By Ken MacLeod
Golf had been on a uptick since the dark days of 2007-08 and still is nationally. Here in Oklahoma we’ve had to deal with the fallout of low energy prices and its boomerang effect on the economy. Still, among the causes for concern there were some great developments and reasons for optimism in 2015.
Let’s take a look back at the year that was.
– The first class of the new Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame was inducted in a ceremony Oct. 25 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Inducted were Gil Morgan, Bill Spiller, Mike Holder, Perry Maxwell, Charlie Coe and Bob Dickson. Living attendees Holder, Morgan and Dickson all made wonderful acceptance speeches, as did representatives for the deceased inductees. You can see video clips at www.oklahomagolfhof.org. The second class will be announced in May and inducted Sept. 18 at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa.
– The 100-year celebration of the Women’s Oklahoma Golf Association was held in an amazing banquet in July at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club. Numerous WOGA champions past and present were on hand. WOGA President Sheila Dills worked tirelessly on the planning of a memorable evening and the great video that commemorated the event.
– On the competitive scene, the accomplishments of state golfers, particularly current and former members of the Oklahoma Junior Golf Tour, continues to be an sensational success story. Edmond North grad Robert Streb had a breakout year on the PGA Tour, competing all the way through the Tour Championship and remaining in contention for the President’s Cup right up to the selections.
Streb will be joined on the PGA Tour in 2016 by adopted Oklahoman Rhein Gibson, an Aussie who played his collegiate golf at Oklahoma Christian and now makes his home in Edmond. Bo Van Pelt continues to play out of his home in Jenks. Former OSU Cowboys Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Morgan Hoffmann and Charles Howell remain prominent PGA Tour stars.
Kevin Tway of Edmond will lead a contingent of Oklahomans on the Web.com Tour. He’ll be joined this year by fellow Edmond resident and former Oklahoma State All-American Ian Davis, who finished second at the final stage of Web.com Tour qualifying. Also earning limited status were Talor Gooch of Midwest City and Chris Worrell of Tulsa. Ryan Spears of Del City and Tag Ridings, who grew up in Tulsa, will also be back on that tour looking to earn battlefield promotions.
The impact of former Oklahoma junior stars is not only being felt at the highest reaches of professional golf, but particularly on the college scenes, where former OJGT players line the rosters of state schools from the NAIA level right up through Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Arkansas also continues to lure some of our best, as this year’s signing of top OJGT recruit Mason Overstreet of Kingfisher confirms.
There are four Oklahomans – Tyson Reeder, Hayden Wood, Nick Heinen and Brendon Jelley – on the OSU roster with Austin Eckroat of Edmond North committed for 2017. Oklahoma is loaded with home state talent, including Max McGreevy, Brad Dalke, Thomas Johnson, Quade Cummins and Griffin Pierce, with both Lane Wallace (2017) and Logan McAllister (2018) having extended verbal commitments.
On the distaff side, Norman golfers Yujeong Son and Kaitlyn Milligan finished 1-2 in the WOGA Junior at Southern Hills, then both competed well in the U.S. Girls Junior Championship at Tulsa Country Club. Son, who will be a freshman at Norman High School, went on to win her second consecutive WOGA State Amateur Championship. Milligan, who will be a junior, also finished second in the Class 6A state championship.
Sydney Youngblood of Durant signed with the Sooners, while Broken Arrow’s Taylor Dobson signed with Tulsa and Trudy Allen of Union signed with Texas Wesleyan, among some of the class of 2016 notable signings. A complete list of OJGT signings is on www.golfoklahoma.org.
In Oklahoma Golf Association events, Jelley became the first player since Jim Kane in 1979-80 to repeat as State Amateur Champion, while Mike Hughett added to his record number of OGA titles by winning the OGA Senior State Amateur at Hillcrest Country Club for his 17th OGA state title.
The Economy of Golf
While many municipal courses experienced a slight bump in rounds in 2015, the depressed energy sector dragged the Oklahoma economy down, making it a tough year not just for Governor Mary Fallin and her bean counters at the state house, but for the general managers and membership directors of private clubs throughout the state. Also, the wettest year in the history of the state depressed rounds throughout the spring.
