Vail Valley golf: Past, present and future
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Golf is as old as skiing in the Vail Valley, but the sport of golf isn’t experiencing the same level of success and growth as its winter counterpart.The Vail Golf Course was built by Ben Krueger in 1962, the same year the Vail Mountain ski resort opened. Fast-forward 50 years and the area has two ski resorts, but golf courses are practically everywhere.Part of the reason for golf’s local boom is because the scenery and climate is ideal for summer golf. The air is dry and temperatures hover around the mid-70s during a time when the rest of the country’s golf destinations are battling temperatures as high as into the 100s.And with the national economic collapse that came in 2008, several of the local golf courses – especially the courses developed with real estate sales in mind – have suffered through hard times. Many of them, such as Adam’s Rib Ranch in Eagle or the Brightwater Club near Gypsum, sit partially developed and practically empty. The beauty of the scenery and the exquisite greens just haven’t been enough to boost sales. The economy has a lot to do with it, but the fact remains that developers went wild with golf course communities in the Vail Valley.More supply than demandEagle County isn’t alone, though, in terms of having more golf supply than there is demand.”There have been staggering increases in the number of golf courses all across the country, and the reality is golf has not grown that much,” said Harry Frampton, chairman of East West Partners, which developed the Eagle Ranch Golf Club and surrounding real estate in Eagle. “It’s been a relatively flat sport.”Frampton said real estate firm Slifer, Smith & Frampton, of which he is a partner, has surveyed its high-end home buyers over the years to find out what interests them the most. One in five of those buyers has an interest in golf, he said. The other four come for the skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, fishing and other activities. Many come simply for the good weather and the peace and quiet.”They didn’t come here primarily for golf, and that’s something we’ve all forgotten a little bit about I think,” Frampton said. “I think that a lot of people didn’t understand that one-in-five (number) and therefore maybe we built too many golf courses.”But one in five is still 20 percent of the high-end market, and 20 percent is still important, he said. The other four people might not have come here just for golf, but they might play a little while they’re here, meaning golf is still an important part of the real estate package, Frampton said. “But it’s not the main driver, and I think a lot of people forget that.”Golf developer Fred Green, who developed the Eagle-Vail course and surrounding community, the Sonnenalp course, Country Club of the Rockies in Arrowhead and Eagle Springs in Wolcott, said when Country Club of the Rockies was built, there was still a very strong market for golf communities. Country Club of the Rockies was followed by more developments such as Red Sky Ranch and Cordillera, and Green suspects the developers of those projects might have asked themselves about the demand for more golf-based real estate. Green’s Eagle Springs course, in Wolcott, is not a real estate-based course. When real estate fails, so do golf course communitiesThe real estate-based golf craze hit in a hurry, said professional golfer and TV commentator Gary McCord, who lives in Edwards part-time.And, it seemed to crash just as fast.As soon as the real estate bust hit, people were trying to get out of their second and third vacation homes, which is what many of the Vail Valley’s golf course homes are.Or maybe those homeowners that used to belong to two or three of the local private courses have cut their memberships down to just one, McCord said. “Now everyone’s hooting and hollering trying to get new members,” McCord said.McCord is a member at Country Club of the Rockies and at Red Sky. He said both clubs had a great 2011 season, and there’s actually a waiting list again for memberships at Country Club of the Rockies.”Usually a waiting list now is a waiting list to get out,” McCord said. “So this is unique – they’ve flipped it here.” Green thinks those newer clubs that don’t have a more established customer base are having the greatest difficulties staying afloat. “They never filled their memberships and never quite got established,” Green said. The Brightwater Club near Gypsum, a so-called lifestyle residential and recreational development, is one of the local casualties. The Club’s developers, Clearwater Development Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors in April 2011 with debt exceeding $100 million. The Club’s members, who have paid more than $8 million in membership deposits, have been fighting the developer’s attempt to sell its assets, claiming the members have rights to those assets because of the membership fees paid that were in addition to the home site prices paid. Cordillera is another local golf community going through rough financial times, much to the dismay of the community’s