Article Courtesy of The
Daytona Beach News-Journal
By Ken Willis
Published October 8, 2018
While many golf courses struggle, others benefit as the laws of supply and
demand tee off.
A lot of guys retire and use the extra time to play more golf.
Bob Wrobel retired and bought a golf course.
If you play golf, you know that sometimes you face a risk-vs-reward situation.
Wrobel looked at the agreed-upon $950,000 price for the course, considered the
definite risk and possible reward, did his math, pondered all possibilities. The
signs all pointed in one direction.
But he bought it anyway.
“This became my retirement,” the
72-year-old Wrobel said from an office near the snack bar at
the course he bought in January, 2012 — The Preserve at
Turnbull Bay, on New Smyrna Beach’s northern mainland, just
west of the city’s airport.
Due to the low overhead that comes from a family-run
operation, along with occasionally long hours, golf know-how
and the godsend of a wintertime snowbird invasion, Wrobel’s
golf course is surviving well.
In an earlier day, that wouldn’t ring as the highest praise.
But today, for some, survival is a big deal, if not always
“I’m the greens superintendent and spray-tech,” Wrobel says.
“I have a daughter-in-law who’s the bookkeeper, but my wife
is a CPA. My son Chris is the GM. I also made him the
irrigation tech, so he has to go check all the sprinklers.
Not counting myself and Chris, we have six people. It’s a
There’s no full-service restaurant, which saves on
overhead, and outside there’s a relatively small patch of land for an
18-hole golf course — just 60-plus acres that need mowing, roughly 30
percent less than an average course. The relatively small acreage, as well
as the family participation, keeps Wrobel’s annual operating budget at about
$720,000, roughly half of a typical public course.
Best of all, there are golfers. “The season” — January through March, when
the northern visitors come south and bring their clubs — still pays the
bills. But even now, in the hot and wet of late summer and early fall,
there’s a humble but steady stream of golfers making their way to the first
tee most mornings.
“We’re busier now than at any time since we bought the course,” Wrobel says.
“That gives me hope.”
There was a time when many in the golf business could say that. Some still
can, but not all. Who’s to blame?
Some will blame all of the developers who decided a
modern neighborhood had to have a golf course, and not just for aesthetics
but because it raised property values. Some might even blame Tiger Woods —
yes, Tiger Woods, who created a false spike in participation after exploding
onto the international sports scene. The Great Recession of 2008 certainly
did its share of damage.
Yet green shoots of hope for golf’s future still sprout. They’re found at
places like TopGolf, the participation/entertainment phenomenon popular with
young adults and families. They’re found at courses like Riviera Country
Club, which has maintained consistent ownership, standards and clientele for
And signs of the game’s ongoing health are obvious at the work benches in a
South Daytona golf shop, where craftsman Glenn Belden continues catering
largely to the seriously competitive and seriously affluent, which have
always provided golf’s financial backbone.
In the rough
A glance in several directions tells you survival in the golf business is no
longer a given. The national trend of golf-course closures hasn’t spared the
Courses have closed in Palm Coast (Matanzas Woods, gone since 2007), DeLand
(DeLand Country Club, closed in 2012; Sandhills Golf Club, closed in 2017),
and Daytona Beach, where Indigo Lakes recently ceased operations and is in
the weeds both literally and figuratively with its future in question.
“It’s a shame,” says former Indigo golfer and resident Ernie Pastor, one of
the course’s original members after its 1976 opening.
Standing in a weeded-over bunker alongside what was once the 18th green,
just a short pitch shot from his old house, Pastor says he’s tempted to cry.
“It was pristine,” he says. “The place to play in this area. Everybody
Not far away, Tomoka Oaks (Ormond Beach) barely resembles its past 1960s-70s
glory. Pelican Bay (Daytona Beach) has had constant struggles with its South
Course while its North Course is beyond its early-’80s prime. River Bend
(Ormond Beach) is currently dealing with tax issues. The nine-hole Ocean
Palm course (Flagler Beach) is in disrepair as arguments rage over its
That’s the bad news. The good news is, 32 golf facilities are operating in
the two-county area, more than two-thirds of them open to the public, and
most are doing well, largely because of those that aren’t and those that
“Overall, it’s not good for golf, but I see it as an opportunity for us,”
says Ryan Meyers, 35, general manager at Riviera Golf Club, now on its third
generation of Meyers family ownership and operation. “Maybe that’s selfish,
I don’t know.”
