BOSTON (TheStreet) -- To illustrate golf's popularity and the industry's economic clout, consider this: There are more courses in the United States than there are McDonald's (MCD - Get Report) restaurants.

Unlike the pros and weekend duffers who flock to their greens, however, America's golf courses and country clubs have never been very good at keeping score.

That observation led Ray Cronin and Russ Conde to launch Country Club Benchmarking (CCB).

Golf
Country Club Benchmarking, a company launched less than a year ago, lets golf courses compare the costs behind business expenses.

Cronin, the company's CEO, says that all too often the boards running private golf courses and country clubs make important business decisions based on guesswork, gut feelings, politics and emotion. Aside from a scattering of surveys, there are not many resources that allow clubs to compare their operations, costs and revenues against their peers.

"Because most clubs are member-owned or nonprofit, they are really overseen by members," he says. "The high-end clubs have professional managers, but for a lot of the clubs the guys and gals on the board may be business people, but they are not experts in that business. You have doctors and lawyers -- one of the guys on the board of my club owns a tuxedo shop -- and it is hard to get alignment because everyone has their own view of the world. But if you can put hard data on the table, there is no ambiguity. It makes things very straightforward for everyone."

CCB offers a club's general manager, board members, committees and department heads an online tool to enter financial data, analyze it and compare it with others as they assess operational strengths and weaknesses. Data can be crunched out for memberships and dues, food and beverage, pro shops, course maintenance, outside functions and management structure, among other items. The data is easily compiled into graphical, granular reports.

Cronin gives a few examples of how such information has proven useful. One club, while comparing course maintenance data, realized they were spending roughly $30,000 more a year than the $15,000 average on electric bills, an indication of needed upgrades and repairs. Another club realized they were being habitually overcharged for liability insurance and saved thousands by soliciting new bids. One club learned that charging less than other courses for cart rentals was losing them upward of $30,000 annually.

For clubs with capped membership totals, making every dollar count maximizes the fees they collect. Finding $50,000 in waste can prevent a $100 to $200 increase in dues. while higher dues can hurt renewals and discourage potential members, making the financial impact even worse.

Still in its first year, CCB has 100 clubs in its database and 50 paying clients. Cronin says that even though the numbers may seem low, they are on pace with his expectations. He describes the service as a "network effect business" that will keep adding clubs over time as the data sets expand -- eventually to all golf courses, he hopes, not just private country clubs.

According to the National Golf Foundation, as of Jan. 1 there were 15,979 golf facilities in the U.S., among them 9,168 daily-fee facilities, 2,469 municipal courses and 4,342 private clubs. (McDonald's says it has about 14,000 restaurants in the U.S., with one launching every five minutes.)

The financial impact of golf, and its role as an economic bellwether, was laid out in a study released in March by an industry coalition that included the Metropolitan Golf Association, the New York State Golf Association and the New York State Turfgrass Association.

The report, focused just on the New York area golf industry, said it has a total economic impact of $5.3 billion a year on the region, providing nearly 56,600 direct and indirect jobs. New York's 818 golf courses, 64 stand-alone ranges and 86 miniature golf facilities generate more than $1.5 billion in revenue annually, and the area's 38 golf resorts and nine annual championships chip in roughly $520 million in tourism dollars. Manufacturing, publishing, club-based restaurants and equipment sales are other sources of revenue.

Nationally, the popularity of clubs and clothes by companies such as Callaway Golf ( ELY - Get Report) and Nike ( NKE - Get Report) have given investors another thing to talk about on the links.

The golf industry, however, has suffered significantly throughout the economic downturn.

There were 49.5 golf course openings last year (counted in 18-hole equivalents), offset by 139.5 course closures. By comparison, in 2000 -- a stellar year for the industry -- nearly 400 courses opened.

Although the majority of closings -- more than 90% -- were public courses, private clubs have not been immune to the spending slowdown. Before the recession, high-profile clubs were asking as much as $85,000 or more for joining fees. Today, special deals, price cuts, fee waivers, bargain travel packages and other incentives are common, even among once exclusive facilities.

"The golf business, in general right now, is not in great shape," Cronin says. "The number of people playing is gradually declining and the economic environment has put a strain on discretionary spending. There are a lot of rich people who had memberships at eight clubs and now they only have two clubs. All clubs are feeling the financial pinch."

He is hopeful, however, that his company's launch will have it well-positioned for an eventual rebound.

"There are the same number of private clubs in the U.S. today as there were in the 1930s," he says. "It is cyclical. In the end, people keep playing."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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