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Vision 2030: Sauk Valley ‘overbuilt’ with golf courses

Economy, sport’s popularity, family dynamic played role in golf’s demise

Ava Hackman watches as her mother, Jami Hackman, hits her ball in August 2013 at Sunset Golf Course in Mount Morris.
Ava Hackman watches as her mother, Jami Hackman, hits her ball in August 2013 at Sunset Golf Course in Mount Morris.

As the weather warms and the snow melts, golfers will return to area courses.

The future of those local courses could be in doubt, a combination of the sport’s popularity decreasing and a market saturation.

When the Sterling Park District bought Emerald Hill Golf Course in 1994, the Sauk Valley had twice as many golf courses as the national average for a like-size community, said Sterling Park District Executive Director Larry Schuldt.

Since then, golf courses have started to close.

LakeView Golf Club, west of Sterling, was sold in November 2012 for farm land and development. The Oregon Country Club course closed in 2013 after being sold out of bankruptcy, which has been a refuge for many financially struggling golf clubs.

“If you look at national trends, and if you look at local trends, too, there are more courses closing nationally than they’re building,” Schuldt said. “And what does that say? It says we’re overbuilt.”

Since 1994, golf courses have been built, and 9-hole courses expanded into 18 holes, Schuldt said, which was the result of the sport’s increased popularity in that period from Tiger Woods’ emergence as the face of the sport.

“Even in our area, it went, from the perspective of a golf course owner, from being bad to being really bad,” he said. “Now, as a golf course player, this is great. There’s going to be more competition. It’s going to be driving that price down. I don’t have to be waiting for tee times.”

But as the sport’s popularity began to decrease, many private clubs went from closed memberships to public play to survive, and some courses closed. That trend, Schult said, won’t likely reverse itself.

Deb Carey, executive director of the Dixon Park District, said it’s doubtful new golf courses would open in the future. They’re difficult for private businesses to profit from, she said, and local park districts don’t have the budgets for it.

“Golf courses were really big in the 1980s,” she said. “And that was huge. But the economy has really changed.”

Individuals don’t have the extra income for golf, which can be an expensive sport, Carey said.

But it’s not only the money that will limit golf course development in the future, Schuldt said. It’s the family dynamic and the time commitment.

“The way the whole family unit is structured now, and with so many activities for kids, I don’t think the parents, even if they have the money, have the time the way they used to,” he said.

With the rise in travel sports, children often pick one sport at an early age and are pushed toward travel and all-star teams, Schuldt said, which means much more traveling and year-round practice.

Something that could spark new interest in local courses, which the Sterling Park District has experimented with, is offering short courses. The Professional Golf Association, Schuldt said, is also looking at ways to speed up the game at the local, recreational level.

The tee boxes for the short course, Schuldt said, are discs that have been placed in the fairway, far in front of the regular tees. It could make a round of golf for a parent and child quicker and less expensive.

National golf groups also are promoting “Time for 9,” a campaign to encourage 9-hole play as a before- or after-work activity.

“Can we come up with ideas to make the game faster?” Schuldt said. “And I’m not sure what the goal is, but instead of 2 hours, can you play nine holes in an hour but yet still have the same [experience]?”

Vision 2030 on Tuesday

Tuesday's edition will include a 52-page special section, "Vision 2030," that will examine what the Sauk Valley might look like in 2030. We will look at issues including employment, the workforce, education, infrastructure, housing, religion and health care.

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