CLEARWATER — Cove Cay Country Club was at a crossroads: Should it stick to the status quo and risk losing golfers and members, or should it bite the bullet and make costly renovations, hoping they would pay off in the long run. Lately, private and public courses have tried to do more with less. Average rounds per year are down most everywhere, which means courses have less money for maintenance and repairs. Despite the struggling economy, Cove Cay decided to gamble that new greens and tee boxes would eventually mean more golfers and revenue. The course took out a $500,000 loan, added that to $150,000 raised by members, and tore up all 18 greens and tee boxes.
The greens had not been replaced since 1974, when the course opened. It had old-school Bermuda 328 grass, which very few courses use now. It switched to MiniVerde grass on its greens and Champions grass on the tee boxes. It even put in target greens on the driving range. The renovations meant it had limited playing time from May until Sept. 3, when it reopened to full play.
"For us, it wasn't a question of if, it was a question of when (upgrades would be done),'' director of golf Bill Armstrong said. "We were at a point where, if we didn't fix the course, we might be in danger of losing it. If you don't have a good product, you don't have golfers.''
Times have changed
There was a time Cove Cay had all the golfers it needed. From 1974-89, it had more than 350 equity members who called the shots. If any repairs were to be made, the money came out of the members' pockets. That made members reluctant to do major overhauls, especially when the greens looked fine in the winter and spring, when they were overseeded.
In 1989, the course opened to the public in the summer only. That is typically when the greens turn brown. And it was also when a lot of members were playing their golf up north.
In 2000, membership had dwindled to just over 100, and the tee sheets weren't as full. The decision was made to go semi-private, which meant the public could get tee times year-round.
"It didn't make sense to have the tee sheets half empty,'' Armstrong said. "The members knew they had to get extra revenue by filling those tee times.''
What Armstrong also knew — and what he spent years trying to convince the remaining members of — was that the course needed to be in better shape.
"Every year we went without making repairs, it became a matter of diminishing returns,'' said Armstrong, in his 16th year with the club, ninth as golf director. "Status quo just doesn't do it anymore. People can play anywhere they want now, so you have to make the product worthwhile. For a while, we didn't have a good product. I was pretty good at getting some of the hotels and businesses to throw some business our way, but I was running out of ideas.''
The Cove Cay board agreed in February to seek a loan and make repairs. The club hired Coby Sheppard, a former assistant superintendant at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, Innisbrook and Tampa Palms, to oversee the project.
Not just cosmetics
The routing hasn't changed, but Cove Cay veterans will see a difference. MiniVerde is a heat tolerant grass that can also withstand the winters in Florida. When grown, MiniVerde provides a smooth rolling surface ideal for southern courses.
In order to put in the new greens, Sheppard and his crew had to not only dig up the Bermuda, but also much of the soil underneath. Armstrong said the soil was full of salt after years of not changing the greens.
Once the MiniVerde was in place, it grew faster than expected because of the rainy summer. The greens are expected to last up to 15 years. The previous greens were used for 35.
Another major change is the tee boxes. On most holes, tee boxes were widened. In some cases they were widened by several yards. Armstrong said the course added 300 yards just by lengthening tee boxes.
"It gives the course a different look,'' he said. "On some holes, one day you'll have to hit a hook drive, then on another day you have to hit it dead straight.''
The overhaul cost close to $500,000. Including displaced revenue and the course's maintenance budget, the total bill will be close to $1 million. In 2009, Armstrong said, about 40,000 rounds were played. He doesn't expect much more than that this year.
What will be different is the pricing. Rounds are $30 for peak morning times and $22 after 2 p.m. Prices will go up by about $5 in the winter. What they won't do is go down drastically next summer, which means the same amount of rounds should draw more revenue.
If that's the case, Cove Cay's gamble might pay off.
"We don't want to be that course that charges $15.99 for a round,'' Armstrong said. "We don't want to pack the course and have five-hour rounds. Do we want to make $1,000 per day with 100 golfers or $1,000 per day with 50 golfers? We choose the 50 golfers. So we're hoping for about 42,000 rounds this year. And we're going to be better in the summer.
"The hope this year is to break even. Except for last year, when the weather was awful and everyone was down, we have never made less money than the year before. Even when things were at their worst for courses, when they were down 10 percent, we were flat.''