Last year, the leadership at the Country Club of Barre in Plainfield made several changes they hoped would increase membership and improve finances. The club added more corporate events, league play, and nine and dine (nine holes of golf followed by dinner at the club’s restaurant) and placed greater emphasis on the non-member, pay-to-play golfer. The changes worked — the club has more members this year than last and revenues are up.

Montpelier Elks Country Club made similar changes last year, also geared toward greater financial stability, but the changes made by that club have not yet improved the bottom line, as membership and revenues are down.

The changes made by both clubs are similar to what is happening at all of the 62 golf clubs in Vermont and at the 15,000 courses nationwide. The golf market has changed dramatically, and clubs across the country are changing focus to survive. There are fewer golfers now than there were twenty years ago, especially fewer younger golfers under 40, many of whom have switched to other sports such as bicycling, hiking and kayaking, and the casual golfer often doesn’t have the three to four hours needed to play a full 18 holes.

“Clubs need to switch gears. It used to be a golf course with a restaurant, and now it’s a restaurant with a golf course,” said Matt Wilson, the general manager at Neshobe Golf Club in Brandon.

Wilson, who is in his first full year at Neshobe, said the Brandon club has made several changes this year, including greater emphasis on the club’s restaurant. “Last year, at the end of the day, there’d be 10 to 12 golfers left on the course and the restaurant would be closed,” he said. This summer the menu has improved, the hours extended, and there is greater emphasis on using the facility for outside events.

Dave Soucy, the new head professional at the Country Club of Barre, agrees clubs must change to meet the changing market. “It really gets down to customer service. You need to create a club where everyone feels welcome and wants to spend time at your club,” he said. Like Neshobe, the Plainfield club also has improved its restaurant and is more aggressively marketing the facility for private and corporate events. In addition, the club is putting greater emphasis on the young golfer and is running several summer camps. The future for golf is getting young people interested, he said.

“For a club to survive it must be a destination for golfers and their families, a place to eat, play golf and have fun,” Soucy said. For the past 13 years he was the manager of Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington.

Bob Kennedy, the president of the Rutland Country Club, said his club, like the other clubs in the state, has made several changes, including adding an “evergreen” pass geared toward the casual golfer who does not play weekly and a discounted membership for “young professionals” golfers 18 to 37. Membership in that group has tripled in three years.

The biggest problem for revenues this year, Kennedy said, has been the rain. “Membership revenues are up but revenues from day use are down,” he said.

Mark Reaves, the president of the Northfield Country Club, agrees this spring has been difficult.

“Whenever you have a business that is weather dependent, it’s a challenge,” he said. The Northfield course was hit hard by Hurricane Irene. According to Reaves, the course, which straddles the Dog River, lost five bridges and several T-boxes in that storm and was closed for the last two months of the 2011 season.

“Like all small courses, we struggle, but we are keeping our head above the water,” he said.

According to the National Golf Foundation, the country has lost nearly 800 courses in the past decade. Golf participation in the U.S. peaked in 2005 at about 30 million golfers. That number dropped to about 24 million over the next decade but has held fairly steady for the past five years.

Vermont has seen a similar trend, according to Kyle Jacobs, tournament director for the Vermont Golf Association, not with clubs closing but with membership dropping. This past year, however, the association had a significant increase in membership from 8,600 to 9,000, a welcome trend after several years of decline.

Jacobs also mentioned the wet weather as a problem this year concerning day use fee, but said the last few weeks have seen a significant improvement.

“We’re doing well, membership is up and interest in golf is up,” Jacobs said. According to Jacobs, the increase in membership has not been shared evenly across the member clubs. “There are some clubs struggling, generally smaller clubs that are near larger clubs,” he said.

Scott Cameron, the chair of the golf committee for the Elks Country Club, is hopeful the Montpelier course will survive.

“We have an excellent nine-hole facility, but are slowly losing our members and revenues. The course is a little gem in the heart of Montpelier. If the community wants to see a golf course in Montpelier, they need to come out and golf,” Cameron said. The club broke even last year, but could end this year in the red.

“One thing people don’t realize is you don’t have to be a member of the Elks club to be a course member, as the two are separate entities,” he said. The land for the course is leased by the club and the Elks club leases the building.

Only a handful of the Vermont’s 62 clubs are private, member-only clubs. Most are semi-private and offer day rates as well as memberships.

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