Are Golf Courses America’s Next Bowling Alleys?

Recent developments surrounding the Golf Club of Dallas, formerly the Oak Cliff Golf Club, bring to mind a panel discussion at June’s National Association of Real Estate Editors confab.  Seems golf clubs are not as popular with the young as they are with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.  There are several reasons for this, including shifting socialization patterns, negative perceptions of the game’s culture, and cost.

It seems that as society has picked the pockets of young people for everything from student debt to over-priced apartments, there’s simply less in the kitty for expensive pastimes like golf.  And golf is an expensive activity.  Aside from the stereotypically garish ensembles, it’s not difficult to drop a grand on a set of clubs, a couple of hundred on shoes, and upwards of $50 for every dozen balls. And that’s before you hit the links.

To access a public course you have greens fees and cart rental. A round at the Cowboys Golf Club will set you back between $130 to $190 while Tierra Verde in Arlington will set you back a more reasonable $30-65 per round plus tax and cart rental.  The aforementioned Golf Club of Dallas charges between $20-60 per round.

Of course if you go the country club route, the sky’s the limit with initiation fees and annual dues.  In 2014, D Magazine pegged the Dallas Country Club dues at north of $100,000 and it wasn’t the most expensive private golf club in Dallas.

Given these numbers, it’s not hard to understand a younger generation, saddled with debt and an Uptown apartment, that just isn’t interested in such a pricey hobby.

Ironically, many protest golf course construction due to environmental and chemical issues

In March 2017, the National Golf Foundation reported that 211 golf courses closed in 2016, while just 15 opened. For those keeping score, that leaves 14,117 18-hole courses. The Foundation claims more people are playing golf, but I suspect that as more Boomers retire, they’re playing more golf versus Gens X, Y and Z picking it up. It’s also important to note that the 20 years prior to the Recession were a boom of golf course building that may be contributing to today’s contraction.

Backing up my theory that younger generations are less likely to take up golf was that June panel discussion where golf community owners reported all manner of incentives to get younger players interested.  Parents and grandparents could purchase multi-generational memberships to cut the costs for younger players.  Some were grandfathering their elder’s initiation fees onwards to younger generations.  Others were extending the age when children aged-out of their parents’ memberships to theoretically allow them to be in a better financial position to take on the fees.

Even the White House installed a bowling alley

Bowling For Dollars

It all smells a little like bowling to me.  What was a national pastime from the 1950s to the 1970s, bowling fell out of favor with the general public in recent decades. Because of its blue-collar appeal, Detroit was the epicenter of bowling. At its height in the late 1970s, the city had 300,000 members in the Metro Detroit U.S. Bowling Congress. By 2015, the number was 45,000 members.  From 1998 to 2013, bowling alleys declined nationwide from 5,400 to 3,976, a 26 percent drop.  In Detroit, the drop was 28 percent.

In bowling’s case, it wasn’t the costs that inhibited participation, it was the lack of commitment to league play that required bowlers to set aside a regular time slot each week. As socialization and work hours changed, bowling suffered.  It was also seen as un-cool.

At about the same time, bowling alleys built in the decades after World War II had owners nearing retirement age who found the dirt beneath the alley was worth more than the business they’d spend decades building.  Developers snapped up these large lots located on some very prime real estate.

Source: George Dahl papers, University of Texas at Austin

In Dallas, Hart Bowling Alley was a double tragedy.  Located at Web Chapel and Northwest Highway, Hart Bowl was built in 1959 with George Dahl as architect.  The 32-lane structure was full of the futuristic expression of the day.  In 2011, Hart Bowl fell to the wrecking ball and now we have a Walmart Supercenter.  Hardly a great trade.

Bowling has seen a retro resurgence as it’s changed to meet the requirements of younger audiences, but it remains a shadow of its former glory.  Are we at the beginning of a similar slide for golf?  As older generations die, will golf similarly find a level of stability with younger generations? In the meantime, there’s land.

Where else are you going to find 150 relatively affordable acres within nine miles of downtown?

Golf Courses Are Catnip to Developers

The average 18-hole course ranges from 110 to 190 acres of largely open land already plumbed and strung with full utilities.  When they’re not part of a planned community that funds the course and likely has bylaws requiring the golf course’s operation in perpetuity, developers’ ears perk up.

