Better weather aids golf courses in 2012

Courses opened in March — a big change from 2011

By Ryan Buck

The winter storms that pummeled the Mahoning Valley and the six to twelve inches of thick, wet snow leave area golfers with only fleeting memories of the unprecedented season just completed.

Cooperative weather, first and foremost, enabled every area venue that was interviewed to match or surpass business from the previous season. More nice days than usual equated to more rounds and better business.

“Typically there’s around 210 golfing days and there was a substantial increase this year,” said Mill Creek MetroParks executive director Dennis Miller. Mill Creek head professional Andy Santor estimates there were between 30 and 40 more golfing days in 2012 than 2011.

Taking a look at the consecutive seasons provides a stark contrast in playability.

“2011 was like the worst year in golf ever for this part of the country,” said Paul McMullin, who is the third-generation owner of Yankee Run Golf Course with cousin and co-owner, Greg. “It was the worst year that any of us can remember. The weather was just so against us. 2012 was almost the opposite in that we were playing golf really early in the spring.”

Many courses opened as early as March 1, much earlier than 2011.

“There were beautiful days in March so almost every golf course absolutely got a great head start because of March and April, which we didn’t have in 2011 at all,” McMullin said. “In 2011 it didn’t turn nice until June 1 and you just can’t make up for those kinds of days.”

After the generous spring, most courses found the number of rounds leveled off during the summer.

“The weather definitely cooperated with us and the only issues I think that we encountered in the summer were that it got hot early. June was much warmer in 2012 than in past years,” said Miller, U.S. Open participant and formerly Mill Creek golf director.

Hotter temperatures and drought-like conditions gave way to a pleasant fall, where more rounds were to be had even past Thanksgiving. Courses didn’t close until mid-December, several weeks later than usual.

While the favorable conditions provided a boost in business in 2012, competition for golfers is at an all-time high in a local economy with many courses from which to choose amidst a regional population which declined at about six percent in the last decade, per U.S. Census figures.

“Going back 10 to 15 years, this was the only golf course around here,” Santor said of Mill Creek’s position in the Boardman-Canfield-Poland radius. “Kennsington wasn’t built, Reserve Run wasn’t built, Firestone Farms wasn’t built. We’ve basically got three added competitors that are all nice golf courses and a shrinking market because the population certainly hasn’t increased around here.”

These factors drive the prices down as well. It’s a delicate balance, given the courses’ operating costs and the economic pressures facing the courses and their perspective customers.

“They [costs] continually go up,” said Firestone Farms golf director Delmar Campbell. “Our costs of running it are up in general. Our costs of fertilizer and cost of equipment continually rise and if everyone did what we were supposed to do, golf prices would be a lot higher right now.”

John Kerins, longtime owner of Tam O’Shanter of Pennsylvania, noted that golfers are tighter with disposable income. In tough economic times, they have to decide whether to save money or spend it at the course.

In response to increased competition and to take advantage of low rates, venues have reached out to golf markets within short drives.

Campbell says Firestone Farms, a 40-minute commute from the Pittsburgh airport, relies on much of its business from players local to the suburbs west of the city.

Chris Carfangia, head professional at Pine Lakes in Hubbard, sees players from Akron and Cleveland as well. His business also markets to players who will drive from as far as Canada.

Combined, northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, with an average annual temperature below 50 degrees, is growing into a regional golf destination.

“You’re getting top-notch golf courses for a great value,” Carfangia said. “That’s what brings a lot of these people in for weekends or stay-and-play packages. That’s really a big increase in our rounds as of late.”

Local courses are able to feed off each other, gather some new clientele, and then grow business.

“Believe it or not, by those golf courses being at the level they are, it’s easier for us to attract the players from Cleveland or Canton or Pittsburgh because it becomes a golf destination,” Miller said. “That really makes or breaks our year. If we do attract the outside play, it just adds to our bottom line.”

Area golf personnel are also hopeful that the continuous growth in the shale industry will bring more golfers. A recent Vindicator article reported that Ohio has over 30,000 jobs related to shale with the number expected to increase to more than 40,000 by 2015. Pennsylvania’s current total of more than 56,000 jobs is expected to rise to about 111,000 by 2015.

“We are starting to see players coming in — guys that are working in the oil and gas industry,” Kerins said. “They’re starting to come in and play golf and buy merchandise. So we have started to see that little bit of a trickle. I anticipate that in the next year or two that’s going to be a ... I don’t think it will be a boom, but I think it will definitely start to help the golf business.”

Perhaps the shale-related jobs and subsequent influx of new arrivals will generate some encouraging returns for the metropolitan area, but long-term growth will depend on introducing local youths to the game and enabling them to frequent local courses.

“Seventy percent of our golfers are seniors, 60 and older,” said Scott Gintert, owner of Riverview Golf Course in Braceville Township. “If we don’t get some of the young people playing, golf is a dying industry.”

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