This is usually the time of year area golf course managers welcome. The long, hot summer is over. Snow has begun falling up north. Part-time residents, their golf clubs securely packed, head to Florida.
That's usually what happens. But this year, course managers are holding their collective breath. Will the economy slow the migration of golfers to the Tampa Bay area? And if they do come, will they play less?
"With the economy the way it is, golf is a luxury," said Kevin Burnsworth, head professional at Hudson's Heritage Pines Country Club. "If you have to make your car payment or play golf, you have to prioritize. The expendable income isn't what it used to be."
It used to be that November meant rate changes at bay area public and semi-private courses. Demand for play, coupled with daylight saving time, put tee times at a premium. But some courses have been slow to raise rates, while others have continued summer prices.
"Normally this time of year it is what we call a shoulder season," said Bill Place, who owns Pebble Creek Golf Club in Tampa. "You kind of go up a little bit from your summer rates going into winter. We're not seeing the shoulder season happening. We've continued our summer rates."
Eric Lettie, head pro at Clearwater Country Club, said things have been brisk at his course. But he doesn't expect as many winter rounds this year as last. Just a few miles from touristy Clearwater Beach, Clearwater CC relies on winter residents to keep the course going.
"I think just because of the economy around the world we won't have as many players," Lettie said. "It's so uncertain, there's no way to nail down what to expect. But the rates will not be as high, and we plan to do more advertising this winter."
Not everyone agrees. Though his rates will stay $32-$34 per round through December, Larry Thomas, director of golf operations at Airco Golf Course in Clearwater, said: "I believe this year's golf season will be as busy if not busier than the last two years. Gas prices have been falling steadily as the dollar has steadily been climbing on the global market, meaning there will be more disposable cash on hand per household to spend on affordable recreational sports. Canadian golfers have had a strong presence over the last few years and are anticipated to be down in full strength, which should make us just as busy as last year."
At courses throughout the area, greens fees can be had for an average of $35 before noon and even cheaper in the afternoon. At Quail Ridge in Spring Hill and Lansbrook in Tarpon Springs, there are coupons for discounted food and beverages at the clubhouse restaurants. And Seminole Lake Country Club, which is private, is offering "one-day memberships" for $49 throughout November in an effort to raise membership.
Lansbrook's rates are $35 on weekdays, $39 on weekends before noon. That is the same as last winter, head professional Tim Greco said.
"Discounting has cut the throat of the golf industry," he said. "If I do 100 golfers a day at $100 and the owners tell me to cut the price to $50, then I have to do 200 golfers a day to get back to where I was. The goal is if you're charging $25 to play golf that the golfer chooses your course over the other guy. Discounting is not the key. The key is to make sure customers enjoy it and want to come back. When you discount, at the end of the day all you've done is made less revenue. There's only one Wal-Mart that gets all the volume. The key is loyalty.
"To some people, golf is a disease. They want to play their golf. What helps us is that we're priced reasonably. I still think people are going to play golf, but maybe they'll choose more reasonable courses."
The beneficiary of competition is always the golfer. While course managers hope their tee sheets fill up until the real rush begins in January, golfers can still find good deals on good courses for the rest of 2008.
"I've said this a million times, there is no cheaper place to play golf in the United States than Pasco County, Florida," Burnsworth said. "I've been all over the country and I've played golf in a lot of different places, and paying $75 in season is nothing. Here, you can play golf in the winter for $35 in some places."