Golf has endured some tough times lately — so let’s all just enjoy the game

Over the course of the last year or so I’ve been asked my views from a variety of people – inside and outside the Chicagoland Golf community – about the state of the golf industry. They were, of course, triggered by the general state of the economy.

Because golf is an activity requiring the spending of discretionary income, there has been the perception that play is down, that courses will close or at least lapse on their usual conditioning procedures, that potential young golfers are preferring other recreational opportunities.

Granted, I’m an eternal optimist on most everything and — as an avid life-long golfer and member of the industry myself — I want to see the game thrive. Still, I’m not blind and I have, for quite a few years, travelled widely across the United States in pursuit of golf projects of one sort or another. This year I’ve played golf in eight states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina) and witnessed a major championship (the PGA in Kentucky) in another.

That has caused me to wonder what the recent fuss is all about, where all the gloom and doom sentiment is coming from. I don’t see it at all. We may be long removed from golf’s boom times of the 1990s, when it seemed a new course was opening in the Chicago every month, but there’s plenty of evidence – nationally and locally – that the game is healthy and steadily getting stronger.

Let’s check out our Chicago area first. There either has been or will be major course work done at 22 courses, and Chicagoland Golf teammate Rory Spears, who keeps diligent track of such developments, admits he might have even missed a few.

These projects span private clubs (Kemper Lakes, Midlothian, Conway Farms, Medinah, Old Elm, Olympia Fields, Skokie, Wynstone, Glen Oak and Bob O’Link) to various types of public facilities (Arlington Lakes, Oak Meadows, Fox Run, Arrowhead, Mt. Prospect, Glenview Park District, Wilmette, Wedgewood, Settler’s Hill, Mistwood, Pine Meadow and Prairie Bluffs).

The biggest, of course, was done at Mistwood where owner Jim McWethy – in the deepest of dark times – ordered a renovation of a course that was already pretty good, the building of an elaborate Performance Center and construction of a new clubhouse (to be ready by next June) and threw in some significant upgrades to a nearby dome that caters to winter golfers.

Last month McWethy admitted to me that “the economy is not good, and golf is an activity that is being challenged.’’

Still, he committed big dollars to make his end of the golf industry better.

“It goes back to my fundamental belief that, if you do a good job with every aspect of it, there’s still enough business out there,’’ said McWethy. “There’s still a lot of people playing golf.’’

For every course closing (Plum Tree National, Rolling Knolls), there are many more course operators telling me about play at their facilities picking up as the season progressed.

Kemper Sports, the Northbrook-based course management company, is making regular announcement of facilities now under its direction. The Illinois PGA is in the process of expanding its biggest championship, the Illinois Open. The Western Golf Assn. has taken on the operation of a fourth big tournament (the Tour’s Hotel Fitness Championship) to raise more money for its Evans Scholars Foundation and the Chicago District Golf Assn. is celebrating its centennial in style.

More positive developments are happening throughout the Midwest. In Wisconsin the SentryWorld course has re-opened after an extensive renovation and Chicago’s Mike Keiser has begun construction of Sand Valley, which is projected to be as much a smash hit as his Oregon complex, Bandon Dunes. Lawsonia, one of Wisconsin’s oldest but most respected layouts, opened a new pub after changing management companies.

In Michigan, where over 800 public courses have made it a golfers’ mecca, one of the top layouts – Forest Dunes – will be getting a companion course designed by Tom Doak, who just completed the makeover of Medinah’s No. 1 layout. Treetops created a fancy-sounding new event – the National Par-3 Championship — and the sprawling Boyne Resorts just polished off a three-hole upgrade of its Crooked Tree and a bunker renovation of The Moor, and both big projects were done concurrently.

And big things aren’t happening in just the Midwest. Roger Warren, the former president of the PGA of America who heads South Carolina’s Kiawah Resort, hasn’t been deflated by economic issues – though he knows they exist.

“We had the best year in the history of the resort last year,’’ Warren told me in March, and we’ve experienced four years of double digit growth from 2009 on. I know it flies in the face of what’s happened in the rest of the game, but there’s a segment in this country that’s doing just fine – and that’s my customer.’’

Kiawah has five courses, the most prominent being its Ocean Course. But the Osprey Point layout got a makeover this year, Cougar Point will get one in 2015 and Oak Point in 2016.

And then, of course, there’s Pinehurst. The North Carolina resort expanded to a nine-course complex, adding its first Jack Nicklaus design, in the same year it hosted both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. Then the greens on the famed No. 2 course were re-grassed immediately after the two back-to-back national championships. The results were overwhelmingly successful.

“We’ve been packed. There’s very few tee times through the second week of November,’’ Pinehurst vice president Jack Bickert reported. “We’re looking at the biggest September-October-November in our history and our advanced bookings have been tremendous through next spring.’’

OK, what else do you need to know? Work is being done and money being spent to make golf a better game. Young players may not be taking up golf in big enough numbers, but the PGA of America’s new Junior League is addressing that problem. Women’s golf received a big boost with the creation of the International Crown, a global event that was founded in part by the visionary efforts of Rich Harvest’s Jerry Rich.

Let’s sum things up. A struggling economy, an injury to Tiger Woods that may have hurt TV ratings and a big tournament shortage in the Chicago area didn’t help matters but the golf world – here and nation-wide – survived. We should all just get on with our enjoyment of this great game.