AHWAHNEE – Local favorite Sierra Meadows may be the latest golf course to close amidst a growing trend in America.
It seems a potentially fatal combination of economic hardship, historic drought, and declining interest has turned the nation’s love affair with a small white ball into a passing fancy for a severely endangered sport.
Sierra Meadows Country Club and Golf Course may face the same fate as hundreds of other links shut down in recent years, after its owner announced the business will cease operation as of Monday, December 15. He cited a decline in property values along with insufficient water supplies to properly irrigate the course among reasons for the closure.
“We would like to thank the residents of the mountain communities surrounding the golf course and the golfers from all over the Central Valley for your support during the last 13 years,” says Robert H. Bard, Jr. “We especially would like to thank our hard working employees for their diligent efforts to avoid this unfortunate outcome.”
Land prices and water shortage aside, golf is on the downswing. Nationwide, the sport is experiencing an apparently ever-increasing drop in the number of participants. This includes a 23% and 35% decline over the last five years in females and junior golfers, respectively, according to an article posted in Money Watch/CBS News. These figures were reported to the Club Managers Association by PGA member Trillium Sellers, as part of a task force to develop future golfers.
The National Golf Foundation (NGF) reports golf course closings outpaced openings in 2013 for the eighth consecutive year. NGF logged 157.5 closures in 2013 based on 18-holes, for a total net reduction of 143.5 courses. 643 courses have closed since 2006, according to the foundation. The decline follows a 40% growth from 1986 through 2005, a period when more than 4,500 courses first opened.
Meanwhile, Sierra Meadows has seen the same fate foreshadowed even as it struggled to sustain. Owner Bard explained the gradual decline of possibilities for the 142-acre property. It was originally purchased in 2001 as part of a 1,600 acre ranch-land acquisition, he recounts. From May 2001 to April 2008, Bard says the corporation invested more than $6,000,000 in improvements to the golf course, clubhouse, equipment, and facilities, with the expectation that a planned 315-lot housing development would make the investment worthwhile.
“The period from 2008 until today involved a deep recession,” Bard continues, “resulting in a dramatic decline in the value of California residential real estate, particularly California’s Central Valley and the Sierra Foothill areas.” Factor in expenses for approval to build, Bard says, and the estimated cost to complete the residential lots exceeds the market potential.
“From 2008 until today, the management and staff of Sierra Meadows have made every effort to maintain the quality of the golf course and clubhouse in the hope that the recession would end and the proposed residential development could proceed with the Sierra Meadows Golf Course as the central amenity.”
During that time, Bard asserts, Sierra Meadows developed a wedding business and promoted the RV park rentals to increase income, but every year the golf income declined more than could be offset with new business models. The golf course had been for sale and is reported to have been in escrow recently before the deal fell through. Mother Nature may have struck what could be the last blow for the local greens.
“In 2014 we experienced our first major water shortage resulting from the historically severe California drought,” Bard says. “We had insufficient water to maintain the survival of many of the grass areas on the course.” He estimates the cost to repair the drought damage at between $300,000 to $500,000, including an upgrade to the aging maintenance equipment and cart fleet. An excess of $2,100,000 has been spent to maintain the course since 2008, he recounts, over and above the revenue stream.
“From the beginning, the golf course has not made any money in spite of all our continued efforts and substantial investments.”
Sierra Meadows is not alone it its quest for sustainability in a time when water carries about the same value that gold once had in the foothills. Nor is it unique in its attempt to remain relevant in an era when a 20-second download on computer is considered “too long.” The fact is, fewer people are playing golf and those who do play do so less often than before. Across the nation, courses are trying out a wave of alternatives to what one famous duffer called the “long walk, spoiled.”
Some say the future of golf lies in the 15-inch hole, an idea that’s considered brilliant or blasphemy, depending on who you talk to. The 15-inch hole is said to shave at least an hour off the length of time it takes to play a round of golf, making the notoriously difficult sport easier and more accessible to all. Footgolf, played like soccer, is another trick some courses are trying to increase revenue, along with souped-up amenities like day-glo lighting and handy adult beverage bars.
It may be too late for Sierra Meadows, though, and it will be missed. The place is a frequent location for fundraisers, tournaments, and friendly sandbagging. It’s the off-site home of Yosemite High School golf, whose girls recently won the DII Central Section Golf Championship, irony included free of charge.
Sierra Meadows cites the likely inability of the residential housing market to recover in the foreseeable future, together with the continued drought, as reasons why it must close the golf course.
“Sometimes events occur that are beyond our control and no amount of effort and money can change the outcome.”
If no new buyer steps in to purchase the golf course and the mountain community is faced with the demise of another local amenity, it’s a big loss for all concerned.