homeowners. The club owner at Cordillera announced at the beginning of the 2011 season that only one of the community’s four golf courses would be open for the season and filed a nearly $100 million lawsuit against Cordillera property owners, who have filed their own suit against the club owner David Wilhelm. Wilhelm also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June.While the Cordillera story is extreme, it’s not too far off from the national golf story – there are too many courses, and the courses developed alongside real estate seem to be suffering the most. But golf has held its own through the economic crisis, said Greg Nathan, senior vice president of the National Golf Foundation, via email to the Vail Daily. Rounds are up significantly in 2012 – up 22 percent through March compared to the same time last year and up 12.2 percent through June – and golfer confidence is up, too.”All recreation and uses of disposable income have been under pressure for a decade, and golf is not immune to the recession,” Nathan said. “… Golf historically has emerged from the recession relatively quickly as the country emerges.”Getting smarterJohannes Faessler, owner of the Sonnenalp Resort of Vail and the Sonnenalp Golf Club, said so many of those private clubs that are struggling are so inaccessible for the regular person that most of their struggles will probably go unnoticed by most people.At the Sonnenalp course, which is private, business was down slightly over the last two years, around 5 percent, Faessler said. But in 2011, the Sonnenalp course had a slight increase in total memberships.”They’re not all the same,” Faessler said of the valley’s public and private golf clubs. “There are different reasons why things happen to different clubs.”McCord thinks the new formula will be homeowners buying their struggling golf courses. He said people in the upper echelon of private golf communities aren’t going to sit back and watch their golf courses go under. They’ll pull their resources together and bail the courses out, McCord said. “If they won’t let their lifestyle go away, they’ll stay there – the club members will end up buying,” McCord said. The golf communities that are struggling are becoming the minority, Frampton said. He said Arrowhead, Eagle Springs, Eagle-Vail, Eagle Ranch, Vail and Beaver Creek – off the top of his head – did well in 2011 and are doing well this year, too.”Don’t let the Cordillera fiasco overshadow the fact that each one of those courses is doing better,” he said. “Like everyone in business, the recession made them get smarter.”Getting smarter is going to be the new model for success in local golf, too, thinks Frampton. He thinks the courses will survive after they figure out how to tighten up spending and increase rounds – strategies many local courses are already following.Nathan said course operators are competing more for golfers more than ever because of the supply and demand – since the early 1990s, supply of golf courses has gone up 30 percent and golfers are only up 6 percent during that stretch, which diminishes the ability to charge more for greens fees. Nathan said private club memberships rolls have taken a hit since 2001, fueled in part because of the supply and demand issue, but as tee sheets at public courses start to fill up again, so will the private club memberships, he said. And that should happen as Americans continue to feel better about job security and personal finances, Nathan said, adding that golf is not just a sport featuring perfect courses only for the rich.”The elitist image of golf is not really a fair one and golf in the U.S. is not what people see on the Tour broadcasts every weekend,” Nathan said. “… Golf is played everywhere and by a broad cross-section of Americans, primarily on public courses. … In order to get closer to equilibrium and (financially) healthier golf courses, the number of golfers-per-course needs to increase – that means either a reduction in courses or an increase in players is necessary to improve the overall state of the industry.”Local golf will surviveFrampton said he’d argue that there probably isn’t a better place to play golf in the United States than the Vail Valley, but the problem is the season here is three or four months. That being said, Frampton calls golf in the valley today “moderately healthy.”He said the valley is probably better off than other national golf destinations because there’s only so many courses that can be built here because we don’t have a lot of available space in the valley. He said there are many other destinations that have overbuilt courses a lot more than the valley has overbuilt.Golf in the valley is going to make it, Frampton said, it’s just probably not going to double or see any dramatic increases for a long time, if ever.”I think golf will do fine, it’s just not going to take over the world – it’s going to do fine,” Frampton said. “You’ve got four to five public courses here that play 20,000 rounds a year. You’ve got three to four clubs that have 400 to 500 members and people are very happy with it.”Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.