SUN CITY CENTER — White sunlight streaked across the cloud-strewn sky as Jan Churchill and her friends hit the links.
"All right, put it on the green, Jan," teammate Elaine Davis called out as Crystal Fraebel watched, club in hand.
The three retirees, part of Sun City Center's Women's Golf Association nine-hole league, sailed across the North Course on a recent afternoon during a game of scramble.
Putting at the other end of the course was a small group of golfers, a typical turnout after a rainy morning and a day partly reserved for the women's club.
For years, Churchill and her friends have been accustomed to looking across a vast empty carpet of green.
"No one is complaining about not getting a tee time," Davis said after the three hopped on their golf carts and zipped back to the clubhouse for a league-sponsored luncheon.
Sun City Center's golf courses, once the feature attraction for retirement living in this community, have faced plummeting membership and use for more than 10 years, community leaders say. Last fall, WCI Communities Inc., the developer that built much of Sun City Center and owns its golf courses, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, leaving open the question of whether continuing to run the underutilized golf courses makes sense in a difficult economy.
Although the company has not said it plans to sell or close the courses, community leaders plan to forestall closures or cutbacks by bringing in more revenue.
In a meeting earlier this week, Sun City Center's community association board voted to accept a task force report on golf course use that includes recommendations on ways to improve membership.
Ed Barnes, the board's president and leader of the task force, said the directors will likely hold a special meeting later this month or in May to decide which recommendations they should adopt.
Some recommendations deal with how WCI could make the courses, specifically the North Course, more attractive to golfers. The task force suggests holding more tournaments and providing food vendors on site.
Others propose how Sun City Center can better market the courses in its own newsletters and publications, the visitors center and through local real estate agents.
The report also calls on WCI to consider opening the North Course to golfers who live outside Sun City Center.
That action would require the board and WCI to amend a 1984 agreement that restricted use to residents and their guests.
John Luper, WCI's regional general manager of amenities, said he hasn't seen the recommendations yet. But in general, the company supports efforts to increase golf course membership, he said.
Improving use of the golf courses and ensuring their survival helps all residents, not just golfers, Barnes said.
"Once a golf course closes, the chances of it reopening again are very slim," he said.
If WCI closed any of the courses and maintained them as green space, the company would still be responsible for mowing the course.
"But the other things, the sprinkler systems and dams would go to pot," Barnes said. "Once that happens, whatever value the property had would decline to zero, and it would impact the (surrounding) homes."
Davis, of the women's nine-hole league, said current golfers welcome more members. When she moved to Sun City Center and joined the league 15 years ago, it had 125 members. Now that number is 24.
"It's the expense," she said.
In tough economic times, when many seniors have seen their retirement investments disappear, the $2,800 annual dues for a single member weigh too heavily on many, she and other club members said.
Plus, when her parents moved to Sun City Center in 1978, it was primarily a golf course community, said Davis, 69.
Now the development's original residents have died or are physically unable to play. And the newer, younger residents enjoy more options, she said.
"A lot of new people coming in don't seem to want to play golf," said league president Jeanne Nenarella. "They bike or do lawn bowling."
Enrolling more members, including golfers from other communities, could spread out the dues and course expenses across a larger number of people, Nenarella said.
"We could take a lot more people before it would get crowded," she said. "It would relieve the burden for the people who live here."
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.