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Public courses having strong summer

NWS Vail Golf 1 DT 8-24-12
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Bad news for the ski business has been good news for the Vail Valley’s public golf courses.

From east to west, an early spring and hot, dry June have combined to boost numbers at all of the valley’s public courses. Improvements at a couple of courses have also drawn more players, and people may just be ready to swing the clubs again.

Like virtually every business, golf courses were hit hard by the national economic slump that began in 2008. Rounds played, already on a slow decline, fell still more. Now, though, the valley’s public courses seem to be coming back.

Starting in 2010, the Eagle-Vail Golf Course put about $1.8 million into course improvements. Every hole is different in some way, from tee boxes to greens. The course also put GPS systems into its carts.

As a result, course manager Ben Welsh said Eagle-Vail is as busy as it’s been in some time. Players are both local residents and visitors. Welsh said he believes people who visit the valley golf for the reasons people do anything on road trips – they’re on vacation and in the mood to splurge a bit.

But locals seem to want to play a bit, too. Welsh said season pass sales have improved this year over last at Eagle-Vail.

Opening a month early because of a lack of snow helped, Welsh said. So did a dry May and a hot, dry, June.

“Dry is good for golf, Welsh said.

The result is that tee times can be hard to come by.

That’s particularly true at the Vail Golf Club. Alice Plain, the course’s director of golf, said that course has seen 250 players a day, or more, just about all summer.

That’s been a source of frustration for some local residents, but it certainly helps the course’s bottom line.

Returning to health

The improvement in rounds played is even playing out downvalley.

The Gypsum Creek Golf Course is now in its second season as a public course, after the town of Gypsum bought the once-private course. The town took over all the course’s operations this year, and course manager Susie Helmerich said changes over the last couple of seasons are starting to pay off.

The biggest of those changes is fairly simple: consistent work by the grounds crews. The old chemicals used the the grounds crews are out of the turf now, and Helmerich said the course, and especially the greens, are playing as well as they ever have.

Beyond work to the course, Gypsum Creek has also launched an ambitious marketing campaign, touting various specials and, Helmerich said, the lowest price for 18 holes and a cart in the valley.

Those moves helped create a record-breaking July, Helmerich said.

The course at Eagle Ranch has seen its rounds played and season-pass sales rise, but for a somewhat different reason.

“We’ve gotten a lot of Cordillera members,” course superintendent Jeff Boyer said. With Cordillera and its members involved in a couple of lawsuits and the club owners filing for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, Boyer said members were looking for someplace else to play – people join clubs to play golf, after all.

But, Boyer said, he expects Cordillera members to stop buying Eagle Ranch passes when the court cases are resolved. That will leave Eagle Ranch’s managers with same conundrum every course manager in the U.S. has: How do we put more people on the course?

Building the sport

When Eagle Ranch opened about a decade ago, the course launched several programs aimed at getting town residents to either pick up the sport or return to it.

Boyer said the course hasn’t really tracked the success of those programs, but anecdotally, a number of people who took those early introductory courses are regular players.

Those efforts aren’t unique to Eagle Ranch.

Local courses participate in the local First Tee program, which aims to introduce young players to the sport.

Boyer said Eagle Ranch has seen some parents of those young players take up the sport, too, turning the sport into something of a family activity. That’s something relatively new.

“Golf hasn’t always been seen as a family activity,” Boyer said. “Pepole are looking to spend more time with their family, and time is more precious.”

At Gypsum Creek, Helmerich said if people at the pro shop spot a spouse – mostly wives – “just riding along,” for a round they’ll send along a couple of clubs and a handful of range balls, just to give the non-players a feel for the game.

Gypsum Creek hosts a ladies’ night every Tuesday, and has a junior program as well.

“We want (young players) to see they’re welcome here,” she said.

Welsh said about 1 million people a year give up the game nationwide. That’s why Eagle-Vail participates in First Tee, and has also worked with Colorado Mountain College on introductory courses.

A sunny outlook?

Despite the sport’s relatively static numbers, local course managers believe the outlook is fairly bright for the future of public golf courses.

Part of that is due to the national downturn in private clubs. Private clubs are expensive, which means that bag of clubs sitting in the garage will whisper a guilty “you need to play more” every time the owner gets in the car. At a public course, a player can grab the clubs, swipe the credit card once and play a round.

“There’s less up-front commitment to play a public course,” Welsh said.

Of course, it helps if public courses are challenging to play. That’s why Eagle-Vail spent so much on course renovations, and why the developers of Eagle Ranch turned to Arnold Palmer’s design company when planning that course.

Formerly private, Gypsum Creek’s Pete Dye-designed course is widely reputed to be tricky to play on its best days.

“The whole valley has great golf courses,” Welsh said.

Add in to that mix the fact that public courses are relaxing their dress codes a bit, allowing young players with bright shirts and backward ballcaps, and the trend is positive, he added.

“We need to dispel some of the myths about cost, or that it’s not a family activity,” Boyer said.

But the bottom line, as with many things, is that it’s good to be in the Vail Valley.

“I think people will golf – it’s an obsession of sorts. And people are going to play, at least when they’re on vacation,” Welsh said.


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