Jeff Bonicky, the director of Sea Oaks Golf Club in Little Egg Harbor Township, sees how the sagging economy has affected the local golf industry.
While there are still a good number of golfers playing the course — the number of rounds played there was less than 10 percent off in 2008 and 2009 compared with 2007 — they are more prone to whack a Pinnacle golf ball at $15 a dozen than a Titleist Pro V1 at $50 a dozen.
Golfers who are struggling with their finances “can’t justify buying a sleeve of Pro V1,” Bonicky said. “There are larger things in life that have to be taken care of first. People that used to have that disposable dollar are now buying a gallon of milk instead of playing nine holes or buying a new putter.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, golf’s depression is not unique to southern New Jersey. The NGF’s 2009 participation study revealed that there were 28.6 million golfers ages 6 and above in 2008 compared with 30 million in 2005. There were 489.1 million rounds of golf played in the U.S. in 2008 compared with 518.4 million in 2000 and 499.6 million in 2005.
But not everyone is struggling locally. A sampling of local private, resort and public golf courses revealed that golfers still want to play, so some clubs have made adjustments to accommodate them.
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In 2005, Bob and Ellen Connors backed out of their driveway in Nutley and headed south in search of a retirement community. Bob had just ended a 32-year career as a letter carrier. Ellen was a teacher for 34 years.
Their first stop was the 55-and-over complex near Sea Oaks Golf Club, situated just off the Garden State Parkway in Little Egg Harbor Township.
It was also their last stop.
“I’ve been playing golf since I was in high school, and this was perfect,” said Bob, who’s 61. “I even got my wife to take it up two or three years ago, and she loves it, too. Between the ambiance of the course and the friendliness of the other members, we couldn’t see living or playing any place else.”
Sea Oaks, a public course that also features memberships, is currently combining its golf course and 31-room inn for “Stay-and-Play” packages in an effort to make up for what was a mildly disappointing year in 2009 and slow start to 2010.
Sea Oaks, No. 15 on Golfweek Magazine’s Best Courses You Can Play in New Jersey for 2009 list, has tweaked its fees. The course started a weekday special on Dec. 1 that features a round of golf with cart and lunch for $42. That’s proven to be so popular that the offer will likely be extended into spring.
The club has also expanded its twilight rate for the summer. The top price will remain $90 for weekday rounds and $105 on weekends — the rates have not changed in six years — but the rate drops to $75 at noon, followed by $55 after 2 p.m. and $40 after 4 p.m.
“When things do turn around, I would think that families are more likely to use their extra money for graduation presents and things like that and then they would turn to golf,” Bonicky said. “Industry experts seem to be optimistic that things will start to turn around soon.”
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Buck Purdy prefers to play golf at private courses. The 60-year-old has belonged to Merchantville Country Club in Camden County since 1979 and grew to appreciate the pristine conditions and camaraderie among the members.
“I guess I’m spoiled,” Purdy said with a laugh.
So when he moved to West Burke Avenue in Wildwood in 2002, the semi-retired owner of a union construction company sought a course that would provide the same atmosphere.
He found one at Wildwood Country Club in Middle Township.
“I joined as a house member (with restricted privileges) and then became a full member after meeting the other golfers,” Purdy said. “The layout is challenging, the course is always in great shape and everyone is just so nice.
“To be honest, I’m scared to death of retiring, but belonging to Wildwood has made it less intimidating. I haven’t been able to play much golf lately, but I still come to play cards, eat at the restaurant or just talk to friends. It’s much better than sitting home and reading a book.”
The Wildwood club, located in the Swainton section of Middle Township, has been trying to convince even more people to join. A full membership is still $3,800, but the club has developed an introductory membership that costs $1,800 for six months.
“It’s a good way for people to get know us and decide if they want to become full members,” said Fred Reidel, Wildwood’s director of golf. “It might sound a little snooty to say it, but our (course) conditions are among the best in South Jersey. The club itself, though, is very unpretentious. It has a real homey feel to it.”
The “family members” have been shrinking a bit in recent years. According to Reidel, Wildwood has approximately 325 full members and 120 associate members.
