Fort Wayne golf courses face challenges, but owners believe the game will play through them

Dave Gilbert, owner of Cedar Creek Golf Club north of Leo-Cedarville, loves working at his course but said factors impacting the golf industry have made have made the operation a financial struggle in recent years. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
James Baker, manager of Lakeside Golf Club and Bowling Center on Coliseum Boulevard in east Fort Wayne, said young people don't seem to play golf as often as previous generations, which has hurt the golf industry. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

Cedar Creek Golf Club owner and president Dave Gilbert believes the sport of golf always will have a future. It just may not include him as a course owner.

Factors contributing to the possible sale of his course have been building for years and impact many other golf courses, said Gilbert, who has owned his golf club since 1982.

Two other local golf courses — Deer Track and Willow Ridge — have closed in recent years. Earlier this year, Indiana Tech bought the Donald Ross Golf Club on South Calhoun Street and will convert nine of its 18 holes into a softball field, track-and-field complex and athletics building.

Gilbert has signed a letter of intent to sell Cedar Creek Golf Club, 10000 Garman Road north of Leo-Cedarville, to a developer hoping to build 126 single-family homes on the nearly 116-acre site.

The sale, which is opposed by some people living near the golf course, is pending while developer Tullymore Run completes due diligence work, Gilbert said. That includes appearing before the Allen County Plan Commission during the commission’s meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday in Citizens Square to ask that the golf course property be rezoned from agricultural to single-family residential and that the commission approve the proposed development’s primary plat.

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Gilbert, now age 64 and thinking about retirement, said he didn’t try to sell the golf course, which would close after this season if the sale goes through. The developer approached him with a purchase offer that was much higher than what he could get by selling the property as a golf course.

“The business was my passion and my life,” said Gilbert, who gets up at 5 a.m. and works to 10 p.m. daily during the golf season. “But it became so hard financially the last 10 years,” leaving him wondering some days if he would have enough money to pay employees and get through the winter.

FROM BOOM TO NOW

Golf enjoyed a boom in popularity from about 1985 to 2005, Gilbert and other golf course owners and managers said.

Some of the increased interest came from the success and popularity of Tiger Woods, who was in his prime, they said.

In Fort Wayne, International Harvester recently had closed most of its local operations and laid off thousands of workers, Gilbert said. People had time to play golf and the cost of greens fees was relatively cheap, so he saw a 10 percent jump in business.

Local golf courses also hosted a lot of company leagues and events, he said.

Then developers added 44 percent more golf holes over the next 20 years throughout America, Gilbert said.

The new courses found they couldn’t charge high fees for golf rounds, so they began cutting the cost of greens fees, which created a “race to the bottom” on pricing, he said.

The recession that hit America and the Fort Wayne area in 2008-2009 also hurt business, said Mike Harris, owner of Brookwood Golf Club, 10304 Bluffton Road south of Fort Wayne.

Company golf leagues and outings evaporated at some courses, including his, Gilbert said.

Weather also has been a problem, golf course officials said.

Golf courses normally count on being able to get players out on the course in April through September, with extra days sometimes possible in October, said James Baker, manager of Lakeside Golf Club and Bowling Center, 747 N. Coliseum Blvd.

This year, cold, weather wiped out all of April, Gilbert said.

A Lakeside, which is built in the floodplain of the Maumee River, increased construction and paving in the Fort Wayne area also increases the risk of flooding at his golf course, Baker said.

REACHING YOUNGER PLAYERS

In recent years, fewer young people have been playing golf — or playing as much golf, golf course owners and managers said.

Many younger adults devote their time to their children’s sports, including travel and club sports programs that consume time in the sports’ normal off-season, they said.

Some people also perceive golf as too expensive, too time-consuming and too difficult, Harris and Baker said.

But some people in the golf industry also believe members of the millennial generation now are getting to the point in their careers where they have the money and time to play golf, said Mike Riley, owner and pro at Colonial Oaks Golf Club, 8218 Huguenard Road in Fort Wayne. He sees a lot of millennials playing golf outdoors and playing video-game golf at home.

While some young people are playing golf, they typically don’t play as regularly as previous generations did, Lakeside’s Baker said.

“I’m not sure it’s coming back very soon,” he said of the popularity of golf.

OFFERING OPTIONS

Golf courses have to find ways to encourage people to play, Riley said.

Colonial Oaks, for example, offers a couples golf league and has offered some special deals, such as a round of golf and lunch for a price less than the regular price for both, he said.

Lakeside and Brookwood both have nine-hole, shorter Par 3 golf courses along with their 18-hole regulation courses.

The Par 3 course has attracted families playing with their children and allows other people to play and enjoy golf without the regulation course beating them up because of its difficulty, Harris said.

Brookwood, Lakeside and other courses also have embraced the golf industry’s “Tee It Forward” initiative, which encourages golfers to play from tees suited to their ability.

Lakeside, for example, now offers four tees at each hole to give golfers options on whether to tee off closer or farther from the green, said Baker, who complex also includes a bowling alley. Brookwood offers five different tee options at each hole, Harris said.

THE FUTURE

The closing of some courses could increase the number of people playing at surviving golf courses, Riley said. But if golf course owners try to raise prices too much, it could keep golfers away, Baker said.

However, Riley and the others believe golf will survive locally in the future.

“In my opinion, it is the greatest game there is,” Riley said. “You can play it when you are 3, and you can play it when you are 85. No other sport is that way.”

LEARN MORE

For more about golf courses mentioned in this story, such as their greens fees and memberships, go to their website:

• Brookwood Golf Club, 10304 Bluffton Road, Fort Wayne: http://brookwoodgc.com

• Cedar Creek Golf Club, 10000 Garman Road, Leo-Cedarville: http://www.cedarcreekgc.com

• Colonial Oaks Golf Club, 8218 Huguenard Road, Fort Wayne: http://colonialoaksgc.com

• Donald Ross Golf Club, 7102 S. Calhoun St: https://www.golfdonaldross.com

• Lakeside Golf Club and Bowling Center, 747 N. Coliseum Blvd.: http://www.lakesidegolfandbowling.com

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