URBANA — In the world of golf course management, it's become adapt or die.
That's the problem at the privately owned Stone Creek Golf Club in Urbana, which opened with high standards for a public course. They can't be maintained at the current level of play without a major subsidy.
"It's been a golf course for 18 years," said Spencer Atkins, son of the late Clint Atkins, who founded The Atkins Group and developed Stone Creek. "I think people enjoy it, but golf's just not the same that it was."
When asked if Stone Creek is losing money, he said, "I'm not going to go on record and say that it's ever made money. When Clint owned it, he was the only shareholder, and so what he wanted was his vision, and he executed his vision. The family respects his vision and would like to keep it that way, but it's not feasible."
Spencer Atkins, a director of The Atkins Group, said last week that the course will remain open through 2018 but made no promises beyond that. The company is looking at other uses for the course, which is within a 301-lot residential development, of which 176 lots have been developed.
Nationally, more than 5 percent of all golf courses have closed since 2005, as the number of participants declined from a high of about 30 million in 2005 to 23.8 million in 2016.
"The number of core golfers — those who play more than eight rounds a year — is down about 42 percent in the last 10 years," Atkins said. "I love golf. If I didn't like golf, we wouldn't have held onto Clint's vision (his father died in April 2011) this long. But times have changed."
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Guy Percy, president of the board that owns and manages the public Railside Golf Club in Gibson City, understands the predicament the Atkins Group is in.
"It's a different world. People are busy now, so we think that 12 holes is the place to be. They don't have time for 18," said Percy, whose group runs the only 12-hole course in the area.
At one point last year, the group had hoped to purchase the original 18-hole, 197-acre Railside course. That wasn't feasible, so it settled for 117 acres and converted it to 12 holes.
"We're so much better off," he said. "We've got a lot less expense. Now we can get by with one greens mower, one fairway mower, one of about every piece of equipment where we would have needed two.
"We're renovating all of our bunkers, and that would have been about 22 more bunkers to renovate at 3,000 (dollars) a pop that we don't have to renovate. There's a lot less labor, a lot less chemicals without that 80 acres."
And the smaller course is more flexible. People can play six, 12 or 18 holes. And there's still enough capacity to accommodate big outings of 100 golfers or so, he said.
"We were so disappointed that we couldn't buy it all, but I think we're way ahead that we could only get 12 of it. It's kinda ironic. But I think Nicklaus is onto something," Percy said of golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who is developing 12-hole courses. "There are a few more popping up in places, and we feel good about it."
Percy said he believes the golf industry, locally and nationally, will see more change.
"There are going to be a lot more Stone Creeks, unfortunately. I don't know how many years it's been, maybe a dozen years in a row where we've had more courses close in the year than have opened," he said. "It needs to happen for maybe another decade until this game can get healthy again.
"I don't know how you could make Stone Creek profitable, not at the standard that (Clint Atkins) expected. I don't know how you do it. I'd love to put a group together to buy it for a million bucks, but then the problem is you own it and you'd have to be prepared to lose money doing it. That's the problem."
The market is so overbuilt, Percy said, that it costs less today to play golf in central Illinois than it did 15 years ago.
"From 1993 to '04, every year when I was the pro out here, I'd do a little call-around in the spring to get everyone's rate, and then we'd set ours and go up a dollar every year. The days of going up a buck a year are gone," he said. "For those of us that can survive the next decade, I think it will be a much better position, but it's not hit bottom yet.
"A lot of businessmen, Clint Atkins included, probably opened these things with their heart instead of their business mind. And things looked better in those days when he opened it."
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The 18-hole Blue Needles Golf Course in Fairmount closed last year, and no new owner was found, and the park district-owned Brookhill Golf Course in Rantoul remains open but in deep financial trouble.
"I would say that we have experienced about a 10 percent decrease in play over the last several years, and nothing at the start of this year would indicate that it's going to be any different than it's been in the past," said Bill Scott, the attorney and secretary of the park district board that operates Brookhill. "I expect that we'll see another decrease in play, and the amount of subsidy that we're going to need from the taxpayers will go up again."
Brookhill's problem, he said, is a covenant on the property that the federal government decreed when it helped the park district purchase the land for the golf course.
"The covenant on the property requires it to be an outdoor public recreation area," he said. "We already have plenty of outdoor walking space in our community. We don't need another 160 acres."
The requirement, he said, "makes it virtually impossible for us to function, and yet they won't remove the covenant so we can sell the property. It's just unbelievable."
The Champaign County Forest Preserve District, which operates the 18-hole Lake of the Woods course in Mahomet, began to recognize a drop in play and in revenue earlier this decade, said the agency's new executive director, Mary Ellen Wuellner.
"Up until about 2013, our golf course was self-sustaining. And the money we brought in was used for operations. Since then, the district has had to subsidize golf a little bit," she said.
The worst year was 2016, when the course covered only 89.7 percent of its costs. The figure improved to almost 96 percent last year, she said.
Although there was never any discussion about closing Lake of the Woods, the district had a study done by the National Golf Foundation in 2014 that was aimed at arresting the downward trend.
The study found that every golf course in the area "has seen significant declines in rounds activity" and that many courses "report financial results similar or worse than" Lake of the Woods. It said that the local market was "highly competitive" with "an aging golf population."
"NGF believes that continued stress in the market may result in one or more area golf courses closing, possibly improving performance of those that remain open," the report concluded.
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It also recommended changes at Lake of the Woods, including upgrading the snack bar and reaching out to new markets.
So it has organized a combined golf and yoga program for women that has been so popular that a second session was added. And golf staff is working in nearby schools to introduce the sport to young people.
"National statistics say that people just don't have the time to commit to a round of golf, particularly if you're young parents or have a family," Wuellner said. "But as you age, that's when golf is suddenly appealing again.
"If you've never picked up a golf club until you're 55, you're not likely to do it then because you've got other interests. But if you played as a kid and then got away from it, you're more likely to come back to it when you do have some leisure time. That's why this reaching out to youth is something we're trying to do."
It may be too late for Stone Creek to adjust, Atkins said.
Making it a nine-hole course is among the many alternatives being considered, he said, although Stone Creek's high level of quality and the chemical, equipment and labor costs that come with it make that difficult."Maybe that would work. But then the argument comes up that you have all this infrastructure that you have to support, and there aren't enough players who can run through nine holes at a time to pay the big bills," he said.
Atkins said a professional planner hasn't been hired to review options for use of the golf course, but "brainstorming" ideas include developing it into 5-acre estate lots, or using it for horse stables, gardens, concert pavilions or park land.
"It's a big decision," he said. "It's going to take a lot of time to figure that out, and we will make sure whatever path we go down is fully thought out before we pull the trigger."