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Golf courses feel the economic squeeze

(ran BEACH edition)

The greens were in tiptop shape. The pro shop was well-stocked. St. Andrew's Links was ready for what the staff believed would be a terrific winter golf season.

Instead, the private golf course in Dunedin suffered what some golfers would consider a bogey.

One reason for the lackluster winter season, according to St. Andrew's course manager Paul Sylvester, is that fewer Canadians are playing golf.

"Paul, I'm selling my condo," Sylvester said he was told by some Canadians this past winter. "I can't afford it here anymore."

Other area golf course managers say they have also seen a dip in Canadian customers.

Largo officials believe the lack of Canadians on their municipal course is one reason it is expected to report a net loss of about $75,400 this year, according to the city budget, released earlier this month. They believe the sagging value of the Canadian dollar has kept many away from its golf course.

"They didn't stay as long as they used to," said Cathy Santa, Largo's recreation and parks director. "With the exchange (rate) issues, they don't spend as much money as they used to."

But statistics from the Canadian government tell a different story. The number of Canadian tourists in Florida surged to 2-million last year, a 16 percent increase from 1999, according to their figures.

And apparently, they're spending more money. Last year, Canadians pumped $1.4-billion into Florida's economy, a 19 percent leap over 1999, according to Visit Florida, the state's tourism bureau.

Some players see another problem. Municipal golf courses are not adept at promoting themselves, say people like Al Costa, who was packing up his clubs Friday after a round with friends at Largo's golf course.

"I didn't know (about Largo's course) until they told me about it," Costa, 66, of Tierra Verde said of fellow players George Swanson, 74, of South Pasadena and Jack Templin, 74, of Seminole.

Area golf course managers admit they are doing little to reach out to Canadians.

"We don't try to market to one particular group," explained Chuck Winship, golf course manager for the city of Tarpon Springs.

Largo City Manager Steven Stanton agrees that marketing is not a strong suit of those who work in government.

"I think it's reflective of government not thinking like private industry," he said. "We just don't think in those terms."

For example, Stanton believes the city missed out on a great opportunity by not promoting its course when tens of thousands of visitors came to the area in January for the Super Bowl. Largo also did nothing to market itself when the men's national championship in college basketball was held in St. Petersburg in 1999.

"We didn't do anything," he said.

Revenues from Largo's golf course have fluctuated in recent years, according to city figures.

In 1999, the city's golf course membership nearly doubled when it offered the chance to reserve tee times several days in advance. The idea helped boost revenues in the financial period from Oct. 1, 1998, to Sept. 30, 1999, by about $130,000 from that same period a year earlier. But in the following 12 months, earnings dropped by about $60,000. City officials believe heavy rains that winter were largely responsible for the drop.

City officials expect an increase of about $63,000 for the financial period that will end Sept. 30, but spending has also increased, thus the expected net loss of $75,400.

Next year may not be better. A $30,000 net loss is anticipated, said Santa.

Largo Mayor Bob Jackson talked about the problem with city officials last week. Discounts during what are considered non-peak months and creating a father-son league are being discussed as ways to bring in more money, Stanton said.

Largo City Commissioner Harriet Crozier, a regular on the city's golf course, recalled how past discounts brought in more customers and suggested the city could offer specials to Canadians.

"Coupon specials bring everybody out," said Crozier. "That's what they ought to do."

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of young golf stars like Tiger Woods, St. Petersburg city golf officials are thinking about creating more junior golf programs to draw more teenagers and offset the loss of Canadians.

In Tarpon Springs, which attributes part of its 7 percent drop in revenue this winter to fewer Canadians, city officials believe they will see more of their friends from north of the border once the exchange rate improves.

"It's a cycle and it's one of those things I think will pick up," Winship said.

Sylvester said he and fellow workers at St. Andrew's are looking for ways to entice customers by purchasing golf balls made to go farther.

"I'm in a business of highs and lows," he said. "You just go with the flow."

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