GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Will Arabea, general manager of Blue Heron Pines Golf Club, looked out his office window and liked what he saw: All 18 holes had golfers whacking drives toward lush fairways, blasting out of fluffy sand traps or dropping putts on glassy greens.

Other local courses also have been busy, a sign that golf may finally be making a comeback in southern New Jersey after years of struggling.

“We had over 200 golfers here last Saturday and Sunday alone, which is a 15 percent increase over this time last year,” Arabea said. “And we’ve had an influx of golfers from Connecticut and New York here recently that we haven’t seen in the last two years. I think golf is definitely back on the upswing in the area.”

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Other local golf experts are slightly less optimistic.

Harry Bittner, director of golf at Shore Gate Golf Club in Ocean View, Cape May County, said his course is experiencing a “slight uptick” compared to last year.

“We didn’t have a decline for the first time in three years, which is encouraging,” Bittner said. “But I think the golf industry as a whole in this area is pretty flat. I’d guess that nobody’s doing really well and nobody’s doing really awful. I wish I felt differently, but I don’t see anything tremendously changing in the near future.”

The quality of area golf courses is not the problem.

Blue Heron Pines was ranked 34th among the top 50 public courses in the country by readers of Golf World Magazine. The latest issue of Golf Digest lists private Galloway National Golf Club 84th among the top 100 courses in the country and No. 5 among the top courses in the state. Hidden Creek Golf Club, another private course in Egg Harbor Township, was 12th on the state list. Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield and Blue Heron Pines were the top two public courses in New Jersey.

Several other local courses in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties, from Cape May National Golf Club in Lower Township to Sea Oaks Country Club in Tuckerton, own spots on various state and national best-of lists. The Atlantic City area was rated the No. 6 golf city in America last year by Forbes Traveler Magazine.

But even though the area courses are excellent, the economy has taken its toll and forced golfers to put away their clubs and save their money for essentials such as mortgage payments and food. Fewer people are playing golf in southern New Jersey and nationally.

The National Golf Foundation’s last study in 2009 showed there were 28.6 million golfers ages 6 and older in 2008, whereas in 2005 there were 30 million, or nearly 5 percent more.

The NGF’s research also showed more golf courses have closed than opened in the past five years. Blue Heron Pines’ East Course and Ponderlodge Golf Club in Lower Township were among 220 courses that closed nationwide between 2006 and 2010. Vineyard Golf at Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City was the last regulation 18-hole course to open in the area, in 2004.

Those that survived have seen less play. There were 489.1 million rounds of golf played in the U.S. in 2008, down about 6 percent from 518.4 million in 2000 and about 4 percent from 499.6 million in 2005.

“I think a lot of people still play, but maybe not as often,” Bittner said. “People who love to play will give up a lot of other things before they give up golf completely. It will always be a really important factor in their life.”

Local courses have tried to cope in a variety of ways.

Ballamor Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township went from private to public last year. Hidden Creek, one of the country’s top private courses, reduced its membership fees from $45,000 to $15,000, owner Roger Hanson told At The Shore last year. Wildwood Country Club, located in the Swainton section of Middle Township, developed an introductory membership last year that costs $1,800 for six months.

Several area courses have tried to lure more players with a variety of promotions.

Atlantic City Country Club and Harbor Pines are among those that offer “Nine and Dine” deals in which players complete nine holes before dinner. They also are among courses that offer “Stay and Play” packages in conjunction with local hotels.

Mays Landing Golf & Country Club celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering a limited number of two-year, weekday memberships last month for $149 per year, a drastic reduction from the usual rate of $1,200 per year.

“We did it as a marketing tool to help out the local players, and it was well-received,” Mays Landing Golf & Country Club owner Jim Fraser said. “If you count the golfers who own summer homes in the area, I’d say 70 percent of our business comes from local golfers.”

The eight members of the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association — Blue Heron, The Links at Brigantine Beach, Harbor Pines, Mays Landing, Sand Barrens Golf Club in Middle Township, Seaview resort in Galloway Township, Shore Gate and Twisted Dune Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township — are hoping to get a boost from the Atlantic City World Amateur Open, which started Sunday and runs through Thursday at those courses.

Like April’s Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo, the golf tournament was the brainchild of Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s Strategic Planning Committee. Resorts Chief Executive Officer Dennis Gomes is the chairman of the committee, which sought ways to enhance Atlantic City’s image as a family destination. Tournament chairwoman Dotsie Tuscano said all 11 Atlantic City casinos have helped fund the inaugural event.

Organizers were aiming for 400 to 500 golfers for the tournament this year, but only 80 are playing in the event. Still, they are hoping that it will eventually rival the World Amateur Handicap Championship held in September in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in terms of popularity. Fraser, president of the GACGA, speculated that the Atlantic City tourney could eventually lure 5,000 golfers to local courses, hotels, shopping districts and casinos.

“The golf industry was booming when we started the GACGA (in 2004),” Fraser said. “Now we’re hoping this tournament will help bring it back again a little bit. Golfers like to travel, like to gamble, like to eat and like to have fun. This tournament offers them the opportunity to do all of those things.”

Atlantic City World Amateur Open

Runs through Thursday at the following courses:

Blue Heron Pines Golf Club, Galloway Township

Harbor Pines Golf Club, Egg Harbor Township

Seaview resort, Galloway Township

Twisted Dune Golf Club, Egg Harbor Township

For more information on the tournament,">click here

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