The statements above reflect area golf's journey through the supply-demand fire of the Great Recession. A rare buyer's market has emerged in a multi-million dollar industry that finally sports excess product. It took several new courses and the worst economy in nearly 100 years to produce a downturn club officials estimate between five and 15 percent. With the average course fielding around 25,000 rounds per year, most facilities seek to add perhaps 75 rounds per week in a nine-month season. That could be covered with two or three additional foursomes each day.
Nationally, it's worse. Jack Nicklaus laid off 60 of his 100 employees in the design division, according to Stephen Kay, the area's pre-eminent golf architect. Other areas are not buoyed by a multi-billion dollar casino industry and a golf association that spends $1 million annually, as the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association, does to entice out-of-state players.
While the next 20 years should see several tweaks in the demand-supply curve, and maybe even a course closing, the building boom of the '90s has permanently enhanced the area's golf dynamic. Much of it was necessary, because the area had far too few courses to accommodate a growing casino-based population with disposable income.
An overbuilt golf region resembles a player driving the ball over the green with too much club. This is nothing worse than the financial equivalent of a two-stroke penalty. The dynamic may be manifested in stark ways: private club membership fees are being slashed, while more courses accept coupon books that help players shave $10 to $40 off each round. Contradictions will appear with some courses jammed to the hilt and others empty, but the game has resilience.
"Golf has staying power that other sports and other industries don't have," Bittner said. "Look at the businesses that close in every other industry. Golf is going down a bit for the first time ever. People love to play golf. It's part of a social environment for people. The older they get, the more they are going to play.
"As soon as the economy comes back a bit, and we're already seeing it to some degree, people are going to go back to the courses. Right now you might have a guy in another state who didn't come out here last year because he was afraid of losing his job, and he agreed with his wife that they wouldn't go away. Now he figures he's been a good boy, it's time to have some fun. The flip side of all of this is, how long are people going to sit back and not spend money? They want to."
Bittner has a unique perspective on the industry. He sees the marketing end, with the nine GACGA courses marketing to Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New York. He estimates that 70 percent of the players on the GACGA courses are visitors. The casino, hotel and golf industries here cross-promote one another.
The recession produced one silver lining because New York and Pennsylvania golfers may select the trip here rather than the more expensive North Carolina outing.
Area players select from truly outstanding golf courses. The buildup of facilities may have been designed to attract a regional audience, but their presence gives golfers a championship menu. How did this emerge?
Southern New Jersey was both steeped in the history of golf and overdue for development. It sported Atlantic City Country Club, which spawned the term birdie more than 100 years ago and launched today's Senior Tour. Its head was Leo Fraser, the past president of the Professional Golf Association, or PGA, known for brokering a peace deal between the association and players who wanted to start their own tour.
Linwood Country Club and Seaview offered high-end alternatives to Atlantic City. All three were private at that time.
Public, low-priced, pre-casino-era courses, meanwhile, bulged with excessive demand. They included Buena, Centerton, Mays Landing, Pinecrest, Avalon, Green Tree, Brigantine and Hamilton Trails. Roger Hansen, a construction magnate, saw the opening for an undeveloped, in-between market. Having owned a home in Florida and witnessed the formation of the high-end, daily-fee phenomenon, he brought the concept here.
High-end, daily-fee courses offered the country club experience for one day. A $100 to $125 investment provided a round, with cart, on a manicured facility with lush fairways, rolling greens, creative sand traps (one at Sand Barrens is 8-feet high. Players don't even blast out, they chip out to the side and then try to reach the green), club dropoffs and cleaning.
For players with a modest budget, it was a treat. For players accustomed to country clubs but who didn't want to pay thousands in initiation fees, it was an alternative.
The investment had found a marketplace. And then came the followers: Harbor Pines, Sea Oaks, Sand Barrens, Shore Gate and Twisted Dune. Ballamor recently went from private to public in Egg Harbor Township. Scotland Run, another facility, opened in Williamstown, Gloucester County.
Atlantic City Country Club became the property of Harrah's Entertainment and more available to the public. Greate Bay, Cape May National, Wildwood and Stone Harbor added to the inventory.
For locals who had long suffered with five-hour rounds and first-tee logjams, it was paradise. In an area that did not support minor-league baseball, hockey, basketball and football, even at modest ticket prices, a golf boom with $100 greens fees supported itself for many years. Casinos, the GACGA and visiting players had supplied the ante, bringing the golf version of Broadway to the local neighborhood.
For owners, it was something different. Hansen, who had built a second Blue Heron course, ultimately sold it. The course has since closed.
"We needed maybe four or five new courses," Hansen says, "but not 10. Eventually, we were all basically in the same business. We felt it was cheaper for us to close the West course then continue operating at a loss. I can't even think of anyone having the financial incentive to open a new course now."
Hansen shifted his energy to ownership of Hidden Creek, a private facility that opened in 2001. It's a different ballgame.
"The private club industry does not have as much competition," he said. "This also is more of a social environment than a sporting event. Our members will spend more time at the club socializing than using it as an exercise facility. There will be events on Easter Sunday, bar mitzvahs, etc."
Private clubs, however, feel more exposure to economic fluctuation. Hansen slashed membership fees at Hidden Creek from $45,000 to $15,000 and said the practice occurs throughout the country.
"America is great at straightening out its problems," he said. "It hurts, but, during times like this, good businesses get better and bad businesses go out of business. In the end, you have to deliver a superior product."
That requires superior resources. At least 150 acres and about $10 million for a course and clubhouse are needed to create a first-class facility according to Kay, who worked on several area courses.
Golf's Future in
Kay, a 27-year veteran, has redesigned more than 300 courses and was the architectural centerpiece for the area buildup. He designed Blue Heron and Harbor Pines, which both gained distinction among Golf Digest's best places to play. Kay also designed Mays Landing and brought McCullough's national recognition in Golf Magazine for top new courses. His resume includes Scotland Run and Atlantic City Country Club. Three years ago, the area ran out of jobs for him. Kay's focus extends to other regions, including New York, where he is redesigning Van Cortlandt Park, the first course in the country, built in 1895.
Kay also teaches a class at Rutgers University and has tracked golf's history over the last 100 years. He is an expert on golf history over the last 100 years and sees a new market of people in their 30s ready to replace today's older generaton of golfers.
What will emerge from that market?
"If the economy had stayed good, we would have only been overbuilt by a course or two," Kay said. "Atlantic City mirrored the national explosion of golf. There was a tremendous amount of golf built, and the area has become a strong destination resort. You have 12 to 15 courses, not counting the privates, and that's enough because many people can't get on the private courses anyway. With 12 to 15 courses, you have enough to enjoy a fine reputation."
That reputation figures to carry forward, and adapt to changes in consumer habits. The Internet Age may reduce people's tolerance for long rounds or coax more nine-hole twilight or off-peak outings. What happens over the next 20 years, technologically, is anyone's guess.
What happens in golf should be less mysterious. It is linked with casinos, which ought to produce $3.5 to $4 billion gross winnings in the worst of times. Add the strong agenda of courses and people's natural inclination to hit a 260-yard drive or bend an iron shot around an obstacle, escape from a horrific trap or drain the impossible put. Golf, afterall, plays into our pro-tour fantasies.
For the first time ever, golf has been forced to move in correlation with the economy. But wherever that economy is, the sport will be in its upper tier.