A recent issue of Golf Digest puts the national picture for private golf clubs in blunt perspective: Clubs are “slashing initiation fees, dropping monthly dues, turning a once-elaborate screening process into a mere show-me-the-money formality.”
Across the country, the number of club closings is exceeding the number of new clubs built for the first time since the 1940s.
But as with the housing market and most things tied to the economic downturn, the Roanoke Valley has a significantly milder case than the extremes found in California, say, where one club recently cut its initiation fee from $40,000 to $25,000 and then to nothing; where another has seen group cancellations outnumber new bookings over four of the past six months.
“All the clubs are doing a lot more marketing,” says Jim Harkness, immediate past president of Roanoke Country Club, the valley’s oldest private club. “It’s a challenge for all of us when you consider not just the economy but also the valley’s average income being below the state average, the size of our population versus the number of clubs, and the general slow-growth pattern here.”
Hidden Valley Country Club General Manager Jim Paschal says the downturn at the clubs is tied in large measure to the economy.
“Beginning back in October, we understood the need for short-term changes,” he says, noting that Hidden Valley “looked at personnel and we were able to do some downsizing.”
From Hunting Hills Country Club’s Director of Marketing Kevin Kipp: “How are clubs doing? Well, good is the new great, and OK is the new good. We’re doing well, but we have seen a bit more attrition.”
At semi-private Ashley Plantation, General Manager Sam Camp is looking for a bright side: “I think play will be good this year, with more people staying home and playing rather than going on vacation.”
And at Botetourt Country Club, also semi-private, Assistant Pro Chris Koon said in mid-May that the first three months of the year had been down due as much to the weather as anything, but that he hoped April, with play up a little, might serve as a forecast for a better rest of the year.
The New Kid in Town
And then, looming majestically on the horizon is yet another wrinkle in the reality of too much golf for the size of the market: Ballyhack, which planned to open at the end of June as the first new course in the area since in Roanoke City/County since Hunting Hills was built in the ‘60s – in the Mount Pleasant area of Roanoke County.
The club’s design, by renowned course designer Lester George of Richmond, carries echoes of the old Scottish links courses, and may well emerge as the valley’s most beautiful course.
Ballyhack’s local/national outreach and its limited membership render it unique in the valley and only in limited competition for members with the other local clubs.
“Our membership goal is 300,” says Jonathan Ireland, Ballyhack’s director of operations, “with 60 local and the rest coming from all over the country.” In mid-May, Ballyhack had 40 members, all but four local.
“Typically, the local membership comes along first,” Ireland says. “The national will come along after things are open – it’s a longer process.”
Ireland says the club will emphasize the overall experience, with “the quality of the course matching the overall level of service provided.”
If there is one thing that the coming of Ballyhack has brought to light, it is the beauty of golf courses in general and of the Roanoke Valley courses in specific.
Time to Join?
The golf industry was already affected, pre-recession, by a mild downturn in play and some overbuilding. Nationwide, in the year 2000 alone, more than 400 new clubs opened, in a decade when rounds played per year have been generally down or flat. In 2008, rounds played were down nationwide by nearly 2 percent, the sharpest drop in six years.
One result of the collective club downturn: There hasn’t been more incentive and opportunity to join a club at any time in recent memory. Phrases like “appeals to families and young people,” “trial memberships,” and “aggressive membership drives” are part of the perspectives from all the area private clubs. See accompanying box for specifics.