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Tough times hit Tampa Bay golf courses

The parking lot is empty. Flags remain in the practice-green holes, but brown spots and sand are slowly taking over the Bermuda grass. A sign printed on a sheet of 8-by-11 paper is taped to the pro shop door:

Quail Hollow Golf Club is closed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience.

A long, hot summer has taken its toll on the public course in the southern Pasco County town of Wesley Chapel. Play has steadily decreased. With no golfers, there is no golf course.

It has been closed for nearly two weeks while owners decide when and if to reopen. Sylvia Klaver, an employee at Quail Hollow for six years, acts as a part-time security guard until she finds another job.

"We all got a call one day and they said they were closing,'' Klaver said. "They told us, 'Don't bother coming into work.' The whole staff was laid off.''

A grounds crew mows the grass weekly, but the swimming pool is empty, the driving range across the street is abandoned and the greens will burn without care. Klaver said she was told the hope is to reopen the course before the return of snowbirds this winter. She knew making it through the summer would be difficult.

"We would get maybe seven to 10 golfers in one day,'' Klaver said. "We'd bring in maybe $100 all day, including the pro shop and the concessions. You just couldn't get anybody to come out and play.''

Tough times

While other area courses haven't had to close this summer, they have had to tighten their belts. At the Tides Golf Club in Seminole, head professional Darryl Spelich can look out the pro shop window and see the green fairways and blue waters that dot the course. But what he hasn't seen is enough golfers.

Spelich said play is down nearly 25 percent compared to past summers. He has tried to increase tee times by advertising deals, offering special discounts to groups and hosting tournaments. It hasn't worked.

"Never seen it like this,'' he said. "It was down a little last summer because of the heat. But to see it drop off this dramatically. … I think it will rebound. Our owner seems to think this will turn around. Knock on wood.''

Courses across the bay area are hoping the sluggish economy will rebound. With less money to spend, and with gas prices still high, course managers have seen fewer golfers this summer.

At Rocky Point Golf Course in Tampa, play is down by 10 percent, according to head professional Mario Aguila.

"Every little thing that happens, with the gas going so high and the weather, has had an effect on our play,'' said Aguila, whose course has had 600-700 rounds per week this summer. "Every year is different. Two years ago we had a wonderful summer. Every little thing has an impact. But this year, basically, I believe it's the economy.

"Please, please let it pick up. Oct. 1, that's when we start to see some change. Everybody is having a tough time right now.''

That includes Clearwater Country Club, which normally draws golfers from the beaches as well as from Clearwater and nearby Dunedin.

"I'd say we're down 8-10 percent from last summer,'' head pro Eric Lettie said. "That's a little better than some courses are doing. I don't think people want to travel too far to the course, which is good for us.''

Not every course it taking a hit. Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club, a semiprivate course in Dade City, has had enough play this summer thanks to more advertising. Head professional Jim Hafner estimates there are a combined 1,000 rounds played per week on the north and south courses.

"We've seen a little increase, actually,'' Hafner said. "But we've gotten more aggressive with our promotions. It's worked, but we've had to get very aggressive to make it work.''

For most courses, however, this summer has been about hanging on.

"Hopefully you get enough to pay the bills and wait for the upcoming season,'' Spelich said.

There was a time

Fred Tucker, 81, can remember when the Quail Hollow parking lot was full almost every day. A native of North Tampa, he helped clear the land in the early 1960s and assisted designer Charles Griffin.

In 1965, when the course opened, he was the first superintendent. There were no houses lining the fairways, as there are now. There was only one road leading to the course. There wasn't even a clubhouse.

But word got out about Quail Hollow. The course had little competition in that area, and tee times were hard to get.

"We'd have people come down from Canada, play the course, and then fly back to Canada the next day,'' Tucker said. "It was one of the best courses in the whole state to play.''

Through the years, ownership changed and other courses sprang up nearby. It became harder and harder to compete. With fewer rounds came less money to keep the course up, and golfers went elsewhere.

As Tucker looked over the empty course, he pointed out the spot where the first equipment shed used to be. And he remembered the day he killed two rattlesnakes off the first fairway.

"It's sad to see this,'' Tucker said. "This course is special to me.''

Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com, golf@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

Tough times hit Tampa Bay golf courses 08/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 3:46pm]

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