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It's Golf Week in Baltimore

Credit Tom Flynn
The eighth hole at Pine Ridge Golf Course

It was former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a well-known city promoter, who created the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation, a non-profit to run the city’s five golf courses, back in 1984. And it was Tom Pierce, the corporation’s marketing director, who came up with the idea of a “golf week” just last year.

“Golf week is exciting,” he said. “One of the main parts is that people can have a chance to win $1 million, or $50,000. But it’s mainly a fundraiser for YouthWorks.”

That’s the city’s summer jobs program for local youth. The tournament raised $100,000 through sponsorships, donations and entry fees last year, and Pierce says he hopes to do as well this year.

Brice Freeman, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, says he was happily surprised when he got the offer.

“Without being solicited they came to us and said, ‘We can help you raise some money,’” Freeman recalled. “Fantastic. So last year was the first year they did it. And I think they raised a hundred thousand dollars.”

This year’s Golf Week offers a $1 million hole-in-one contest Saturday at the Pine Ridge Driving Range, a $50,000 hole-in-one contest the same day at the Forest Park Golf Course and the Mayor’s Cup outing Sunday at Forest Park. Qualifying times and registration information are available on the corporation’s website, classic5golf.com.

But even though things look sunny for golf in Baltimore this week, there are clouds on the horizon. You can see that most directly in the number of golf rounds played every year.  This figure was down by 20 percent, from 194,000 rounds in 2011 to 154,000 rounds in 2017.  According to figures reported to the IRS, revenue dropped from $7.3 million to $6.6 million over the same period.

It’s not only Baltimore. Pierce says the entire nation has been feeling the effects of this decline in participation in the sport since 2005

“There are (fewer) golfers playing, so we’ve had to change how we operate our businesses to try to work with that pick-up but golf is changing as also the demographics have changed,” he said.

Industry experts confirm that the problem is national in scope. Bill Baker, who manages a golf consulting firm that works with municipalities around the country to address financial issues associated with the sport, says the market for golf had “a really accelerated period of growth” a few years ago.

“And at some point it became seriously over-supplied and what we’re seeing now is a pretty significant correction so that’s where we find ourselves, in the middle of a serious correction.

Brian Meyer, the golf pro at Baltimore’s Mount Pleasant course, says it’s more than a correction. The market has changed and it’s hard to attract the next generation of players.

“I don’t know how you change the priorities of a generation that’s not looking to spend more than two hours doing any activity.”

In addition, according to the National Golf Foundation, roughly 150 municipal courses have closed in just the last few years.  Richard Singer, a senior director at the foundation, says there are a number of factors, including age that account for the closings.

“A lot of facilities tend to be older with a lot of their infrastructure outdated, irrigation, age of greens, age of fairways, things like that, and really are in need of replacement,” he explained.

Larry Jennings, chairman of the city’s Municipal Golf Corporation, acknowledges that there’s a serious problem of deferred maintenance at the city’s “Classic Five,” Carroll Park, Forest Park, Pine Ridge, Mount Pleasant and Clifton Park.

From an operations point of view, we do okay,” he said. “Where we need help from the city is on the capital side. We have a huge deferred maintenance backlog.”

He says the courses have flooding and drainage problems. They need equipment upgrades and miles of cart paths rebuilt. And at $51 per linear foot, that could be an expensive proposition.

Then there are the locker rooms and other clubhouse facilities that need upgrades.

Still, Jennings says the number of rounds played last year had a lot to do with the record rainfall, the worst year in golfers’ memories, and he’s confident about the future.

“The Golf Corporation made a bunch of changes internally,” he explained. “We reduced our administration costs. So I would say we have gone through our pain and for 2019 I feel pretty good about where we are.” 

It’s unclear whether it’s a question of aging courses, deferred maintenance or the more fundamental problem of declining interest in golf. But there’s still that million dollar hole-in-one contest this week and the Mayor’s Cup to compete for.