By Grant Lucas

The Bulletin

Relatively speaking, the Central Oregon golf landscape has hit a lull.

Between 1986 and 2008, 21 courses opened here in our slice of the High Desert, setting the stage for an influx of golfers as the sport grew in popularity worldwide thanks in no small part to Tiger Woods storming onto the scene in the late 1990s.

Golf had never been a hotter ticket — in Central Oregon, across the nation or around the world. Yet after the recession hit in the late 2000s, participation plummeted. Facilities shut down. The game was in dire straits.

Enter the next wave of young, recognizable, dominant professional players that included ­Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, to name a few. Recreational golfing has enjoyed an uptick, boosted in part by fresh ideas such as Topgolf, an arcade-style driving range that combines entertainment with golf and has more than 40 locations across the country with more on the way.

After a deluge of course openings in Central ­Oregon in a span of 30 years, no new facility has opened here since 2008 — and no new course is on the horizon.

And that is just perfect for Central Oregon.

“During the golf boom and as a result of development in Central Oregon, our golf inventory grew tremendously,” explains Josh Willis, director of golf at Sunriver Resort. “But with that growth, we never grew the game of golf.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, Bend’s population in 2016 stood at 91,122, up from 76,803 when Tetherow, Central Oregon’s newest course, opened in 2008 and up more than 70 percent from the 52,624 who lived in Bend at the turn of the century.

That spike in population is certainly noteworthy, Willis says, but there is no need to act on it just yet.

“As Central Oregon continues to grow and more people move here and make this their home,” Willis says, “it’s great for the golf industry because as long as there’s golfers out there, all of our businesses — no matter if you’re Crooked River Ranch or Aspen Lakes or Black Butte or Sunriver Resort — we’re all going to be more viable. But I don’t necessarily see the growth of population in Central Oregon justifying a growth in the (number of) golf courses.”

Businesses do not necessarily welcome incoming competition. Yet ­Willis, as well as several other Central Oregon directors of golf and head professionals, speak more from a state of the golf industry than from a business perspective. In that sense, the consensus of area golf higher-ups is clear.

“I’m not certain that the time is right for more courses” in Central Oregon, says Crooked River Ranch head pro Pat Huffer. “We still aren’t back doing the numbers we were doing 10 to 12 years ago before the bubble burst, and there’s no way of knowing whether those moving to the area are golfers. I personally would like to see our current courses bursting at the seams with golfers and demand at a point that more golf opportunities become a necessity.”

Head pros and directors of golf frequently refer to statistics from the National Golf Foundation, which paint an interesting picture of the industry.

According to the NGF, 23.8 million Americans played golf on a standard “green-grass” course in 2016, a 1.2 percent decrease from 2015. That figure marked the lowest participation numbers the foundation has reported since before the Tiger Woods era.

Yet the number of beginning golfers in the U.S. increased to 2.5 million in 2016, a spike of nearly 14 percent over the previous year and an all-time high for the NGF. Interesting tidbit: The previous best was 2.4 million, set in 2000, in the heart of Tiger’s ascent to golf supremacy.

The number of “committed golfers” in 2016 also grew, as players who label the sport as their favorite activity or one of several recreational pursuits swelled to 20.1 million for the first year-over-year increase in five years.

Yet also in 2016, according to the NGF, 230 courses around the country closed.

“Central Oregon has been one of the few areas that has not closed courses since the last recession,” says Jeff Fought, the director of golf at Black Butte Ranch. “This is also why we would have enough inventory for the next few years ahead.”

“If I’m following what the National Golf Foundation has been reporting, I think that we have probably enough courses currently,” says Ron Buerger, the director of golf at Eagle Crest Resort. “I think most courses are under capacity, if you really take a look at it. That would suggest that the population boom (in Central ­Oregon) would have to continue to really accelerate to (increase) the number of golfers that are represented within the population.”

Willis, like his colleagues, suggests first growing the game of golf locally before expanding the landscape with more courses. Organizations such as the PGA of America, the United States Golf Association and the American Junior Golf Association have already begun doing “a wonderful job helping us grow the game of golf,” Willis says. Yet, he adds, “at the end of the day, it’s still a sport that, on paper, is declining.”

He welcomes the continuing population rise in Central Oregon. More people means more golfers and more rounds of golf being played in the area. Central Oregon courses, Willis says, will “all reap the benefits of it, regardless of which golf course you operate.”

The construction of any new golf courses in Central Oregon is contingent on continued growth in the popularity of golf. In the interim, Fought says, the area has “plenty of inventory to accommodate future needs.”

“I think that we need to put the fun back in golf,” says Black Butte Ranch’s Fought. “If anything, I think we should open up some executive-style golf courses for the juniors, new golfers and aging golfers to play with their friends and families and be able to enjoy the game.”

“Now with some new interest and some new directions and some new programs, (golf) seems to be taking root and being successful,” Eagle Crest’s Buerger says. “Maybe we’ll see another one of those Tiger-era booms and we can get back to building more courses.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com

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