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Outlook for golf in New Orleans area sobering
Brian Allee-Walsh

During the past few months, I have met with many prominent people connected with the local golf industry. Not surprisingly, their business reflects the current state of our economy. To borrow a golf phrase, the bottom line is below par.

That is OK if one is actually playing the game, but not so good if one is trying to balance the books.

Some area golf facilities have reached the point of no return. The next 12 months could determine whether their doors remain open. Other facilities appear to be better positioned to weather the storm and not be pulled under by a strengthening economic riptide. Still others are venturing out into the great unknown, specifically the new Lakewood Golf Club in Algiers and the Bayou District Foundation, which is trying to win over the Board of Commissioners at City Park and begin construction on a $46 million golf complex by the end of the year.

In April, The Times-Picayune will take an in-depth look at the local golfing landscape and the many passionate professionals who are trying to turn a profit and still provide an enjoyable, affordable experience for their customers in difficult times.

Their story is sobering. A snapshot explains why: rounds are down at most facilities, flat at best in some cases. Club memberships are dwindling. There remains a shortage of quality public golf courses at affordable prices, particularly in Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

In short, the local golfer has become a nomad of sorts, searching for the best deal of the week.

"Keeping the members excited about what you have to offer, that's the key," said Derek Sanders, director of golf at English Turn Golf & Country Club.

A benevolent Mother Nature would help. Rain is forecast through Saturday, cutting further into an already shrinking profit margin.

"None of these golf courses can afford to lose a weekend," said Stan Stopa, director of golf at Audubon Golf Club. "Losing a weekday is one thing but to lose Saturdays and Sundays puts you back in football season. It's critical to your bottom line."

For Oak Harbor director of golf Jamey Clark, the bottom line is what drives him to thinking.

"I don't think reducing fees is going to get us enough golfers to replace what we've reduced," Clark said. "If I drop my rounds $10, then I got to pick up 50 more golfers and I don't think they are there."

Jimmy Headrick is trying to grow the number of players at the grass roots level. His First Tee of New Orleans program, based at Brechtel Park, includes year-around sessions for young golfers who are interested in learning the game from A to Z.

"This is not a quick fix," Headrick said. "We're trying to help put junior golf on the radar screen. We're building golfers for life."

Robert Brown, executive director and CEO of the Gulf States PGA section, maintains a positive outlook. He cites a national survey conducted by the PGA of America which indicates the number of rounds played statewide in November 2008 is slightly up from the previous November.

That survey included data from some but not all PGA of America-affiliated facilities in Louisiana.

"We have moved on from Katrina," Brown said. "Yes, we have some facilities that are struggling right now but how can there be any more pressure now than there was after Katrina?

"We may have a couple more hurdles. But, in going forward, the local golf picture looks great to me."

In closing, the local golf scene will go forward without me. Effective Monday, I am leaving the golf beat to return full time to my old Saints beat for the paper. My friend and colleague Billy Turner has been named our new golf writer.

I have forged many new relationships the past four years, built in part from the devastation left behind by Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. From that bad came so much good. Thanks for the memories. I will never forget.

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