The hard truth
Even in Florida, or maybe especially in Florida, golf isn’t immune to
certain business truths.
“I think what we’re seeing, in terms of the golf course industry, is a
little bit of a market correction from the over-supply of golf courses in
the late-’90s and early-2000s due to the housing boom,” says Rod Perry, head
pro at Crane Lakes in Port Orange.
“Now, some of the courses are failing. Some of them need to fail so the
stronger ones can survive.”
The National Golf Foundation, considered the golf industry’s leading
research organization, reports that 205 U.S. courses closed in 2017, while
just 15 opened. The U.S. still has nearly 15,000 courses, nearly half (some
45 percent) of the world’s total.
According to a May report by the NGF: “The contraction represents a
continued correction in the industry, with supply and demand returning to
balance after an unsustainable 20-year period of growth in which the U.S.
golf market added more than 4,000 new facilities and increased overall
supply by 44 percent.”
Longtime local developer Jerry Johnson isn’t necessarily happy with the
current trend, but acknowledges the laws of the market.
“I think water seeks its own level,” says Johnson, a big player in the
golf-and-housing game for nearly 40 years.
In 2008, Johnson opened the golf course in Venetian Bay, his sprawling New
Smyrna Beach community. It’s the most recently built course in Volusia
County and was to be a private course and the community’s social hub.
But the Great Recession ruined those dreams. The course remained public, and
over time it dealt with maintenance-cost issues. Johnson, who’d sold his
interest a few years ago, recently signed a three-year deal to repurchase
the course and is in renovation mode.
If the 2008 economic bust blew apart Johnson’s plans for Venetian Bay, he
suggests today’s growing economy might be its savior.
“Five years ago, were you gonna take your 50 bucks and go play golf and have
beers on Saturday, or are you gonna take that 50 bucks and buy your daughter
a pair of shoes for the prom?” he says. “Now, people are having a little
extra money, not feeling guilty about going out and spending 50 bucks for a
round of golf, where they might’ve felt guilty before.”
In New Smyrna Beach, not far from his Preserve at Turnbull Bay, Wrobel
watched first-hand what can happen to a “neighborhood course.” He was head
pro at Sugar Mill Country Club in the 1970s. After a few management changes,
he left the business and started a long, productive career in lawn
maintenance, with many of his clients residing inside the Sugar Mill
“In Florida, every time they built a community, they built a golf course,”
he says. “They would do fine for the first 20 years because everybody that
lived there played golf. As the people got old and the house was sold, nine
times out of 10, it got sold to a person who didn’t play golf.”
Sugar Mill eventually added a third nine holes, went private, and today is
considered one of Central Florida’s best courses. Other communities didn’t
adjust as well, and once the surrounding neighborhood quit supplying
golfers, and competition cropped up in nearby areas, the tee-time sheet took
That’s all it takes, sometimes, to begin a slide that results in closing of
courses. Over time, fewer golfers means less revenue, which means a cut in
maintenance resources, which results in declining conditions, which can
drive away more golfers and quicken the downward spiral.
“You can lose the condition of a golf course in a year to two years,” Wrobel
You’ve probably seen the giant nets alongside the interstate. It may look
quite odd from a distance, but more and more those nets are helping snare a
new generation of golfers.
Roughly 30 million Americans are considered “golfers.” According to the
National Golf Foundation, 20 million of those account for 95 percent of the
Nearly a quarter of the 30-million figure includes those who just hit balls
at the driving range or use indoor “virtual golf” facilities, as well as the
growing number of visitors to TopGolf, the rapidly expanding entertainment
venue that’s part driving range, part sports bar, and the reason you may see
the giant netting alongside the highway.
