Spokane Journal of Business

Teeing up for the 2014 golf season in the Inland Northwest

Courses here eye weather, economic upturn

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-—Katie Ross
City Parks Board golf chairman Ross Kelley says the slightly colder temperatures delayed some of the city’s course openings.

As golf courses here open and prepare for the 2014 season, all eyes appear to be on the weather and the economy, Spokane city and county representatives and course professionals here say. 

Ross Kelley, chairman of the city of Spokane Park Board’s golf committee, says that the lower temperatures this spring caused the city’s courses to open about two weeks late. 

“The weather is always a challenge,” he says. “It can be too wet. It can be too snowy. It can be too cold, and it can even be too hot. We’re kind of like farmers; we’re at the mercy of the weather.”

The city opened three of its courses earlier this month: Esmeralda, Downriver, and The Creek at Qualchan. Kelley says its other course, Indian Canyon, had some frozen ground, but the city is hoping to have it open by the end of this week. 

“Weather is just about the biggest thing there is with golf courses,” he says. 

The city is budgeting for almost $3 million in revenue from golf this year, Kelley says, which is about a 5 percent increase over last year. The city’s expenditures for golf for the year are expected to be almost $3 million as well. 

The weekend rate for playing 18 holes, without any discounts or packages, is $32 and the weekday rate is $29 for 2014. Its rates and prices are largely unchanged this year, he says, with some minor increases on some of its multi-play pass prices. 

The city also is keeping up its promotion of the discounted sunset rate, which is $13. Days and times for that rate depend on the course, but Kelley says the city is focused on trying to fill those later hours. 

“We’re trying to get people out during the later afternoon hours when things are quiet,” Kelley says. “We’ve tried it at a couple courses. We’re trying to get it a little more formalized and advertised so people know it’s there.”

The city’s courses usually see an average of about 140,000 rounds per year, Kelley says, but it’s hoping to get closer to 150,000 for 2014. 

Kelley says the city is looking at making improvements to the courses and programs in the future to attract more players. These projects include improving irrigation and adding new sand traps to the courses, and increasing the number of beginner and youth holes at Qualchan specifically, he says. The short holes, as they’re called, are mainly for kids ages 7 to 17, Kelley says. The city also is looking to improve its women’s and men’s adult recreational golf leagues, he says. 

Nautice Pham, senior accountant for Spokane County parks, recreation, and golf, and a golfing enthusiast, says that the recent cold temperatures delayed its golf course openings about a week. However, it opened its two Liberty Lake courses, Liberty Lake and MeadowWood, and Hangman Valley in South Spokane, as of March 20. 

Rates for 2014 for the county courses will run $31 on the weekend and $29 on weekdays, Pham says, which is up slightly from last year. The county kept its rates unchanged from 2011 to 2013, he says. 

The county usually averages about 91,000 rounds per year for its three courses, Pham says, but is hoping to exceed that this year. 

“The economy seems to be improving, and with our green fees being very competitive to similar courses in the area, we’re hoping to at least hit those numbers and hopefully exceed them,” he says. 

The county’s golf budget for this year is about $3.1 million, Pham says. That’s an increase from years past, he says, partly because of the need to continue replacing equipment at the courses, and partly because of a capital project to replace the sand in all 54 bunkers at MeadowWood. Just the sand alone, an estimated 4,000 tons of it, will cost about $280,000, Pham says. 

The county also is projecting to make about $2.2 million in revenue from normal golf operations, Pham says. This doesn’t include revenue from county government and other financing sources. 

For 2014, the county is launching the Spokane Golf League, a competitive recreational league for those over age 13 and of all ability levels, Pham says. Participants can sign up through the golf section of the county’s parks and recreation website, and are paired with another player of similar ability to play against. Contestants then can decide when and at which county course they’d like to play, he says. The first season for the league begins April 1. 

