The economy may be depressed, but in Northeast Georgia, the golf business is swinging.
In a hearing last week, Rodger Hogan, director of golf at the Chattahoochee Golf Club, told the Gainesville City Council that customers have played more rounds at the city-owned course in the first four months of this year than they did during the same period last year.
And golf professionals at nearby Royal Lakes Country Club and Lake Lanier Islands say their business is up, too.
Chris Spiler, who directs golf at Royal Lakes, said the number of rounds golfers have played at the semi-private South Hall Club is up 25 percent over last year. With it, he said, sales in the club’s pro shop are up.
“I would say it’s good,” Spiler said. “Is it back to where it was in 2007? No, it’s not quite there, but it’s certainly improved since it started derailing in 2008 or 2009.”
Farther south in Hall County, Director of Golf at Lake Lanier Islands Golf Club Brian Conley said the business has steadily improved there for the last three years.
The course at Lake Lanier Islands reopened after a major renovation in July 2009, and for this month alone, Conley said the course will probably host between 2,200 and 2,500 rounds of golf.
“It’s not one of our busiest months, but it’s pretty good for April,” Conley said.
The number is also ahead of the course’s goal for the month, Conley said.
Golf courses went through the ringer in Northeast Georgia as drought years sandwiched a year of heavy rains.
And now, the nation continues to weather an economic recession that makes spending money on golf an unnecessary expense.
Golf professionals all have different reasons for their success this year: an early spring, lack of a January ice storm, lower greens fees and recession-weary golfers who just need to indulge.
Spiler attributes the better business to the better weather.
Last year, golf clubs weathered two weeks of snow and one of the coldest winters on record.
“For three or four weeks, most courses in the Northeast were closed,” he said.
But this year, 80 degrees came early. And so did the golfers.
Even if it isn’t a harbinger of economic recovery, the growth in business is at least good news for Gainesville taxpayers, who propped up a major renovation to the city-owned golf course in 2006.
The city spent nearly $3 million rebuilding the 50-year-old course, which reopened January 2007 after a year of work.
The intent was to make the course more competitive and profitable. But customers were slow to return.
And when Hogan came to the city in 2009, council members were fretting over the course’s future.
The city’s administrative services director, Melody Marlowe, affirmed last week that revenues for the course have grown over the last two years. In the fiscal year that began July 2009, the municipal golf course reported some $936,600 in revenue. In the following year, those revenues topped $1 million.
And this year, Marlowe said, revenues are already 4 percent ahead of where they were this time last year. At least one council member who heard Hogan’s report Thursday, expressed relief.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Mayor Pro Tem George Wangemann. “And the pudding’s pretty sweet.”
To explain the higher revenues, Hogan touts what he says is a “very good experience” for golfers at the city club.
Hogan likens the golf business to the restaurant business, and says business depends on the way golfers talk about a course. As word of the renovations and maintenance at the course caught on, Hogan said, so did the business.
In April alone, activity at the city course ran almost on par with that at Lake Lanier Islands, with 2,427 rounds played before Monday.
And while he doesn’t think people’s return to the greens means people have more green in their wallets, Hogan said people can only give up some things for so long.
“I think when the economy started going bad, four and five years ago, and people started tightening their budgets, they could immediately say ‘I can cut out some golf,’” Hogan said. “If you’re not a golfer, this doesn’t make sense, but people that have golf in their blood, they’ve got to play golf. They’re going to find a way to play golf.”