At this time last year, not only was the economy wreaking havoc on the bottom line of Tampa Bay area courses, but the weather wasn't cooperating, either. Even if golfers wanted to play, rain and frost made it difficult. This year, at least the weather has improved. After a rough start to winter, including an abnormally cold December, spring showed up in early February and has brought people out in droves. "December and January (weren't) that great,'' said Jeff Hollis, director of golf at Mangrove Bay Golf Course in St. Petersburg. "February (was) really good. The last half of the month (was) phenomenal." Hollis said the course was on track to be about 1,100 rounds ahead of last February.
In 2010, prolonged cold created frozen fairways and brown rough that not only made bay area courses unplayable for most of the day but unattractive to golfers when they were playable.
In late January last year, some courses in Pasco and Hernando counties had two straight weeks of morning frost. Kevin Burnsworth, head professional at Heritage Pines Country Club in Pasco County, said last year that the frost meant as much as $30,000 lost in a month.
Another hit like that would have been tough to absorb.
"December (2010) was atrocious,'' said Clay Thomas, general manager at Westchase Golf Club in Tampa. "Then January was one of the wettest Januarys on record. We had 101/2 inches of rain in January, which is outrageous.
"But February (was) fabulous.''
In the nick of time
Seven Hills Golfers Club in Spring Hill has shut down once. In summer 2009, ownership closed the course due to lack of play. It reopened in November of that year, but the course wasn't in good shape. Then it had to deal with a hard winter that limited play.
When the cold weather returned in December 2010, director of golf Tim Spangler said a few curse words. If the weather kept golfers away, the course may have had to close for a second time.
"In the beginning we were really wondering whether we were going to keep it open,'' Spangler said. "We were thinking, 'Oh gosh, not another one of these cold winters again.' December was brutal on us, and so was the beginning of January.
"But then (the weather) broke. Now the course is really hopping along. We're going to weather the storm.''
Another season of blank tee sheets would have doomed some of the area's daily-fee courses.
February 2011 will be remembered by some managers as the month that saved their course.
"We are up 1,100 rounds from last February and 440 rounds from last January,'' said Julie Jones, general manager of the Landings Golf Course in Clearwater (formerly known as Clearwater Executive). "That's a lot of rounds. Our summer play still isn't that good, but the winter is way up. If we don't have the weather in the winter, we're in big trouble.''
Better weather, courses
Though the weather brought out golfers, they weren't going to stay if the courses were in rough shape. By having enough warm days, superintendents were able to overseed the courses and get them green in time for the peak spring playing season.
"I think in general the golf courses are in better shape,'' Mangrove Bay's Hollis said. "We're in really good shape. The weather obviously played a big part in that.''
At Westchase, Thomas said it took a little time, but the course is as green as ever.
"Our course is in excellent shape, finally,'' he said. "It wasn't great until the weather turned. It got cool early, like November. The overseed didn't pop until about the second week of February, but now it looks great.''
Is it also the economy?
Not only has the weather been a benefit, but some course managers are seeing a break in the economy. When the economy tanked a few years ago, public and private courses saw a downturn in play and membership.
For the average golfer, it was more important to pay bills than play a round. But golfers appear to be trickling back to the courses.
"There are more people who are looking to play this year than last year,'' Westchase's Thomas said. "I think that's a sign of the economy. The tee sheet is filling up better than last year. We're still not seeing the northerners like we have in past years, but it is up from last year for sure.''
Seven Hills' Spangler is also seeing an increase.
"I'm at about 175 (rounds) per day, which is down but not drastically down,'' Spangler said. "We'd like to be at about 220-225 per day. We're still down, but not as bad as we were.''