has fallen 17 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Public courses are a mainstay of the sport in the U.S. According to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), 9 out of 10 U.S. golfers head to a public course and, in 2012, about three-quarters of all courses were public.

But there is no question public courses are in distress. Between 5 and 10 percent of all public courses are expected to close in the next decade, according to the NRPA. There has been a 26 percent decrease in so-called value courses – those whose peak season fees are under $40 – since 1987. Less-than-ideal maintenance of the courses and shorter hours have become an issue – leaving many experts to wonder how the public golf course will survive if players continue to be driven from the game.

Public courses have been an important part of American golf since Van Cortland Park Golf Course – once preferred by the Three Stooges – opened in New York City in 1895. Before then, the game was played by the wealthy, who could afford the fees at country clubs and private courses.

Van Cortland broke the mold by allowing the public onto the links. Over the years, public courses have helped the game grow, since most people can’t afford private memberships, which can run easily into the six figures.


In the 1990s, while the economy was booming, cities spent millions, building over 2,500 new courses to satisfy customer demand, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Most cities aim to create self-sustaining courses, but that’s often not the case. A study published this year in the Journal of Public and Municipal Finance found that more than 90 percent of the enterprise funds Florida municipalities use to support golf courses are operating at a loss, with an average annual loss of more than $265,000.

One of the biggest changes since the 1990s has been the influx of higher-end public courses, according to Houston-based golf course designer Mike Nuzzo. “They lower their fees to bring in people and so approach municipal course prices, but with a nicer experience,” he says. That puts pressure on the municipal courses, many of which have been forced to close, or to spend more money in order to keep up. “In the old golf course, the turf was what is called fine or good enough,” Nuzzo says.

To get better competitive quality, a course has to spend more on grounds maintenance, including upgrading expensive irrigation systems. New systems typically run from $1.5 million to $2 million, according to Nuzzo. “That’s a lot of money for a public course.”

Another common gripe among players: Today’s courses take longer to play, with many pushing past the five-hour mark. Studies show that most golfers believe the pace of play has worsened over time and that drawn-out rounds detract from the experience. The longer rounds also make it tough for busy consumers who can’t dedicate a half-day to play on a regular basis. 

The problem has become so important to the industry that the United States Golf Association announced in June a campaign to study the pace of play and raise awareness of issues surrounding slow players.

For public courses, it’s a matter of money. The difference between a four-hour and a five-hour round adds up to 64 rounds lost on a busy Saturday. That can cost a public golf course $3,000-$5,000, according to a report by David Hueber, former president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation.  

Joe Rickard, managing director of Chicago investment bank Incapital, joined the board of a 94-year-old public golf course in North Evanston, an affluent part of the city’s North Shore.

“One of the challenges is that many local residents all belong to the private golf course,” Rickard says. But the loss of the course, which had fallen on hard times, would have meant the end of a resource for those without access to another public course. Rickard and some friends used their business experience and knowledge to turn it around.

First, they integrated the course into the fabric of the surrounding communities. “Unlike other courses, we allow alternative activities such as dog walking, jogging and cross-country skiing [not on the greens],” Rickard says. “I was skeptical, but it worked out fantastically.”

That change helped increase donations to the course, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. “We had one senior citizen actually buy us a dump-truck load of sand. That was tax deductible for him.” A fundraiser attracted the presence of actor Bill Murray, who had worked in the snack shop as a kid.

Second, the group fired the previous management, which “wasn’t spending money to maintain the grounds, and they weren’t paying attention to messaging and getting the word out there about the golf course,” says Rickard. “Times have been so good for golf courses for so long, I think a lot of management got lazy and weren’t running it like businesses.” A few old-fashioned cash management and prudent business practices also helped.

And third, the group reached out to a different type of clientele: retirees and students from high schools and middle schools. Many of the students attracted to the course could afford to play at private clubs because their families are members. But they prefer not to golf where their parents go. With all the changes, revenue is “up significantly” and the course is slowly digging its way out of debt. Talk of bankruptcy, which abounded a few years ago, is now off the table.

Clearly not all public courses will disappear. “Courses will continue to close until supply meets the demand,” Nuzzo says. But some areas may lose their only public course, and others will make the public golf experience so awful that golfers may lose interest altogether.