Like those poor wildebeest we’ve all seen crossing the muddy river, it’s the weaker, independent golf courses that get snapped up by the crocodiles developers. Sometimes figuring into the mix, like those bowling alleys, is the passing of a business to a generation that doesn’t want it. For you lottery players, how many check the “30 equal payments” versus the “lump sum” payout option?

In Southern Dallas, there is the Golf Club of Dallas, but also Cedar Crest Golf Course (purchased by the city in 1946 when the area was white). It was Cedar Crest that got the PGA to come to Dallas for the first Dallas Open in 1926. When the Golf Club of Dallas was opened as the Oak Cliff Country Club in 1953, the tournament landed there before moving out to the Byron Nelson course at the Four Seasons in Irving.

At any rate, at nine miles from downtown and comprising 150 acres north of I-20 and between US-67 and I-35E, it’s easy to see this is a sweet location for redevelopment. It’s also in an area where land prices haven’t gone completely insane.

I believed Huffines when they said that if it wasn’t them, it would be someone else.  I doubt the community can come up with a long-term plan to sustain the Golf Course, nor do I see the strapped city budget stretching to purchase the land. They already have one public golf course six miles away.

Interestingly, once a course is in place, protests erupt to keep them

What the community can do is work with the course owners to vet developers who will add something uplifting to this changing area. Because like many parts of southern Dallas, what’s not needed is housing that maintains the status quo or that becomes cheaply-built blight in a few years.

But there are two largely opposing interests to consider.  To the landowner, this is an owned asset.  To the neighbor, it’s greenspace they feel entitled to. With Huffines signaling their pulling out, perhaps there’s time to strike a compromise. That may be a green belt that buffers existing homes from the new homes built within. But for those with a 150-acre backyard, there’s little that will soothe.

For those of you living near privately owned struggling golf courses, you’ve been warned. Sure as shootin’, the Golf Club of Dallas ain’t the only course looking to sell.

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.

10 Comment

  • mm

    From the lips of Gary Player:
    “I learned that in the boom, almost one golf course per day was going up in the U.S. as 300 to 400 new courses opened each year. They were driving lifestyle communities, and real estate. But golf has suffered with the real estate recession. And country club memberships are on the decline. Many people think golf courses are not good for the environment as they need green turf grass which sucks water but that is always not true: an 18 hole golf course produces enough oxygen for a town of 100,000 people every year. And in La Paz, one ecological about face happened when the CostaBaja developers paid to treat and recycle the city’s sewage. Instead of dumping it into the ocean (which nearly every third world country does) they treat it and use the tank water to irrigate the golf course.

    “The rest of the world embraces golf,” said Player. “They see it as a badge of economic wealth.”
    https://www.secondshelters.com/2010/11/09/golfer-extraordinaire-gary-player-i-love-mexico-the-food-the-women-the-beaches-the-country/

  • Great article. Buyers paying premiums for golf course lots are forewarned.

  • Let’s be clear: one doesn’t need to play golf to don the occasional garish ensemble.

  • Thoughtful piece Jon…..What a terrible mid-century architectural loss though with Hart Bowl.–way before my time in Dallas. Walmart–my God, America’s blight. And as far as the old Oak CLiff Country Club (Golf Club of Dallas) goes I hope Huffines does pull out. What a crappy generic home builder (however successful). Your point of working with a developer for a top-notch, quality, environmental and architectural decent development (my interpretation) is well taken. How about a 21st century–oriented builder like PSW of Austin? Just toured the really cool sustainable, solar-powered Mueller Park in Austin. Nice. Diane Cheatham of Urban Reserve and Urban Forum comes to mind as well. There are a number of great architect-builders in this town. GGCC is a beautiful site and it needs to be treated as such and not just exploited.

  • I’m surprised we haven’t seen more golf courses closed and redeveloped as lots for housing.
    Just saw the community clubhouse and pool torn down in my old neighborhood and redeveloped as townhomes.
    Could TopGolf be the next community developer? That might be fun….or even a mini-top golf….1 story or 2 stories with a pool and dining room?