Imagine melting Richard Serra sculptures for scrap iron or using Albrecht Dürer woodcuts for kindling. That's what's happened in golf over the past few months with the closings of three Tom Doak-designed courses: Apache Stronghold in San Carlos, Ariz.; Beechtree Golf Club in Aberdeen, Md.; and High Pointe Golf Club near Traverse City, Mich. These are signs of the times as sure as foreclosure signs on front doors. Doak, principal of Renaissance Golf Design, is perhaps the sport's most influential living architect. Four of his creations (Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon, Colorado's Ballyneal, Barnbougle Downs in Tasmania and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand) are ranked among Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses in the World. His next design at Bandon Dunes, dubbed Old Macdonald, in honor of the legendary architect C.B. Macdonald, is the most eagerly anticipated course arrival in years. Of the three closings, High Pointe -- which was Doak's first design and announced its closure this past Monday on its Web site, citing "difficult economic times in the country, especially Michigan" -- is the most representative example of golf industry contraction. As Doak noted, the closings of Apache Stronghold and Beechtree were more atypical: Decade-old Beechtree was breaking even, but the land was more valuable for real estate development, while Apache Stronghold was the victim of a conflict between rival families among the Apache owners. Still, they are symptoms of a larger disease. "The future of golf-course architecture is the bleakest it's been in my lifetime, because our economy has taken most of the rest of the world along for the ride," Doak told TheStreet.com via email from Shanghai. "Many will retire or be forced to find other work. I don't think there will be more than 30 or 40 new courses in America next year, to be shared among 150 to 200 golf-course architects! The most successful and the most passionate will survive, but it's doubtful that any of us will see booming business again soon."
According to the National Golf Foundation, total U.S. course closures outpaced course openings in 2006 (minus 26.5 18-hole equivalents), 2007 (minus 8.5) and 2008 (minus 34). Since 2003, course openings have dropped 34%, while closings have increased 79%, concentrated largely in Arizona, Florida and Michigan. The NGF points out that a disproportionate number of closures were in "non-traditional" facilities -- defined as stand-alone 9-hole courses or executive or par-3 courses -- which accounted for 43% of 2007 closures but only 20% of the total U.S. supply. Still, over the past decade, traditional 18-hole daily-fee courses have comprised more than 80% of course closings, and it's little wonder given the overbuilding that went on since 1990, with more than 3,000 new daily-fee courses opened, about 20% of the national total. (By contrast, the number of private clubs fell by 395 during the same period.) "The development business has run full circle," says NGF vice president Greg Nathan. "Developers are now being more prudent about the decision to build, and are doing more due diligence on where to build, and at what price point." There is some cause for, if not optimism, then something other than doomsday gloom: NGF data show that rounds played fell only 1.8% in 2008, a less severe downturn than might be expected. It is an indication, perhaps, that golfers are managing their cost per round rather than simply cutting the amount of golf they play. That said, things have only gotten worse for the economy, and for fans of Tom Doak courses, thus far in 2009.
"Certainly, I'm sad to see my courses go and would not be shocked if others follow," Doak says. "But I feel more badly for all of the employees of these courses than I do for myself. Each course provided twenty or thirty people the chance to work at something they loved in the great outdoors, not to mention the recreational opportunities for thousands of visitors each year."