The early spring has shoved golf courses out of dormancy way ahead of schedule in more ways than one.
"It's as if they are cutting (grass) on a schedule that's similar to June," Bill Ebdon, manager and PGA pro for the Lake County Forest Preserve District's four courses, said of maintenance crews that already have been hard at work this year.
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Along with the emerald hues of emerging vegetation, district officials hope the forecast brings more green from customers, who have been in short supply in recent years.
"March of last year we had nothing," explained Tom Hahn, forest preserve executive director. "This year we have $48,000. We're off to a good start."
The district could use one, as golf revenues the past five years have steadily declined. Whatever this season brings, weather won't be the only factor with an impact on golf course play. The district is set to debut new techniques to snare golfers with deals that could vary by the day, for example.
Though collectively still in the black, the number of rounds played at ThunderHawk, Brae Loch and the two courses at Countryside, have dropped 23 percent since 2007 to 79,045.
And despite reductions in staff and other moves to trim expenses, revenues have dropped four times as much. Income from $970,000 in 2007 to $266,000 last year, according to a report on golf course operations.
"The margin is way tighter," said Ann Maine, forest board president. "It's systemic -- it's not unique to our courses."
According to a National Golf Foundation report, thousands of courses were added and the number of golfers increased during the boom of the mid to late `90s. Though the number of courses has dropped in recent years, there still is an oversupply and demand had dipped in large part because of two recessions since 2001.
That has made for a tough environment for all golf course operators and was a factor in the recent decision by the forest preserve board to ask the U.S. Army to remove a deed restriction requiring a golf course at Fort Sheridan.
Hahn said new marketing techniques are meant to spur play. A cloudy and cool day, for example, may mean a price cut.
"We'll have dynamic pricing," he said. "On a given morning, we can make decisions on what to price the course. On a daily basis, we'll be able to manage our rates."
Golfers will be alerted to such deals through a new website as well as a mobile application scheduled to be available in mid-April through an agreement with Golf Channel Solutions.
In return for those features, the district will make space available for five foursomes per day, one at each of the four courses plus a floating course, taking the district's marketing effort to a new level.
"There will be tools to communicate any kind of specials," Ebdon said. "Most importantly, this partnership allows us to expand our audience."
Besides the impact of the worst spring in 30 years, play at Brae Loch, which fronts Route 45 in Grayslake, also was disrupted last year when that road was widened. Rounds dropped about 30 percent as a result. But with the project complete, a new entrance and improved visibility, that is expected to change this year.
Meanwhile Ebdon and others involved in golf course operations are enjoying the early spring that's allowed the district to open courses early and reap additional revenue.
"We're hopeful that whatever pattern this is continues," Ebdon said.