A TopGolf facility is largely climate-controlled, includes three levels with
multiple bays from which customers can enjoy all the usual sports-bar
offerings while taking turns hitting golf balls to targets – the balls have
computer chips that facilitate the automatic scoring process.
TopGolf has 42 American venues, with at least 16 others on the drawing board
— including one in Lake Mary. According to a marketing firm representing
Dallas-based TopGolf, the company is “exploring Daytona Beach, but we have
not officially announced a venue there yet.”
If TopGolf introduces non-golfers to golf and makes regular golfers out of
them, it could help fill a void many fear will come when America’s older
golfers begin aging out of the game.
What started as a garage hobby for a retired Jack Belden in the 1970s became
a part-time job, then full-time, and eventually a hand-off to his son Glenn,
who owns and operates Belden’s Golf in South Daytona. He says he’s actually
busier than he’s ever been and it shows as he buzzes around his shop.
Glenn Belden has seen the ebbs and flows of the golf industry over the
years. While the economic slide of a decade ago forced some club-fitters out
of the game entirely, it left a big opening for a guy like him once things
started turning around.
“During the busy season last year (January-March), we had the busiest season
we’ve probably had in 25 years,” he says. “You have the stock market going
through the roof, everybody making money, all sorts of disposable income on
top of it.
“It was really lean there for a few years. Now, it’s supposed to be the slow
season, but I’m as busy as I am at the height of the winter season.”
Belden soon turns 62 and after next spring will scale back his shop’s hours,
focusing mostly on high-end club fitting and building and less on retail. He
suggests this part of the business — custom-fitting clubs for upper-level
and/or upper-income golfers — is the present and future of the business.
“I see the trend going that way,” he says.
A need to restock
Patty Meyers had just taken over the golf program for Maryland’s St. Mary’s
County in 1997 and was preparing for an upcoming junior program. Soon
thereafter, Tiger Woods won the Masters in a rout, signaling his arrival as
an international superstar of nearly unparalleled status.
“We were thinking maybe a dozen or two dozen kids, and then we turned around
and a hundred kids showed up,” says Meyers, a Daytona Beach native and
former LPGA Tour golfer.
“Tiger Mania” was a boon for the golf industry, including for the TV
networks, whose viewer numbers turned dramatically northward again this year
with Tiger’s return to form. His presence takes golf’s already-healthy
numbers to stratospheric heights. But Tiger, especially in his early years,
also inspired a lot of new golfers, many of them young. But the trend
eventually flattened and receded.
Locally, the Volusia-Flagler Junior Golf Association, which conducts Monday
tournaments during the summer for golfers ages 6-18, has seen its numbers
fluctuate over the past decade. The 18-hole division (mostly older age
groups) had 50 kids this past summer, which is down about a third from five
years ago. The younger 9-hole numbers have gone from a high of 68 in 2012 to
a low of 33 last year. This year, that number improved to 42.
Most area courses allow juniors to play and practice for free or at deeply
discounted rates. Many, maybe most, of those kids will continue to play golf
as adults. But golf needs more, it needs young adults who have never played
to become golfers, for whatever reason they become attracted to the game.
“I was 19, in Gainesville going to college, working at a Play It Again
Sports,” says 35-year-old Tim Rodewald of Port Orange. “I’d talk to
customers about golf clubs and they’d say I should get out there. Bought a
set of Cleveland irons from our store, kept them for 14 years.
“I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the sound of a crisp 7-iron. I enjoy the
gentlemen’s game, the camaraderie amongst your friends.”
That’s obviously what golf needs and what course operators need to lure if
they don’t want the supply-and-demand balance to again lean too heavily
“A lot of guys my dad (Eric) brought on board when he was my age, they’re
going away,” Riviera GM Ryan Meyers says. “But me, I have to attract guys my
age to carry this business through. We’re working hard at it.”
Meanwhile, even with some closings, times remain good for the golfer, if not
the golf courses.
“Right now, it’s a golfer’s paradise,” says Perry. “Probably over the next
5-to-10 years, without new golf courses being built, we will slowly see
supply meet demand. It’ll help the courses stay afloat.”