“The season runs four regular matches, followed by a playoff of potentially four more matches, to determine the Spokane champion,” he says. “The prize is $675, and of course bragging rights.”

Contestants will pay a one-time $85 entry fee when they sign up for the season, Pham says. The league’s most attractive aspect, he says, is the ability for players to organize games around their own schedules. 

“The unique thing about this golf league is that the matches are organized around your schedule,” he says. “It’s not a structured time every week per se.”

The county also is staying committed to keeping fees low for junior players, Pham says. It charges a flat rate of $15, weekend or weekday, for kids under 18 at all its courses. 

“All around, it’s our strategic decision to encourage young golfers to get out on the golf course,” he says. 

Wandermere Golf Course, a privately-owned course on Spokane’s North Side, opened for play on March 13. Bill Ross, head golf pro at the course, says that it averages about 40,000 rounds per year. Whether or not it can exceed that number this year also depends on the weather, he says. 

“Hopefully we’ll be a little higher,” he says. “It just depends on the weather and if it stays nice. If you get a lot of rain, you don’t get much play.” 

Wandermere charges $29 for 18 holes on a weekend and $25 for 18 holes on a weekday. The rates are unchanged from last year, Ross says. The club also offers senior rates for those over 60, as well as punch cards, ranging from 10 plays up to a full season. 

Overall, Ross says he’s hopeful that 2014 will be a solid year for the course. The industry in general has trended down in the last few years, he says, but he thinks it’s bouncing back. 

“It looks like it’s starting to come back; it looks like it should be a good year this year,” he says. “With the economy bouncing back, people have a little extra money to play.”

The Spokane Country Club, one of two private country clubs here, averages between 23,000 and 24,000 rounds per year, says Doug Off, manager of golf operations there. 

“We’re probably not going to see much of a difference (this year),” he says. 

The club currently has about 300 members, he says, and maxes out at 370 regular members and 30 junior executive members. However, he says, the club isn’t anticipating hitting that maximum this year. Membership dues range from $320 to $430 a month, he says. The club doesn’t charge members any extra fees for golfing. 

Last May, the Spokane Country Club filed to reorganize its debts through Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, stemming from a lawsuit it lost in February after more than four years of litigation. The lawsuit, brought by four female club members, alleged that the club discriminated against them by saving the best tee times for men and not allowing women in certain areas of its restaurant. 

However, Off says that the lawsuit and subsequent bankruptcy filing aren’t expected to impact golf business at the club this year. The club still is working through the reorganization process, he says. 

New for 2014, but a longer drive for golfers here, is a premier course called Gamble Sands that’s slated to open this summer just outside Brewster, Wash., about 140 miles west of Spokane. David Christenson, who was the resident pro at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Circling Raven golf course in Idaho from 2003 to 2008, is the general manager for that course.

The course was designed in the links style by David McLay Kidd, a native Scotsman and golf course designer. Links-style courses feature a type of fescue grass that is traditional to Scottish courses, Christenson says. 

 “It makes the ball and the surface much firmer; you play shots on the ground versus up in the air,” he says. “It’s more traditional, back to the roots of golf.”

There are few traditional links-style courses in the Pacific Northwest, Christenson asserts. He says the course also was built on natural sand, meaning none had to be imported to create bunkers and other features. 

Fees for playing 18 holes on a weekend at the course will range from $50 for local players to up to $130 for nonlocal players who walk the course. 

“We feel that it’s important for local residents to have access to high-quality golf that’s essentially in their backyard,” he says. 

Golf carts will be available on a limited basis, Christenson says, for an additional $20 rental fee. However, the course also will offer on-site caddy service, Christenson says, and will encourage players to utilize that instead of carts because the course is easy to walk. The caddy service fee can range from $65 to $85, he says, depending on the number of players and the caddy’s experience level. 

Christenson says that this year the plan is just to get the course up and running. 

“This year really the key is just opening the golf course and exposing it to players throughout the Pacific Northwest,” he says.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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