Any time there are massive layoffs in the energy industry and belt tightening all down the line at the industries that service oil and gas, it’s not good for private clubs. Those that kept their membership levels steady had a great year.
The real crisis at the course level in Oklahoma currently, however, is the privately-owned public course, which is becoming an endangered species. Unable to compete with subsidized municipal courses, the last few years have witnessed the closing of such courses as Emerald Falls, Clary Fields, Okmulgee Country Club, Cotton Creek, Riverbend in Chickasha (18 of 27 holes closed) Silverado in Durant and others. Several public courses are being kept afloat by banks which reluctantly found themselves in ownership positions and are trying unsuccessfully to sell the courses for a fee that would prevent the bank from taking a heavy loss.
Conversely, the only holes we’re aware of under construction in the state at the moment are a fourth nine at the bustling Win-Star Casino Resort in Thackerville.
If you take away courses connected with a resort (Shangri-La, Chickasaw Pointe) or casino (Cherokee Hills, WinStar, Peoria Ridge), the upscale daily fee market, which was all the rage of golf in the early 1990s, basically consists of Jimmie Austin in Norman and Forest Ridge in Broken Arrow. Most of the other top public courses in the state are either municipally owned or competing in that $20 to $30 range for green fees.
Municipal golf courses can make money if operated and marketed efficiently. The way accounting is done in many cases, especially those involving outside course management entities, it is difficult to discern consistently whether they are profitable or how much money they made or lost in a particular calendar or fiscal year. At the end, it’s a numbers game and courses doing more than 25,000 rounds annually and charging $35 or more (including cart) should be breaking even or close.
There is (or was) a legitimate debate over whether golf is a function of government, but if all municipalities shed their courses now the industry would be in shambles. Try to picture the Tulsa area golf market with the 36 holes at Page Belcher, 36 holes at Mohawk Park, 27 holes at LaFortune Park, South Lakes, Battle Creek, Bailey Ranch, Canyons at Blackjack Ridge and Sapulpa Golf Course all gone. Perhaps a few privately-owned courses would spring up in their stead, but likely not.
Private owners of public facilities know how difficult it is to make money in the current environment, where rates have been artificially depressed by the municipal courses. Real estate developers have come to the realization that parks or green space are much less expensive alternatives as amenities to developments. We don’t foresee any new courses gaining traction in Oklahoma until the current market correction is complete.
All that said, that doesn’t mean there is no new golf in the state. Instead of courses, multi-level driving ranges with a huge food and beverage component and appeal as social or dating scenes are the rage. Topgolf opened an Oklahoma City facility last spring and has had waiting lines during weekend and peak times since. The company announced plans for a Tulsa facility, but it will beaten to the punch in northeast Oklahoma by Flying Tee, scheduled to open in March at the Riverwalk shopping center in Jenks. Flying Tee is the brainchild of a trio of Oklahoma entrepreneurs backed by the Creek Nation and other prominent investors.
The U.S. Girls Junior Championship was the 22rd USGA event in Oklahoma, a proud record of successful events for a state small in population. At this time, however, nothing is on the schedule either short or long-term with the USGA or PGA. Both Southern Hills and Oak Tree National continue to explore future events with both golf bodies. Southern Hills had hoped to be back on the U.S. Open rotation long before now but it hasn’t worked out and even the PGA Championship is booked out through 2023.
The Long Drivers Association World Championship was held at WinStar Golf Course in Thackerville in 2015 and negotiations are underway for a three-year extension of the contract.
There is an NCAA men’s golf regional scheduled at Karsten Creek in Stillwater in May.
With our varied course terrains, turf conditions and weather, from hot and still to cold and windy, Oklahoma remains one of the best places to learn the game. Facilities are catching up with opportunity,
The recent announcement that Michael Boyd will be operating Michael Boyd Golf out of a new indoor teaching center at The Club at Indian Springs means Tulsa area golfers have access to three of the state’s best teachers at their own facilities, including Tracy Phillips at Cedar Ridge Country Club and Pat McTigue at Golftec, in addition to all the great teachers at their home courses.
No golf facility in the country may be better equipped with the latest in high-tech teaching equipment than the WinStar Golf Academy. The Steve Ball Golf Center and Golftec in Norman are also strong additions to the lessons available at public and private facilities in the Oklahoma City area.