Swing Shift

Spring is coming; can golf be far behind?

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Contributed photos

golf_burlington_cc0317Burlington Country Club

Sitting here gazing out the window at over a foot of recently fallen snow, it’s hard to believe that golf season is around the corner. Golfers know, though, and those with stronger constitutions have, no doubt, shot a few holes on some of our nicer winter days.

Golf course owners and managers aren’t easy to reach by phone in February, which is when this is being written, but we found four who were happy to talk about things like what they do to build up attendance, the importance of food and equipment sales to the bottom line, and other challenges they might face.

We spoke with Tom Ayer, an owner of Cedar Knoll Country Club in Hinesburg; Jeff Brown, the owner of West Bolton Golf Club; Alex Kourebanas, the owner of Catamount Golf Club in Williston; and Jason Shattie, general manager of Burlington Country Club, a private membership organization.

golf_cedar-knoll-cc-afternoon0317Cedar Knoll Country Club

How do you build your numbers?

At Cedar Knoll Country Club, Ayer and his brother, Tim, are co-owners with their mother, Ruth, the main principal. Cedar Knoll is a public, 27-hole course situated on the dairy farm previously run by the Ayer family.

Golf takes a while, Ayer says. “It’s not a cheap sport, but not a cheap business to run, either. It takes a lot of money to take care of 200 or however many acres.” Stressing the importance of a course in good condition, he acknowledges that it’s challenging.

“I think the people who criticize golf courses are uninformed, because compared to fertilizer use for home developments and lawn care, golf courses use less than many of those. So golf courses, in terms of the overall scheme, are actually very good neighbors in the community.

“We’re not an upper-crust club, but we keep it in very good condition, seven days a week. We focus on making it fun for everybody, and besides doing golf events, we have 15 to 20 club-sponsored events people can enter for a fairly inexpensive rate, almost every weekend.”

golf_catamount0317Catamount Golf Club

Cedar Knoll has recently started featuring live entertainment on Fridays, and running dinner specials to attract people. “We’ve also started doing weddings and parties,” says Ayer. “We’ll give members a 20 percent discount on booking fees should they choose to get married here. For a reasonable fee, membership offers unlimited golf and access to members-only tournaments.”

A small pro shop carries the basic essentials, says Ayer, “like clothing, hats, a limited number of clubs, putters; and for all these tournaments, people get gift certificates if they win. Because we own the whole thing, we’re not paying a pro, so we’ll accept the certificates for food at the bar, too.” He acknowledges that it’s tough to compete with the likes of Internet sales and Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has “taken a chunk of the market.”

West Bolton Golf Club, also a family-owned property, features 18 holes. It’s run by Brown and his wife, Mary. Brown’s grandfather Xenophon Wheeler designed the course in 1983, the year the front nine opened, on land bought by his father, Bill, in 1920. The back nine opened in 1985.

golf_west-bolton0317West Bolton Golf Club

“Our atmosphere is a personal experience here,” says Brown, “so we always want to make sure that it’s a good experience. We have a panoramic view out here in the country.”

Brown has run the club since ’85, when he returned from a term in the Air Force. “We’ve tried to find a space for a practice facility, but the best that we’ve done is a net area that has four to five bays in it, a 9,000-plus-square-foot practice green, but the most you can hit into it in general is wedge shots. So it’s limited to 75, maybe up to a hundred yards. And we don’t have any pools or anything like that.”

West Bolton has a pro shop that sells “hard goods, everything,” says Brown. “There have been pros over the years, but it wasn’t feasible for them financially.” The club does sell food. “I guess you could call it more of a snack bar than a restaurant, because we don’t have wait-service, but we do all kinds of sandwiches — burgers, fries, and there’s always something on the menu as far as a fish special, or an Italian or Mexican special. So we do food and beer, wine, and spirits.”

Catamount Golf Club is a nine-hole, full-length regulation course whose advantage is that, being shorter, playing a round takes less time and costs less money, says Kourebanas, who bought the course in 2002. “Obviously, the most debilitating thing, especially in Chittenden County, is that there are a lot of golf courses. But the real problem is that kids are not taking up golf. Look at the national averages and you’ll see that golf is down.”

golf_cedar_knoll_golf_practice0317Cedar Knoll Country Club

Although Catamount sells things like balls, gloves, and tees, Kourebanas says it’s “barely a pro shop, because of companies like Dick’s and online companies. We also have a country club here,” he continues, “and a double-decker driving range and a public banquet facility.”

What’s your growing demographic?

Burlington Country Club, a members- and guests-only organization, has the benefit of being a full-service country club, including a pool, tennis courts, full-service food and beverage, and pro shop retail sales of hard and soft goods, says Shattie. “We do provide club repair and fitting services out of the pro shop,” he adds. “Our members are pretty loyal, but there’s always competition.”

Growth at Burlington comes from “families under the age of 50,” Shattie says. “The club’s demographic has made a significant change over the last five to six years. I think it’s just directing the club to more family-oriented services. We have a very large pool area — a heated pool — swim team, junior golf programming, and a lot of social programming that caters to families.” That shift has also been helped by an outdoor summer concert series and a kids’ activity program in summer.

“Golf right now is looking for that next big thing — for that next Tiger Woods to emerge,” says Ayer at Cedar Knoll. “Women could be a big part of our demographic. We’re trying to push the kid aspect; we give terrific breaks for kid membership with or without parents. And our club pro — we don’t pay him, and he doesn’t pay us — just does his own subcontracting out of our facility. We’re trying to keep involved in the First Tee Program, a national program run locally through the Vermont Golf Association. Different physical education programs are picking it up and teaching golf.”

West Bolton is working to grow membership among those out of school with a job, up to age 40, “to bring them in as families,” says Brown. The club also promotes junior golf with the hope of pulling back in families who might have left the sport for a while. Brown coaches golf at Mount Mansfield Union High School.

“A lot of our growing demographic are seniors, longtime members now retired, and every year you lose some of them, for different reasons — for example, they might move to Florida or get injured.”

According to Kourebanas, “Nothing is growing in golf. Take a look at the national averages. I read a statistic the other day about 2015, that 177 in the country closed and 17 opened.

“It started in 2008 with the economic recession,” he continues. “A lot of the luxury items and pastimes were given up and people couldn’t afford it any more.” Still, he confesses that he’s in fairly good position, “in that we’re a public course that’s reasonably priced, but we still haven’t gotten back to our pre-2008 numbers.”

Do you offer access for snow sports in the off-season?

Cedar Knoll does not permit access in winter, says Ayer, who mentions the hassle of trying to rope off sensitive areas and concerns about insurance liability.

West Bolton is not closed off, and neighbors, particularly residents of Country Club Condominiums, are welcome to use the property, says Brown.

Burlington Country Club’s course is open from April to November, and the restaurant stays open for lunch and dinner throughout the winter, says Shattie, but winter use of the course is not permitted.

Catamount, however, welcomes winter players, says Kourebanas. “We do play golf a lot in the wintertime; sometimes a regular contingent of golfers comes out, even on the ice.”

A sturdy lot. •