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Hot, humid and empty

Area courses offer discounted rates and special membership groups provide relatively inexpensive access as the number of summer golfers shrivels.

By JOHN SCHWARB

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


Stan Cooke remembers a time when he wouldn't compromise on off-peak rates for his golf courses.

Today, he said he is known around the clubhouse as "Monty Hall."

When it comes to summer golf in the Tampa Bay area, the name of the game could very well be Let's Make a Deal, played for an audience of golfers impervious to heat and humidity.

But while course professionals and executives play the hosts, doling out discounts and special offers to attract play, they are not always smiling and jovial after sending players to the first tee for fractions of winter rates.

"It is absolutely impossible to make money in the summer," said Cooke, vice president and director of golf at World Woods in Brooksville. "With the lower quantity of golfers and the price that they're paying, plus the high amount of money that you're spending on golf course maintenance, it just kills you."

It is a bitter irony of the Florida golf business that from January to April a course can charge $50-$100 or more and be packed from sunup to sundown, and just a few months later the same fairways can be half-empty or worse despite greens fees that dip as low as $20.

Courses cannot close for the summer or cut back on upkeep because fewer players show up. Attempting to increase traffic and keep a trickle of money coming in, courses use alternative means of finding players, all of which are a boon to players. Twenty-one area courses are taking part in Paradise Golf's membership program, which allows unlimited reduced-rate play for an up-front membership fee at courses ranging from upscale public to private.

Paradise Golf, a division of Outback Sports, started its first membership program in Jacksonville eight years ago and has expanded to Texas, Arizona, Central Florida and Tampa Bay.

In its third year, the Tampa Bay membership is the company's most popular, with an estimated 100,000 rounds to be played this summer.

"I think the consumer is telling us that they perceive the card as a value," said Jim Tipps, chief operating officer for Outback Sports. "What we saw was a niche to go to the higher-end clubs and cluster them together, and we have been successful in doing that so far."

Paradise Golf charges $199 for a four-month membership (May 1-Aug. 31) and $299 for a six-month card (May 1-Oct. 31) and pays its member courses for participating. The majority of courses from previous years have remained in the program, though some have had reservations.

"I would say it's a love-hate relationship," said Tipps, who is familiar with the rigors of selling summer golf as former director of golf at Hunter's Green Country Club in Tampa. "Their average (margin) per round is obviously lower. What they're banking on is making up in volume, getting rounds they wouldn't normally get."

Another summer discount package available to the public is the American Lung Association's discount book, which offers reduced greens fees at more than 700 courses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

Eighty courses are involved in Tampa Bay this year. The card costs $25, and discounts vary in dollar amount and number of rounds available per course.

Participating courses in the Lung Card do not receive fees from the organization, but many think they need to stay involved to keep up with neighboring courses.

"You have to be in them because they're out there," said Tom West, director of golf at Bardmoor Golf Club in Largo. "I don't like them, it just drives down the rates for everyone and the charity makes the money.

"Not that I'm opposed to giving money to charity, but they get the most out of it when we're the ones spending millions of dollars to advertise and maintain the course."

The perceptions that come with drastically reduced golf rates also are a concern to upscale daily-fee and semi-private courses, which have to be sensitive to winter residents and members when offering cheap golf to outsiders.

"We've consciously moved away from discounting as much as we used to," said Clay Thomas, director at Tampa's Westchase Golf Club, which charged $84 in the peak of winter and charges $19.80 in summer with the Paradise card. "Long-term, we'd like to say we don't need (summer card participation). But it's not something you can change in one year."

Cooke, who said he "swore up and down I'd never get into this lower-pricing game" when World Woods opened in 1993, employs multiple summer options, including the Lung and Paradise cards and discounted hotel/golf packages.

Even at his Pine Barrens course, ranked No. 97 in Golf Digest's 100 Greatest Golf Courses list, tee times pass unbooked at prices as low as $25. That does not mean he can stop impersonating Monty Hall.

"Creating deals -- that's what it takes in the summer," Cooke said. "Either you get into the game, or you don't get rounds of golf."

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