Will new golfers help the sport survive in Rochester? – Post Bulletin

by | Nov 10, 2022 | Golf Clubs

ROCHESTER — Avery Meyer has been a regular on Rochester’s city golf courses for the past decade.

The Mayo High School junior teed off for the first time as a 7-year-old enrolled in the First Tee program, which she now helps coach, and she’s not slowing down.

“I’ll be a lifelong golfer,” the captain of Mayo High School’s girls team said.

“I think a lot of the younger community will continue to golf, because it is a lifelong sport,” she added, when asked about her fellow young golfers.

Her high school coach, Steve Myhro, said schools have seen the number of high school golfers grow.

“When I started coaching 22 years ago, I had eight girls on the team,” he said. “I’ve had as many as 42 and average between 20 and 30 most years.”

He said the Mayo boys’ team had to make cuts recently when city courses couldn’t handle the numbers.

Eastwood Golf Club on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Rochester.

Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

With the

future of the city’s public golf courses

taking center stage in several Park Board meetings this year, most people stepping up to address the issue have been closer to Myhro’s age than Meyer’s.

They frequently point to retiring Baby Boomers as future business for the city’s four public courses and point out that golf is one of few active sports that can be played into later years, but some younger residents question whether that support will last.

Benjamin Zastrow, a 37-year-old Rochester resident, said he believes any rise in Baby Boomer activity will be matched by increases among young adults who come to Rochester to fill the growing number of jobs being created, which he said could shift priorities. Many of this younger cohort look for other activities than golf.

When he moved to town nearly three years ago, he sought out bike and pedestrian trails rather than golf courses.

“I think there are a lot of people who will come to town and do the same thing,” he said. “They’ll immediately seek out every inch of trail.”

As a result, he questions whether added investment in the city’s golf program is the right move.

“We are going to look back and look at the dollar amounts being spent and kind of question what was going on in the last decade,” he said, predicting that more people his age will be filling the seats of city decision-makers at that point.

Nick Miller, a 36-year-old who moved to Rochester in 2021 with his physician wife and their 8-year-old daughter, said city leaders shouldn’t wait to listen to those voices when making decisions related to park space.

“It feels to me that it should be a conversation of all of the community, rather than a really active small percentage of the community,” he said.

Among those questioning maintaining the golf status quo is Rochester resident Erik Noonan, who has raised questions about the efficiency of land use, especially when it comes to Soldiers Field Golf Course.

“It has the least efficient land-to-player ratio than any popular sport,” he said. “If basketball were scaled up to a similar land ratio the court would be over 30 acres.”

He said the ecologically sterile nature of the green space isn’t an attraction.

“Younger generations see it as a detriment to a city’s appeal, not an asset,” he said.

However, a recent phone survey points to only 3% of the respondents saying they would prefer to close one of the city’s four city-run golf courses over finding a way to keep them running.

The Rochester Park Board has approved a proposal to generate $500,000 in annual golf funding through increased fees and a commitment of $250,000 in annual property-tax revenue, starting in 2024.

Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman said the proposal won’t fund all needed golf course upgrades immediately, but it’s designed to put the program on more solid footing over time.

Rochester City Golf Courses

Northern Hills Golf Course on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Rochester.

Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

For many, support of the proposal likely depends on whether they own a set of golf clubs or are close to someone who does.

Josiah Nelson said he’s willing to pay an added fee to continue golfing on a daily basis, but he also pointed out that the city’s lower-than-average fees helped spark a love for golf five years ago.

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten into golf as an 18-year-old, if it wasn’t extremely available to me,” he said of starting after graduating from Schaeffer Academy.

Season passes for the youngest golfers are expected to increase from $180 to $216 next year under the proposed plan, with the proposed 2027 rate reaching $293. The rates are less than a quarter of the costs of a standard adult season pass.

Nick Rieder, a 34-year-old Lourdes grad and avid golfer, said whether the increases hamper people’s appetite for golf remains to be seen, but he pointed out many see today’s season prices as a bargain, compared to what’s paid in other cities.

The IBM employee transferred back to Rochester last year after spending a decade working for the company in New York State.

Rochester City Golf Courses

Golfers putt on hole 3 on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Northern Hills Golf Course in Rochester.

Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

While away, he golfed at other municipal courses and found them harder to access and more expensive. As a result, he sees Rochester’s program as a community asset.

“I think the public courses in Rochester are almost a differentiating factor for people my age or young professionals at the Mayo Clinic who might be considering Rochester,” Rieder said.

He points to golf as a way to forge new community relationships, since golfers are frequently paired with strangers of all ages when they schedule a tee time without a complete foursome.

