The city of Augusta, Ga., is best known for golf. Its Augusta Municipal Golf Course doesn't have the same secluded allure as Augusta National, where the Masters is played. But it does have stories. Caddies once began their training here in the hopes of working at the National.
On one overheated afternoon, a lone golfer practices his swing, and Ed Howerton takes a cart onto the greens. Howerton manages the 82-year-old course.
"Most of the property of this course came from the old Camp Hancock, which was a World War I military base," he says.
History aside, the course has run a deficit for several years, and the city can't afford to keep it open. Many other courses have the same problem. Nationally, 600 golf courses have closed in the past five years. The National Golf Foundation, or NGF, expects at least 500 courses to close between now and 2015.
"A lot of the closures are small-town nine-holers that were built in the '50s and '60s," says NGF spokesman Greg Nathan. Nathan says those smaller, simpler greens can't compete with the luxury courses that swamped the market in the '90s.
When Supply Flies Past Demand
Golf course construction zoomed past the nation's interest in golf, and Nathan says that was partly because of real estate.
"There was a significant demand -- and still is -- for that dream of having a house on a golf course," Nathan says. "So, a lot of entrepreneurs got wealthy building golf course real estate developments."
Inevitably, the courses didn't have enough players to stay open. Public courses and golf resorts have closed in every state from Indiana to Florida and Nevada.
Spike Kelley owns Goshen Plantation Golf Club, a public course in Augusta. He says his course is emptier than it was five years ago, and that's because the number of courses in Augusta is still growing. So, he has lowered prices and gone looking for new golfers.
"We aggressively attract the lady golfers," Kelley says. "The seniors, they are a very cost-oriented group. We actually allow juniors to play free. Also, [it] gets their parents involved, and maybe they'll play golf out here as well."
Kelley says he's getting by. But the number of golfers is still going down. The NGF reports that in 2005, 30 million people played golf. Today, there may be 3 million fewer golfers. And people are also playing less.
Joe Lewis and Ralph Deas defy that trend. They are out on the course three mornings a week.
"Yeah, I see the dip. I definitely see that," Deas says. "We both say, 'Man, this is such a beautiful course. I wonder why there aren't as many people here like there used to be?' But when things get tight, this is the first thing you let go."
For now, Deas can afford it. With a membership at Goshen, Deas can play a round of golf for less than $20. And that makes it a golfer's market.