VANCOUVER - It was a bit like a scrambling up-and-down par after three straight double- bogeys.
It would be a stretch to call it a very good year, but 2012 was certainly much better than the previous three years for B.C. golf courses.
Business was up -- not dramatically, but up -- after three straight years of declines at most B.C. courses. And golf course operators are optimistic that better times may be ahead.
"It feels like we sort of bottomed out," says Andy Hedley, vice-president of operations for GolfBC, the province's largest golf course operator. "We have seen a growth in rounds across the company of just over three per cent. It's not like it has climbed back up to where it was, but it's certainly not high single-digit drops which is what we have seen in the last couple of years.
"So for us, it's a positive sign. We are not jumping for joy yet, but things seem to have stabilized anyway."
The news is even better at the three City of Vancouver courses, where play was also up.
"We have actually had a pretty good year considering the start of the year wasn't that great," says Howard Normann, supervisor of golf operations. "We had a bit of a tough spring, but the nice summer and fall helped a lot. At Fraserview, we are up about seven per cent, at Langara we are up about two per cent and we're up about 17 or 18 per cent at McCleery."
Langara is always hurt in the off-season by its inherent drainage problems. As the cheapest of the three courses, it is usually also the busiest in the summer but play drops off once things get wet.
Normann wasn't sure exactly why McCleery experienced such a significant increase, but suggested the park board's commitment to keeping all three courses in nice shape played a key part in boosting business. The park board also introduced a summer golf card that helped drive play.
"The weather helped and the course conditions were very good at all three courses," Normann says. "I think it was a combination of good conditions and good weather. I have always said the best marketing money you can spend is if you can guarantee sunshine. If it's a nice day people will come here."
Fraserview, Langara and McCleery normally log a total of between 180,000 and 200,000 rounds a year.
"And this year we will be up in that higher range," Normann says.
GolfBC, which operates nine B.C. courses including Gallagher's Canyon, Okanagan Golf Club, Nicklaus North and Mayfair Lakes, does not release its round totals.
But Hedley, who acknowledged the company has been forced to become a more lean operation in recent years because of a drop in business, said he now sees reason for optimism about the future.
"Cautiously optimistic would be the best way to describe it," he says. "We are obviously watching what is happening in some of the other markets. We are looking at the ski market right now and that's usually a very good indicator for us. I am keeping a close eye on what is happening at Whistler and the other ski resorts because we usually benefit if they have a great winter and right now Whistler is on pace to have a pretty strong winter.
"There's also more destination travel happening, which for us being dominantly resort courses, is huge. We obviously want more destination travel because that's not just a good thing for us but for the whole B.C. economy as well."
The West Coast Golf Group, which owns and operates Hazelmere, Belmont and Swan-e-set Bay, also saw business bounce back this year.
"Golf rounds were up about three per cent this year," says general manager Troy Peverley.
Like GolfBC and the City of Vancouver courses, Peverley says the emphasis has been on course conditioning and offering a good value in a highly competitive market.
"With great course conditions and reasonable green fees, it is a great time to be a golfer," Peverley says.
Brad Newell, whose family owns Kings Links by the Sea in Delta, says his course has weathered the recent golf recession better than most. Business has increased in each of the six years the Newells have owned the course and 2012 was no exception.
"We were up about five per cent or so this year," Newell says. "The key is making sure you don't charge too much. It is so price-dependent. When people call to make a time they are always asking the price now, whereas six years ago when we bought it nobody asked about the price. They didn't care."
Metro Vancouver's newest course, Pagoda Ridge in Langley, also had a good year, or at least a good five months. Since opening Aug. 1, the course has done about 20,000 rounds.
"We never thought it was going to be this busy," says Larry Brown, whose family owns and operates the course on 264th Street.
The good news for golfers is that many courses plan to hold the line on green fees in 2013. Both GolfBC and the City of Vancouver have indicated they do not plan any fee increases.
"We are not moving anything right now," Hedley says. "We'll be starting (2013) pretty much where we are in most cases."
Golfers should also get a break when the HST is abolished on April 1 and replaced by the GST and PST.
"Pre HST, we didn't charge the GST so we experienced a seven-per-cent increase just on tax," Normann says. "If they were to take that away I think that would help everybody."
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
Supervisor of Golf Operations Howard Normann shows one of the bathouses that the city of Vancouver erected on Fraserview golf course last April. The bats help keep mosquitos and insects in check as they can eat up to half of their body weight each day.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG