Too Many Course Too Few Players

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PALM CITY, Fla. (AP) -- Golf is a big business, but one that
David Osiecki says might just be too big in Martin County.
The manager of Cobblestone Golf Club in western Palm City says
there aren't enough players to go around.
A boom during the 1990s to build newer and lusher links has left
about 45 golf courses in Martin County competing for the same group
of players.
'Without a question, Martin County has more golf courses on a
12-month basis than they need,' said Osiecki, whose semi-private
course has seen a steady decline in the number of rounds of golf
being played there each year.
'It's ludicrous in terms of how few players there are and how
many courses there are. You are going to see some golf courses that
are going to close.'
And Cobblestone isn't alone. The Martin County Golf and Country
Club is also feeling the heat.
Between 1996 and 2003, the number of rounds played each year at
the county-owned course has dropped from about 114,265 to 96,274.
Membership at the course is also down.
Both courses are asking the county for help. Cobblestone's
Osiecki wants to see a five-year building moratorium on courses in
the county. Robert Sokel, president of the Martin County course, is
asking the county commission to waive about $100,000 in player fees
it collects from the links each year. That waiver would last five
years. Alan Hodges, a professor the University of Florida's
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says the downturn is
part of a statewide trend that many industry officials blame on a
sluggish economy.
'There is an oversupply of golf courses,' he said. 'Golf
courses have been hit pretty hard.'
A study on the economic impact of the sport by Hodges and
Professor John Haydu shows that about 25 percent of all courses in
the state have been built during the last 10 years.
Based on figures from the year 2000, the study says that about
1,334 courses in the state earn about $4.4 billion in revenue.
Palm Beach County is by far the state's biggest player. It not
only has the most courses, it had the highest golf revenue about
$633 million each year, the study said.
St. Lucie County ranks among the top five golf destinations in
the country. The county's 19 courses reaped about $34 million in
revenue in 2000, according to the study.
But while players in Martin are scant, courses in Palm Beach and
St. Lucie counties say they've noticed little decline in the number
of people playing their greens.
Industry officials admit that low rates at Martin courses and
St. Lucie's PGA Golf Club, which is run by PGA of America, attract
players from Palm Beach County.
'It's great golf up there,' Paul Makris, general manager of
Emerald Dunes Golf Course in suburban West Palm Beach. 'You can't
find better golf for less money. The players will travel up
there.'
Osiecki says that's because Martin courses are constantly
offering specials and slashing rates to appeal to more players. He
points to the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie as a facility that
makes it difficult for other courses to be successful.
'The PGA is a 900-pound gorilla,' Osiecki said. 'They can
dictate prices. They charge so little.'
To compete, Cobblestone tries to create a socially friendly
atmosphere, and encourages repeat players by offering special
deals.
Meanwhile, Osiecki continues to try to persuade the county to
temporarily halt golf course construction, a move that hasn't been
warmly received by some county commissioners.
While Commissioner Sarah Heard says she'd like to prevent
courses from being built on land zoned for agricultural purposes,
she's not as eager to stop their construction altogether.
Neither is Commissioner Lee Weberman.
'That's where the free market works,' he said. 'How many
McDonald's are too many in a small town?' But given the
player-to-course ratio in Martin County, Weberman said he doesn't
think it's a good idea for the county to buy another course. Last
year the commission considered buying the Champions Club Golf
Course at Summerfield as a public course.
Instead, he says the county should work on fixing up its
existing greens.
He favors waiving the $1.20 per round fee the course pays the
county. The county had considered using that money about $1.5
million to buy a second course.
Sokel wants to use the money to buy new equipment and repair
buildings.
'We are just using chewing gum to keep it together,' he joked.
But kidding aside, he said if the waiver isn't approved, the course
would have to consider increasing greens fees and cart fees.
That could make it hard for them to compete with other courses
in the area.
'We are probably better off than most,' Sokel said. 'We're
not destitute, but we have to do something.'
 
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