Bob Lutz

August 6, 2011

Golf course problems more than just money

It sounds like city manager Robert Layton is going to close one of the five municipal golf courses in town. Public meetings are scheduled for this month so citizens can air their concerns, but by all accounts one of the courses is going to go.

It sounds like city manager Robert Layton is going to close one of the five municipal golf courses in town. Public meetings are scheduled for this month so citizens can air their concerns, but by all accounts one of the courses is going to go.

There's a spirited debate being had about which one of the five — Auburn Hills, Clapp, Sim, Tex Consolver and MacDonald Park — will be on the chopping block. Personally, I would hate to say goodbye to any of them. I learned to play golf — poorly — on the city's public courses along with all the other schlups in cut-off jeans and T-shirts. I lugged my clubs around without much hope of doing anything good with them.

Yet, even my most miserable day of golf is better than almost any other day. I'm a golf course guy. I appreciate their serene beauty. It's not always as much about the golf with me as it is the setting.

When I first heard that Layton was looking for a course to ax, my immediate reaction was that there are other things that should be done before the city rids itself of a course.

I understand that play is down almost across the board. I know that playing golf isn't as popular these days as it was when Tiger Woods was at the apex of his game. I credit Woods with the boom in golf that occurred during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As for golf in Wichita, I would be in favor of holding off on closing one of the courses. Instead, Layton should insist that the employees of those five courses take a crash course in the art of customer service.

When I play a city course, I'm often greeted by indifference and, sometimes, rudeness. And that's by the people taking my $33.40, the cost of a weekend round of 18 holes with a cart.

It's as if they're doing me a favor by letting me play the course, even though I'm doling out a fair chunk of change to do so.

I don't mind the cost of a round of golf on the five public courses. I think the price is fair and with as many shots as I normally hit in a round, I definitely get my money's worth.

But would a smile at the cash register hurt? Would a warm greeting be asking for too much?

The golf courses are a business, after all. And I'm a paying customer.

I don't want to lump all the courses together on this matter. Some customer service is better than others, and I confess to not having played at Clapp for a few years. But I've played the other four courses often over the past few years and the treatment I receive has been hit and miss.

I have talked to quite a few other golfers who feel the same way, so isn't it possible that the decrease in play over the years is at least partially a result of poor customer service?

Up until a few years ago, the pros at the five public courses were rewarded with not only a salary, but a cut of the cart rental and concessions. That's not happening now because of some belt tightening. And I would venture a guess that without a shot at extra revenue, the pros lack incentive to get golfers to their courses.

The pros used to be front and center at the local courses. My experience now has been more in dealing with the assistant pro and part-time help.

The golf courses are showing their age, too, which has led to the city identifying the need for nearly $6.3 million in course improvements over the next 10 years. That includes nearly $2 million in clubhouse renovation and a new driving range at MacDonald, the old Wichita Country Club and one of the city's landmarks.

But there are those who argue that the renovations aren't as important as keeping all five courses up and running.

The obvious victim of Layton's decision is Clapp, west of the intersection of Harry and Oliver. It has been the least-played municipal course in Wichita the past five years. But Clapp has a loyal group of regulars and closing the old course would be closing off public golf to a large quadrant of Wichita.

Sim, located just north of Botanica in Riverside Park, has been the city's most popular course for several years and in 2010 was the most profitable. It's hard to imagine Sim going away.

Consolver, on Tyler Road north of Kellogg, is another big revenue producer.

Auburn Hills, near 135th West and Maple, is the city's crown jewel, a Perry Dye-designed course that has slowly become a moneymaker. Auburn Hills isn't for everyone — the stereotypical weekend hacker doesn't stand a chance — but it's a cut or two above most public courses.

City officials say status quo is an option, but not really. Not closing one course would, they say, lead to a deterioration in the infrastructures of all five courses. Golfers like their courses green and well kept, so something has to give here.

I still say closing one of these courses can be averted with better marketing and a devotion to customer service.

Wichita's five municipal courses all have a lot to offer. This is a proud golfing community and those loyal to one or more than one of the public links shouldn't be put through a closing. Not yet, at least.

It's too soon to close a course. Close one and you don't get it back.

It'll be interesting to hear the feedback from people who play these courses. And it will be just as interesting to see how the city goes about trying to come to a consensus on which course to close.

Perhaps we won't get to that. What the city courses need is a well thought out PR campaign, not a For Sale sign.

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