The economy is out of the bunker, and Bay State golfers are back in the tee box.
After several slow years during the nationwide recession and a sluggish start to the recovery, Massachusetts golf courses are optimistic that business is on the upswing as the 2013 season gets underway.
Already this spring, rounds played are up 10 percent, compared with the same time a year ago, at Boston’s two municipal courses.
“And the weather hasn’t even been as good as it was last year,” said Dennis Roache, general manager of the George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park and the William J. Devine Golf Course in Dorchester. “That’s why those numbers are surprising. It gives us hope that things are starting to turn around.”
Signs of a rebound began last year, when the number of rounds played in Massachusetts and Rhode Island ticked upward by 1.7 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation, following declines in three of the previous four seasons.
The posh Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, where a season pass costs $4,800, had its most profitable postrecession season in 2012, said John Tuffin, the club’s director of golf.
“It was certainly the best year of the last few, and we believe that’ll continue this year,” Tuffin said. “People were generally playing less, due to less discretionary income. Last year, people started spending more freely.”
The New England PGA reports that participation in tournaments sponsored by the regional chapter rose by 15 percent in 2012 and that the momentum is carrying over into this season, with sellout fields at its first two events of the spring.
“It appears to me that people are playing more, buying more equipment,” said Mike Higgins, the New England PGA’s executive director. “That’s the feedback I’ve been hearing from players.”
Though it is no longer a leisure activity only for the wealthy, golf remains a symbol of disposable income. As the economy faltered, many players viewed the game as an unnecessary expense, said Don Hearn, manager of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of New England.
“People just wanted to get in a cave and put a rock in front of it,” Hearn said. “There was this negative feeling, and people worried about their clubs’ and their own financial situations.”
Between 2007 and 2012, the number of active golfers in the United States shrank from 30 million to 26 million, according to the National Golf Foundation.
The economic downturn affected not only how often golfers played but also where they played, said Joe Sprague Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Golf Association. For the most part, he said, well-established private clubs were not badly hurt by the recession, and business at bargain-priced public courses held fairly steady.
“It’s the other private clubs that got hit,” Sprague said. “Their members didn’t necessarily stop playing, but they might have gone for more affordable options.”
At the private Boston Golf Club in Hingham, which opened in 2004 with initiation fees of $125,000, membership declined during the recession, leaving the club without enough revenue to pay its lease. With the club on the verge of bankruptcy, four remaining members led a group that bought the property for $6.5 million in 2011 — a fraction of what it cost to build the course.
Today, membership has climbed back to its prerecession peak of about 150, surging since early last season, when club rolls barely registered triple digits.
“The economy’s looking better, we now have a mortgage we can manage,” said Jack Ryan, the club’s president. “The last year exceeded our expectations. We’ve gotten a really good response from previous members, plus a surprising number of new members.”
Other private clubs also changed hands amid economic uncertainty. Courses sold at foreclosure auctions in the last two years included the Sterling Country Club, the Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton, and the Hickory Ridge Country Club in Amherst. All three went to new owners who have kept the courses open. Not every course survived its sale, however. The Scottish Meadow Golf Course in Warren was sold last year to a Florida solar power company that plans to turn the land into a solar farm.
Sensing potential to increase golf participation in Massachusetts, the PGA of America last year created a position, a player development regional manager for Greater Boston. The PGA hired regional managers in only three other strategic markets, New York, Chicago, and Southern California.
Attracting new golfers “has been slow going since the recession,” said Brian Bain, who got the new job after spending nine years as the head professional at the Robert T. Lynch Municipal Golf Course in Brookline. But with things looking up, Bain said he is working to add female and junior players — two demographics in which participation declined in recent years — while also encouraging golf courses to make themselves more friendly to beginners.
Suggestions include shortening holes and introducing a pay-per-hole system that allows golfers to play as much or as little as time allows.
“Heck, even if you throw the ball out of the sand, what’s the big deal?” Bain said. “As long as you’re having fun. We just want people to play.”Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.