Lakeview Golf Club’s summer camps had around 100 young, aspiring golfers when Tiger Woods, one of the greatest players of all time, ruled the green, according to Ryan Hite, general manager.
“We’re lucky if we get 25 kids now,” he said.
Interest in the sport has been decreasing nationwide for about 10 years, according to local golf aficionados.
“As far as initiatives, we’re trying to reach out into the community,” said Brian Mowbray, PGA head pro at Mountain Greens Golf Course at Massanutten Resort. “With us certainly being a resort course, we’re trying to generate more community play from Elkton, McGaheysville and the surrounding areas.”
Mountain Greens Golf Course has also introduced “twilight fees,” reducing the cost of later rounds, especially as most of its traffic comes in during midday, Mowbray said.
At Lakeview, Hite has set up golf simulators, allowing players to practice their swing, regardless of weather, on digital courses.
The decline in golf can be seen in data from Harrisonburg city-owned Heritage Oaks Golf Course.
Traffic had remained fairly steady between 2012 and 2016, never dropping below 28,400 games per year and reaching a five-year high of 30,099 in 2017, according to Heritage Oaks visitation statistics.
Data for 2010 and 2011 were not available.
However, 2018, with its 170 days of precipitation, saw a drop in visits of nearly 20% from over 30,000 in 2017 to 24,331.
Visits increased slightly in 2019 to 24,895.
Between fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2019, the economic loss of the golf course has risen by nearly $159,000 to $518,828.
Total operating expenditures of Heritage Oaks between fiscal 2015 and 2017 remained fairly stable between $1.04 million and $1.08 million.
By 2018, the expenditures jumped to $1.132 million and rose again slightly in 2019 to $1.134 million.
Golf course staff and city officials will be coming together in January, as they do annually, and to discuss how to decrease losses, according to Michael Parks, the director of communications for the city.
“That is something we plan to focus on come January,” Parks said.
Heritage Oaks, a par-70, 18-hole course, opened in 2001 and has a history of operating at a loss.
As city residents debated construction of the course in the 1990s, the National Golf Foundation predicted the course would begin producing a profit by 2006, according to Daily News-Record archives.
However, the projection was made during a boom in the sport, which had begun to decline around the time of the 2007-09 economic downturn of the Great Recession.
As Harrisonburg looks down the barrel of other needed projects, such as a new high school projected to cost around $100 million, city finances have been discussed regularly at council meetings.
Councilman Chris Jones said the city should stop operating Heritage Oaks at last week’s City Council meeting.
Harrisonburg is not the only Valley locality running a golf course.
The town of Bridgewater has Sandy Bottom golf course.
The par-3 course has nine holes, according to the town’s website.
Players are encouraged to put $5 in the honor box at the course before beginning, and there are no carts or tee times, according to Megan Byler, coordinator of parks and recreation for Bridgewater.
“It’s a very casual atmosphere,” she said.
And shorter games, such as the ones played at Sandy Bottom, could help increase participation in the sport, according to Hite.
“The No. 1 reason golf is failing, I would say, is time,” he said.
Building the player base would also help the sport, Hite said.
The First Tee of Harrisonburg, a youth golf organization that operates mostly out of Heritage Oaks, had over 6,300 participants between the ages of 5 and 17 in 2018, according to the group’s website.
The First Tee works across Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page and Augusta counties in public and private schools, said Tom Tattersall, the executive director.
The program looks to “get kids who probably would never touch a golf club unless we’re in the schools,” he said.
Tattersall said the number of kids in the program has been growing.
Mowbray said golf has bottomed out in terms of participation, but “now we’re sort of starting to come up,” he said. “But we’re nowhere near the glory days of Tiger in his heyday and people accessing the game.”