Near the turn of the last century, professional golf was booming in the state of Michigan.
All three major pro tours – the PGA Tour, LPGA and PGA Champions – had regular stops in the state while major events were also making frequent visits, most notably at Oakland Hills.
However, by the end of 2009, all had disappeared. With the final playing of the PGA Tour’s Buick Open at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc, none of the major tours had a presence in Michigan. For five years, the closest professional event was the LPGA’s regular stop just over the border in Sylvania, Ohio.
But things have rebounded. The announcement of the PGA Tour’s return next year with an event in Detroit highlights a major resurgence. The Champions Tour will play the inaugural Ally Challenge this fall at Warwick Hills while the LGPA will have three events by next year as a new team event in Midland – the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational – joins the Meijer Classic near Grand Rapids and the Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor as yearly events.
“There’s just a lot of golf interested fans in the state of Michigan,” said Jon Podany, chief commercial officer for the LPGA. “The number of people who play golf in Michigan, it ranks among the top five in the country on per-capita basis. Even though it’s a northern climate where you can’t play year-round, there’s a lot of golf-interested fans and a lot of sports-interested fans. Summers in Michigan it stays light late and it’s a great environment to have a tournament.”
While Michigan is once again becoming a popular place for the pros, members of the local golf community are hoping the same rebound is coming for the industry.
“What’s cool is seeing the upswing now with the professional events,” said David Graham, executive director of the Golf Association of Michigan. “There’s a pendulum that swings and I think there’s an extraordinary correlation between participation and excitement about the game and having the best golfers in the world coming to our state to play the game. It excites people. They see their role models walking the fairways.”
If more professional golf means more golfers, that rebound could very well be coming for a state that was experiencing a golf boom for the better part of 30 years. From the 1970s into the early 2000s, golf was exploding in the state, reaching its peak around the turn of the century as the popularity of Tiger Woods sparked a new generation of golfers while there were nearly as many courses in Michigan as there are in Florida or California.
At one point, there were more than 900 courses in the state and plenty of folks willing to play. If you wanted to golf in Michigan then, you had your pick of championship-level venues.
The Detroit News' Bob Wojnowski and Tony Paul talk about the PGA Tour coming to Detroit in 2019. Detroit News
However, by the mid-2000s, the economy began to take a downturn and the golf industry was dealt a gut punch.
“The recession had a profound impact,” Graham said. “There really was kind of a mass exodus of folks out of Michigan. The ripple effect of that, not only how it affected other segments within the golf industry, but the number of golfers was contracting and we saw that contraction then occurring in some of the lesser well-run operations.”
Each year since has brought news of more course closings in every part of the state.
From places like the Links of Pinewood and El Dorado Country Club in Commerce Township in 2007 to Elk Ridge near Atlanta in 2016 and Thornapple Creek near Kalamazoo last fall, the closings have been consistent.
By the end of 2017, Michigan had 766.5 golf courses, according to the National Golf Foundation, a number that has been shrinking but still enough to rank third in the nation behind Florida and California.
“This is some right-sizing,” Graham said. “It’s an ongoing process. The reality is these are still small businesses and the mortality rate on small businesses outside of the industry is dramatically higher.”
Getting those numbers to even out is the goal of the entire industry, and while times have been tough, there is optimism.
According to the NGF, 23.8 million people played on a course in 2017, the same number from the year before, while another 8.3 million played in off-course activities such as driving ranges, Topgolf facilities or indoor golf simulators, representing an increase of 7 percent.
“Golf participation is evolving,” NGF president Joe Beditz said. “On-course, green-grass participation is holding its own and off-course is continuing to grow. There’s no denying that we’re down from our pre-recession highs, but it appears to us that traditional participation is stabilizing and there may be a new support level between 23 million and 24 million.”
That stabilization has been evident at the Gaylord Golf Mecca, a co-op of 15 courses in Northern Michigan headlined by Treetops Resort.
“We’ve seen a nice, I’d call it a modest, comeback,” director Paul Beachnau said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s been screaming but we’ve seen rounds rise modestly, like in the couple-percent range. But the expenditures -- the amount of money that people are spending at the course -- has gone up pretty nicely. We’ve seen a really nice increase in purchases in pro shop, food and beverage and some of those supplementary areas.”
The most important aspect, though, for any operator is getting players on the course. Whether it’s introducing the game to younger golfers or finding ways to reach new customers, innovative programs have started to show positive results.
The GAM is in its second year of participating in Youth on Course, a program that began in northern California and has spread to 24 states. It allows kids to play area courses for $5 or less in an effort to make the game more accessible.
Graham said in year one, more than 2,600 players signed up with more than 60 courses participating and 3,100 rounds of golf played. The goal for this year is to have 5,000 golfers on more than 100 courses and better than 7,000 rounds of golf.
“It’s the bridge, as we call it,” Graham said. “There are some great junior programs across the state and we’ve partnered with all the First Tee chapters, partnered with a number of the big junior programs to get kids involved. Kids learn the fundamentals and how you’re supposed to play (in these programs) but often times golf can be a little too expensive to do it enough. When we can get kids out for $5 or less to play, now you start building those ‘aha’ moments. We need to continue to develop programming to get the kids involved, more women involved and get the recreational golfers playing the game.
“It’s proven to be something that is resonating. It’s a home run.”
At the Gaylord Golf Mecca, a partnership with Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City has helped open its partners to an entirely new market of golfers.
After five years of advertising and marketing in the Dallas area – one of the top golf markets in the country – Beachnau and his group were aided by American Airlines introducing a non-stop flight from Dallas to Traverse City once per day during the summer season. It began last year, and according to Beachnau, it was profitable for the airline.
“What it’s done for us is open up a new market,” Beachnau said. “Dallas is important for us because it’s absolutely stifling hot and you can’t play golf there in the summer. It’s one of the largest golf markets in North America, it’s created some interest and (the area) is very affluent.
“It’s proving to be very, very interesting for us.”
Add in the benefit of marketing campaigns like Pure Michigan and things seem to be on the upswing. According to the Michigan Golf Alliance, golf accounts for $4.2 billion in total economic impact in the state along with wage contributions of $1.4 billion, 58,000 jobs and the $118 million in charitable impact.
In the spring, the World Golf Foundation commissioned the U.S. Golf Economy Report. It said that in 2016, golf drove $84.1 billion in economic activity across the country, a 22.1-percent increase from the $68.8 billion seen in 2011.
And while the images of overgrown greens and dilapidated former clubhouses make course closings tougher to take, some new courses have popped up as well.
Last year included Stoatin Brae at the Gull Lake Golf Club and Resort in Augusta, as well as The Loop at Forest Dunes in Roscommon, a unique design from Tom Doak described as the first “reversible course.”
Add in the planned openings this summer of Sage Run at the Island Resort & Casino in Harris of the Upper Peninsula as well as a second course at Arcadia Bluffs on Lake Michigan in the northwest part of the state and there are signs things are headed in the right direction.
“In a nutshell, the game is improving,” Graham said. “I think the opportunities continue to be good for golfers to get access to good values in golf. In general the capacity and availability in Michigan is still good.
“We’re moving in a good direction and I’m thrilled about the pro tournaments coming to the state that will bring more eyes to the game, increase interest and get more folks engaged.”
Michigan No. 3
Michigan ranks third in the U.S. in golf courses, measured in 18-hole equivalents. For example, a facility with 27 holes would have 1.5 golf courses.
1. Florida (1,145.5)
2. California (857.5)
3. Michigan (766.5)
4. New York (723)
5. Texas (705.5)