Spokane Journal of Business

A promising fore-cast for Spokane’s golf season

Unsettled weather hasn’t put damper on demand for golf

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-—Erica Bullock
Latah Creek Golf Course serves golfers of all ages, with many retirees preferring earlier tee times, says Steve Nelke, head golf professional at the course.

Despite late openings at Spokane-area golf courses, managers are expecting an uptick, compared to last year when courses closed early.

Garrett Jones, director of Spokane Parks & Recreation, says the city opened three of its four courses—Downriver, Esmeralda, and the Creek at Qualchan—in late March, a few weeks later than usual.

Jones says he’s seeing a steady increase in play.

“We’re seeing pent-up demand from the long winter, and we’re also continuing to see that same demand that we’ve seen post-COVID," Jones says. “It brought some new players to the game that haven’t been playing before.”

That’s also the case nationwide, according to a report by the National Golf Foundation that states on-course golf participation grew by more than 3.4 million players last year, including an increase of 400,000 players ages 50 and over, compared to pre-COVID numbers recorded in 2019.

The sport tends to draw an older demographic as many people take it up as a retirement pastime, according to the National Golf Association Media Network, which reports the median age among golfers is 52.

Darrell Hull, director of golf at The Links Golf Club, in Post Falls, says golf is a sport for all ages, including seniors.

“The beauty of the Links is that we have six sets of tees ... for a diverse clientele,” Hull says. “I have some people in their 80s playing on senior tees. Golf is a sport that you can play for a lifetime.”

Similar to The Links’ demographics, Spokane County’s Latah Creek Golf Course also caters to golfers of all ages, says Steve Nelke, head golf professional at Latah Creek.

Nelke says retirees typically have the luxury of time to frequent the course in the mornings while younger people and working professionals play later in the day and on the weekends. 

Over 350 rounds were played at Downriver on opening weekend and about 320 rounds were played the first two opening days at Esmeralda.

“That’s a great start for us,” says Jones. “We budget on the conservative side, between 150,000 to 160,000 rounds per year. The last two years were higher than that. In 2021, it was a little over 177,000 rounds. In 2022, it was 171,000.”

He adds that spring is a critical time for the city’s golf operations.

“We see a lot of (rounds played) in April, May, and June,” he says. “When you have a wet spring, that can affect your numbers.”

Indian Canyon Golf Course, which is typically the last of the city’s courses to open due to lingering snow in some areas, was scheduled to open Wednesday, April 12, after the Journal’s press time.

Golfers at Downriver will play on better turf this year thanks to irrigation improvements completed in 2022. Irrigation upgrades at three of four courses saved about 12 million gallons of city water last year, he says.

The city also has completed a variety of asset-protection projects such as roof replacements at Downriver and Indian Canyon, Jones says.

The city’s 2023 budget for golf expenses is $4.2 million, a slight increase from the 2022 budget. Jones says the higher projected expenses are attributed to a 10% increase in the costs for labor and supplies, which also impacted rates.

Rates have increased by $1 over last year, to $47 per round for adults playing 18 holes, he says. Rate information on the city’s website shows prebook rates for 18 holes for adults are $51; nine holes cost $31 for adults. The city’s junior rate is $15, and the sunset rate is $25.

The 2023 budget projects golf revenue will be $4.9 million.

The city employs one full-time superintendent and an assistant superintendent at each course. Between 32 and 48 seasonal employees are hired annually.

Jones says the city also is looking this year to fill four new positions for secondary assistant superintendents.

The pro shops, restaurants, driving ranges, and golf cart maintenance services are contracted out, he says.

County Courses

Regarding Spokane County-owned courses, both Liberty Lake and MeadowWood opened on March 23, and Latah Creek followed nine days later.

Trish Truett, finance manager for Spokane County Parks, Recreation and Golf, says that weather is the main variable for opening dates and contributes to the number of rounds played each season.

The county reported a 2.9% decrease in rounds played last year, when 100,000 rounds were played compared to 103,000 recorded in 2021.

Truett says cold and wet spring conditions transitioned to summer wildfire smoke, attributing to the decline last year.

She contends, however, “On average, the last two years saw an increase of 17% more rounds played compared to the five years prior.”

Both Liberty Lake and MeadowWood had a combined total of 565 rounds of golf played during opening weekend. Latah Creek had 130 rounds played during its opening weekend, she says.

The county’s expenses for golf operations are budgeted at $3.4 million, while its 2023 revenue is projected at $3.5 million, she says.

Spokane County employs 11 full-time maintenance employees and hires about 30 seasonal employees.

Dennis Dimeling, a longtime Latah Creek golfer, says he played the first round of golf at Latah Creek when the course opened in 1969.

Dimeling, a retiree, says he has continued to frequent the 18-hole course for the challenging play and “the elite maintenance crews and superintendents that keep the course pristine.”

Truett says that no major capital improvements are planned at county courses this year, although some minor upgrades are underway at Latah Creek, MeadowWood, and Liberty Lake golf courses to improve Latah Creek’s clubhouse, on-course restrooms at MeadowWood, and bunkers at Liberty Lake.

Post Falls Links

Across the state line in North Idaho, Hull, of The Links Golf Club, says that similar to the city of Spokane’s golf courses, The Links also got off to a late start this year due to weather.

Hull says The Links normally has a March 1 opening, however this year, opening day was scheduled on March 27.

“We’re obviously a month behind as far as income, but we’re not the only ones,” he says.

Even after the delayed start to the season, Hull says April play has been interrupted by rain, snow, and hail.

He says rodent activity and ice damage impacted some areas on The Links’ greens although conditions at the course improve daily.

The maintenance budget is about $500,000 this year, hull says, adding that the budget also includes about $100,000 for the purchase of a new five-blade Toro fairway mower.

Green fees at the privately owned, public course increased $2 across the board to cover wage increases, he says. Excluding cart fees, weekday rates for nine holes cost $25, and 18 holes is $45. Weekend rates are $28 for nine holes, and $49 to play 18 holes. The Links also has senior weekday rates of $28, and weekend rates for seniors are $39.

He says 26,000 rounds of golf were played at The Links last year, an increase of about 3,000 rounds from the previous year, despite last year’s early closure.

Six full-time and 38 part-time employees work for the Post Falls golf course.

Hull claims The Links will be one of the longest golf courses in America once renovations are completed by the end of 2023. The facility is adding new black tees that will extend the golf course to nearly 8,300 yards.

“There won’t be a whole lot of people who play that, but having that designation will bring us people here,” he says.

Upgrades to The Links’ restaurant also are underway, including an $80,000 project to update the kitchen, bar area, and furniture. Hull says Post Falls-based Dardan Enterprises Inc. is the general contractor.

Following the kitchen remodel, The Links will begin expanding its main building in October to double its size.

Hull says the season outlook is generally positive despite the late start.

“My only fear in golf this year is the economy,” he says. “If it gets too bad, will people cut golf out of their lives?”

Erica Bullock
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Reporter Erica Bullock has worked at the Journal since 2019 and covers real estate and construction. She is a craft beer enthusiast, who loves to garden and go camping with friends.

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