Public golf courses throughout the suburbs operated at a deficit or were barely profitable for several years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we were all kind of concerned heading into 2020 because we really didn’t know what was going to happen with the industry as a whole,” said Kevin Carlson, director of golf at the Naperville Park District.
In 2019, golf operations at Naperville’s two public courses eked out a $103,009 profit despite missing revenue projections by nearly $200,000.
That’s a far cry from last year, when profits at the district’s Springbrook and Naperbrook courses raked in nearly $2 million in profits and outpaced revenue projections by more than $1.1 million.
Naperville’s park district also saw a $1.4 million golf profit in 2020.
“We saw a big increase because of COVID, and I imagine we’re not the only ones,” said Naperville Park District Executive Director Brad Wilson. “I think it reignited a love for the game in those who already played, and new golfers came out to experience it and have stayed with it and become active in the sport.”
Wilson is not wrong about the fortunes of suburban golf courses, which became one of the few profitable programs for many park districts during the pandemic.
Golf operations at 32 suburban park districts, forest preserves and municipalities combined for more than $19 million in profits in 2021, according to a Daily Herald analysis of those government agencies’ audits. In 2019, the same 32 agencies reported a combined $2.8 million deficit from golf operations.
But operators of public golf courses have seen these windfalls before. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, golf courses were a relative gold mine for many public agencies thanks to interest in the sport spurred by Tiger Woods’ ascent to the top of the game and a soaring economy.
Then when the country went through the Great Recession and Woods’ star was tarnished by personal problems, interest in golf waned.
“Back then there were a lot of municipal golf courses that were making a lot of money, and that money ultimately got redirected probably into redoing a lot of swimming pools and tennis courts,” said Ed Stevenson, director of golf at the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, which operates three public courses that generated $1.9 million in profits last year. “Then years later on down the road when golf was leaner, the reserves weren’t there to take on the necessary upkeep and improvements at golf courses.
“I’ve got to imagine a lot of golf course operators have learned the importance of being able to make it through that ebb and flow and not just spend the dollars elsewhere during the good times.”
The fear of another ebb makes budgeting tricky, some public course operators said.
“That was the fear we had in budgeting for 2022, that this was a false top,” said Rick Walrath, general manager at Huntley Park District’s Pinecrest Golf Club, which saw the number of rounds of golf climb 20% from 2019 to 2021. “But we’re on pace for another profit this year, but maybe not as much as we saw in 2021.”
Of the 32 suburban agencies in the analysis, only one didn’t turn a profit in 2021.
The village-owned nine-hole Streamwood Oaks Golf Club was the only suburban operation to end 2021 with a deficit. Despite revenues at $122,877 above budget projections, Streamwood Oaks finished the year $21,316 in the red, according to the village audit.
“We pay cash for anything capital like our buildings or vehicles so we’re not burdening our taxpayers with borrowing,” Streamwood Village Manager Sharon Caddigan explained. “Any money we’re making there, we’re reinvesting it back into the golf club so it doesn’t pose any additional cost to taxpayers.”
But while the pandemic may have been a boon for public golf courses, it was a significant bust for most other park district programs, especially in 2020, officials said.
“The earnings from the golf course were virtually the only revenues received for district operations during the COVID shutdown, as all other recreation programming had to be suspended,” said Steve Burgess, deputy director at the Schaumburg Park District. “It continues to be an important source as the district recovers from the COVID period.”
The Schaumburg Park District’s golf operations reported a $1.2 million profit last year. In 2019, district taxpayers spent an additional $356,760 to cover losses at the district’s links.
However, the district also saw almost $7 million in programming revenue wiped out because of the pandemic, according to the district’s audits. The district eliminated nearly half the 120 staff positions during the pandemic.
At the height of the pandemic, most indoor activities were canceled to follow state-mandated safety guidelines. Then districts struggled to find participants for many of those programs due to residents’ lingering health concerns.
For many, golf was the only viable recreational or athletic endeavor available.
“Obviously, the pandemic forcing people, for quite some time, to participate almost exclusively in outdoor activities was going to benefit golf courses,” said Alex Eichman, chief of golf operations at the Lake County Forest Preserve District, where the three courses there went from losing $383,222 in 2019 to profits exceeding $1 million the following two years. “But we also had to deal with increased expenses, which cut into those profits.”
Eichman said inflation has increased costs on all sorts of items, while staffing shortages have required operators to cover shifts with overtime or increase salaries to retain employees.
Again, what one operation is experiencing is not unique to them.
“With the incredible rise in fuel costs, we were forced to increase cart fees this year,” Carlson said.
It’s a delicate balancing act. Too many rate hikes may push a segment of the golfing clients to other courses or out of the game.
“We’re definitely aware of the questions about how long this will last and if there’s going to be a COVID hangover that pulls everything back to the levels we were at before,” Carlson said. “But at this point, we’re still not seeing that.”