It's doubtful that anybody has seen more golf courses in the last 20 years or so than Ron Whitten and Brad Klein, the architecture editors of Golf Digest and Golfweek, respectively. They've seen the golf course design business take off, and recently they've witnessed its crash. Sure, you'll continue to see a few new courses open every year (there's a lot of expectation about Cabot Links in Inverness, Nova Scotia, for one, which will open its 18 holes next year). But the vast majority of the work is in renovation, not in new courses. As for high-end, super-expensive, extravagant courses and clubhouses, their day appears done.
"I think we'll get back to 30 firms or so," Whitten told me the other day about the design business. "There never was a place for so many firms. People forget that [Donald]Ross never gave up his day job, that [Alister] Mackenzie died broke, and that [A.W.]Tillinghast had to write [to earn a living]"
Whitten pointed out that the lack of work for new courses is at least helping the emphasis shift to renovation and restoration. He referred to Ian Andrew as one of the architects finding work in this area. Andrew, who is based in Brantford, Ont., has been working away steadily at restoring the Highlands Links in Cape Breton to what it should be.
"Ian and people in the U.S. are reviving and making some courses better than they ever have been," Whitten said. He doesn't believe the design business will ever return to its high-flying times of the 1980s and 1990s. Consider it a blip that many people mistook as something that would endure.
Klein put the contraction into context.
"Some people see the current industry-wide malaise in course development as the down-cycle of a standard 'A-B' economic cycle," he wrote in e-mail. "Others, including myself, see it as a part of a long-term decline that has to do with far-reaching changes in outdoor recreation, land use, lifestyles and the culture of golf today."
Certainly it's not easy for private golf clubs to attract members today, especially at the higher-end clubs in major cities. Anybody who drives around the Greater Toronto Area can see signs in front of clubs soliciting members. You never used to see such signs. The signs are signs of the times.
Meanwhile, I felt another portent of the times the other day when I played the National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont. It's the strongest course in the country and it will tell you the state of your game. The declining cost of a membership at the equity club also says something about the state of the game itself, at least when it comes to the world of top private clubs.
A membership at the National reached the $100,000 mark a few years ago, having doubled since the turn of the century. But a recent membership sold for under $45,000. That's not a comment on the quality of the course, which has a lot going for it, including location and immaculate conditioning. The course examines a player's ability to put the ball in the air to precise locations. The fairways are narrow, the greens are relatively small, and the course is some kind of test. It sets the standard in Canada for difficulty. But there's no getting around the fact that the market for memberships at the National and other top clubs has contracted. Waiting lists have all but disappeared.
"I am convinced that what we are seeing is a part of a significant reformulation in how people play and indulge in sports," Klein elaborated. "Smart owners and operators will respond by adapting fundamentally rather than just waiting out the return of some abstract "prosperity."
The times are changing. No, they have changed, and, Whitten's and Klein's experience tells them, they're not going back. Never.
ALSO FROM LORNE RUBENSTEIN:
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and, most recently, he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 11 books, including The Natural Golf Swing, with George Knudson (1988); Links: An Insider's Tour Through the World of Golf (1990); The Swing, with Nick Price (1997); The Fundamentals of Hogan, with David Leadbetter (2000); A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (2001); Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); and his latest, This Round's on Me (2009). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein