Golf courses throughout Wisconsin are bucking national trends by bringing in strong outing and event business at competitive pricing. In neighboring Illinois, municipal golf facilities are turning to video poker and slot machines to make up for declining revenue with varying degrees of success.
While just two courses have closed (Lakeside Country Club in Pewaukee and Olde Highlander in Oconomowoc) locally, the golf business is mostly bucking the national downward trend in Lake Country, Wis., the Waukesha, Wis., Lake Country Now reported.
Thanks to affordable pricing, good playing conditions and friendly service, many Lake Country courses continue to enjoy solid footing. C&RB featured another Wisconsin golf property, SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis., in the November 2015 cover feature (“Standing Tall Again at SentryWorld”), and detailed other Wisconsin golf properties that are staying prominent, including Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, Erin Hills in Hartford, and the planned Sand Valley Resort in Rome.
At the top of that list is Ironwood Golf Course in Sussex. Celebrating its 20th year in business this summer, Ironwood is the busiest and most successful public course in the area. Golf director Mike Lehmann has the place humming. The 27-hole layout, which started with nine holes in 1996 before adding nine more in 1998 and the final nine six years later, has more than 700 league players every week and will host more than 130 outings this season, Now reported.
“Our business is strong, and there’s no doubt that our league play and our outings business is responsible for much of that,” Lehmann said. “On Monday through Friday, our evening leagues are sold out on all three nines. Plus, we have a huge couples league every other Friday, and that league has 130 players. That’s business we know we can count on, on a consistent basis.”
Lehmann also said the outings business has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, Now reported.
“When we first opened, about 80% of our outings were business or corporate events,” Lehmann said. “Now, it’s all about fundraisers. That’s probably 90% of our outings business.”
Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee is also enjoying a good four-year run of improved business. Owned by Greg Essig, Western Lakes has kept the course in outstanding condition and put together a competitive pricing schedule, Now reported.
“Across the board, we’re doing well,” Essig said. “League play is good, our outings business has been very consistent and our membership also has increased, as well. Plus, I think we have the largest junior program in the state.”
Essig said Western Lakes has 350 young golfers in its junior program, ranging from ages 6 to 13, Now reported.
“Senior golf has become a big part of the golf business around here, too,” Essig added. “They travel to different courses every week, and some of those groups have a lot of players. We’re always happy to have the seniors here as often as we can.”
Naga-Waukee, one of the busiest courses in the state for more than 40 years, is still going strong, even though it’s not putting up the crazy numbers they did from the 1970s through the mid 1990s. This summer, Naga-Waukee had a couple of days when it pushed 250 to 275 players off the first tee, Now reported.
The new owners at La Belle Golf Club in Oconomowoc took on a tough assignment when they bought Rolling Hills Golf Club last July. The course had been closed for a while and had to re-establish itself in the local market, Now reported.
“With Rolling Hills being closed, that’s something that we had to battle to overcome,” co-owner John Meunier said. “We had to get the golfers back to our course. Years ago when it was named La Belle Country Club, it was one of the most successful private clubs in the state. We’re constantly working on the course to return it to its once outstanding condition. We’re getting nothing but positive responses.”
Meunier, who sold golf equipment for years for Cleveland and Sxiron, said he and his other owners are pleased with the increase in business since opening a little more than one year ago, Now reported.
“We’re picking up more outings all the time,” Meunier said. “We’re also working on increasing our league play. The nice thing about outings and leagues is that they’re the backbone of your business. Both are business you can count on each week. To tell you how we’re doing, I use my own parking-lot indicator. When I look at the parking lot, the number of cars out there tell me how we’re doing. And we’ve had a lot more cars this year than we had last year.”
Private golf clubs in the area are also doing well. Oconomowoc Golf Club, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this season, is once again at its maximum number of members at 175, Now reported.
“I’ve been here the last eight seasons and we’ve been full each year, said Chuck Wood, the golf professional at OGC. “In the state golf circles, we’ve built up a very good reputation. That’s a testament to what we’re doing. We host a lot of WSGA events each year, and we get nothing but positive comments about the course condition and the entire experience they have with us.”
Chenequa Country Club, also more than 100 years old, has been one of the most successful private clubs in the state for many years. The club has 221 memberships this year. “We’re full with our present membership and have a big waiting list to join,” said club manager Mike Paddock. “Business is good.”
The two other private clubs in the area, the Legend at Brandybrook in Wales and the Legend at Bristlecone in Hartland, are huge successes. They also operate and own the Legend at Merrill Hills in Waukesha, Now reported.
“Business has been very good for us,” said co-owner/director of golf Jack Gaudion. “Between the three clubs, we have 1,400 family memberships. Of that, there are 910 golf memberships. It’s a healthy environment for us. The Lake Country is a special place. We’re proud of what we’ve done here.”
In contrast, municipal golf courses in Wisconsin’s neighboring state of Illinois are turning to video poker and slot machines in an effort to make up for declining revenue, the Chicago Sun Times reported.
More than a dozen taxpayer-funded golf courses in Illinois have tried legal gambling in the past three years, though with mixed results. The public courses are located in New Lenox, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Joliet, Countryside, Blue Island, Glenwood, Worth and North Chicago and, outside the Chicago area, in Winnebago County, Streator, Cahokia and Moweaqua, the Sun Times reported.
The municipal courses split any profits with the gaming-machine owners. Altogether, they took in a total of more than $1 million from 55 machines located in their clubhouses, after taxes, records show, the Sun Times reported.
“It’s just becoming part of the norm,” said Bob Schulz, director of golf at The Sanctuary, an 18-hole course owned by the New Lenox Community Park District.
Still, two public golf courses—in Chicago Heights and University Park—didn’t bring in enough money to continue operating the gambling machines. Seven machines were removed from those courses after taking in a total of just $17,268 after taxes in little over 18 months, the Sun Times reported.
Citing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses overall, University Park closed its course earlier this year, then turned over management to a private company.
The gambling machines are allowed under a state law passed seven years ago to help bars and restaurants. Since early 2013, gamblers have spent a total of $18.7 million on machines at municipal golf clubhouses, bringing in about $450,000 in state and local taxes, the Sun Times reported.
One of the first local government agencies to offer video gambling was the Foss Park District in North Chicago, which installed five machines in April 2013 at its 18-hole Foss Golf Course. Since then, gamblers have poured more than $8.7 million into the machines there, won $7.9 million back and netted the park district about $254,000, the Sun Times reported.
In Hoffman Estates, the park district’s Bridges of Poplar Creek Country Club has struggled even after it began operating the machines in June 2014, taking in only $5,946 since then. Last year, the park district lost more than $65,000 on the course, the Sun Times reported.
The New Lenox Community Park District began operating five video gambling machines at its golf clubhouse last September, keeping them in a room that’s closed during the district’s youth golf league. They’ve brought in $7,379 so far for the course, which loses $50,000 to $200,000 a year, according to Greg Lewis, the district’s executive director, the Sun Times reported.
“If you want people to keep coming out, you have to invest money into the course, or you will have a goat ranch,” Lewis says. “You won’t have something people will pay top dollar for.”