That’s down about 20 percent over the last two years and well below the club’s heyday in the 1980s, when there were 600 full members and 200 associates.
“Those days are long gone,” said Reidel, who began his second stint at Wildwood in 2004. “But in general I’d say we’re still pretty healthy. We’re not flourishing by any stretch of the imagination and we’re not out of the woods, yet. But we have a niche, core membership that has stayed on through the rough times and we’re actually on a little bit of an upswing lately with the introductory membership.”
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Dennis Williams has been an avid golfer for 22 years, even after a 1992 car accident cost him part of his left leg.
Now 37, the Somers Point native and Egg Harbor Township resident has always enjoyed playing a variety of courses in southern New Jersey, but Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield was his favorite.
When the course opened to the public in 2005, he began to play it more often. He started a golf clinic for amputees there two years ago — Williams owns Allied Orthotics and Prosthetics in Linwood — and joined ACCC a couple of months ago.
“I did some research and I thought their membership prices were pretty fair as opposed to some others,” said Williams, who lives on Daisy Drive in EHT. “And it’s just so much nicer. When you’re playing the back nine on sunny days and see Atlantic City, it’s just so pretty.”
Atlantic City Country Club, ranked No. 1 by GolfWeek Magazine’s 2009 Best Courses You Can Play in New Jersey, has expanded its golf menu via various membership packages and reduced offseason rates. The goal is to lure local golfers who were once denied access to the historic layout while continuing to provide a classy experience for the high roller who wants to include a round of golf in his visit to one of Harrah’s Entertainment’s casino properties.
This year marks the first time Atlantic City has offered anything other than a $6,500 full membership. Among the new options are a $3,000 weekday membership (Monday-Thursday) and a $1,200 junior membership.
The summer daily rates will still range from $150 to $225, but the offseason fees are now cheaper than ever. The course shaved $25 off last year’s prices. Golfers can now play one of the best courses in the state for $60 ($40 after 2 p.m.) Sunday to Friday and $99 ($75 after 2 p.m.) on Saturday.
“We actually had a better year in 2009 than we did in 2008 and we’re optimistic about 2010, but it still seems like the time devoted to recreational things such as golf is shrinking because of the economy,” said Charles Fahy, ACCC’s director of golf operations. “We’re still trying to grow the game as much as we can. We want to dispel the belief that golf is one of those exclusive, expensive games.”
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The honor box at the Cape May Par 3 is usually empty, though there figures to be a few $10 bills tucked in there in the coming week.
Once the snow starts to melt on the greens, locals and weekend visitors will invariably drop by to play a round or two or three at the course on Fulling Mill Road in Rio Grande, Middle Township. The current winter special offers golfers the opportunity to go around the 18-hole course as often as they want for $10.
Even in prime-time, the rates are more than reasonable. For $15.95 ($10 for children 10 and under), duffers are able to satisfy their appetites for a fraction of what it costs to play one of the county’s regulation courses.
“Intimidation, cost and time are all big factors for recreation in resort areas and we accommodate all of them,” said owner Rick Jones, whose family also owns two Par 3 courses in Delaware. “I wanted to create a course that offered affordable golf, didn’t take all day to play and allowed people to enjoy themselves.”
According to Jones, his cozy course enjoyed a “record year” in 2009 after opening in 2002. The number of rounds played was about equal to 2008, but he raised the price of a round by a dollar.
This year, he’s hoping to get an even bigger boost by offering lessons with new full-time pro James Quinn. Jones is trying to work with some Cape May bed and breakfasts and hotels to develop packages that would offer lessons, a stint on the practice range and a round of golf.
His top goal is to make sure everyone leaves with a smile, something that doesn’t always happen on bigger, more challenging courses.
“One of the problems is that a lot of the newer courses are just so difficult,” Jones said. “My dad taught me years ago to build courses where people can have fun and score. People don’t want to come down on vacation and shoot 95 when they’re used to shooting 85. If more people would build courses so that people could have fun, the game of golf would thrive.”
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