“For me, coming back to the community after being away for 10 years, it’s been a great way to meet new people in all stages of life,” Rieder said.

Nelson agreed. “I think it’s a unique thing to the game of golf, which is cool because it’s a cool way to build relationships and gain different perspectives,” he said.

Both golfers said they have seen increased interest among their younger peers and anticipate that will continue.

Hadley Creek Golf Course

Greg Schalla, of Rochester, spends a sunny morning golfing at Hadley Creek Golf Course on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Rochester.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Jeff Meyer, Avery’s father, recently told the Rochester Park Board that statewide stats show an increasing trend when it comes to young golfers, with a 7% increase in Junior Professional Golf Association events in 2021.

“With the increase in popularity, Rochester would be seen as moving backward, rather than forward in what state and national trends are showing,” he said of the potential to close a course.

Skip Hambright, a Minnesota Golf Association regional vice president and volunteer coach for the Rochester First Tee program, said youth participation in statewide golf programs jumped from 1,000 to 11,000 in 2020.

While increases haven’t remained as drastic, he said numbers have climbed approximately 3% a year in 2021 and 2022.

Looking at the Youth on Course program, which subsidizes fees on participating youth green fees at participating courses, Hambright said the program supported 52,000 rounds of golf for youth this year.

He said adding Eastwood, Northern Hills and Soldiers Field courses to the list of Youth on Course participants would be a way to offset future fee increases for young golfers.

Local seasonal passes also point toward increased interest in golf.

Rochester has more than doubled the number of season passes sold to golfers 18 and younger in recent years, initially climbing from 78 junior passes in 2019 to 118 in 2020.

For golfers 19 to 25, the numbers aren’t as drastic, but sales of the $350 passes increased from 131 in 2019 153 this year with steady growth.

Single and couple young adult passes — $540 and $750 — for ages 26 to 30 rose from 75 in 2019 to 91 this year.

Nelson said an increasing number of friends his age joining the hobby he loves in a city where options can be lacking for younger newcomers.

“Rochester is not exactly known as a young person’s town,” he said, pointing to a lack of low-cost entertainment options.

However, some question whether the trend will continue as more people return to pre-COVID work schedules and other activities return.

Miller, who lives near Soldiers Field Park, said he saw the pool and playgrounds frequently filled to capacity during the summer and has seen a growing number of people using the golf course for other activities in the winter.

“I continue to hear such strong engagement and fervor of of avid golfers, but I look at the city, the people I’ve met and the people who have come from a variety of places, I don’t see that same representation in the people I am meeting in my neighborhood, in downtown and patients coming to Mayo Clinic,” he said.

Nick Miller

Nick Miller and his daughter, Lucia, 8, outside the Soldiers Field Golf Course on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Rochester.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Miller said one of the first things they did before deciding to relocate was look at what the city offered. He said park space and walkable neighborhoods were key, and he saw Rochester moving in that direction.

While he golfed as a child, he said it didn’t stick. “It’s just not something that I found to be the kind of activity that is stress relieving or how I want to use my time,” he said.

He said a potential switch in use for at least a portion of the Soldiers Field Golf Course could continue the city’s investment in providing green space that’s accessible to all, especially with an anticipated increase of downtown residents.

“I think geographically, it’s going to be an opportunity for any recreational space there,” he said.

Jack Thull, who lives on the park’s edge and grew up within walking distance of the park, agrees.

“I would like to see it turned into a more usable space for a larger number of people,” he said, but added that he’s not dead set against it being a golf course.

He said he uses the course in the evenings after golfer have headed home for the day and has contemplated cross-country skiing in the winter months, but he’s not sure whether his use would increase with a transition.

“My use of the course during the winter is only slightly more than my use at other times,” he said.

Zastrow said he thinks use would increase if the course were scaled down to add a public arboretum west of the Zumbro River. He said his family routinely visited such an amenity in another town before moving to Rochester. That, along with expanding trails and amenities for dog owners, would cater to younger newcomers, who are likely to live downtown.

“It’s apparent to me that my generation and the younger generation really wants to be active and experience the community that way,” he said.

Surveys point to diverse needs

Recent surveys point to a variety of preferences for park use.

For instance, when residents were asked to identify up to eight favorite proposed additions to Soldiers Field Park, only a river plaza and food truck promenade received support from more than half the participants.

An arboretum saw 46% support, followed closely by pickleball with 44%. A golf putting course landed on 27% of the lists provided, trailing basketball courts, which saw 29% support.

Rochester City Golf Courses

Hadley Creek Golf Course and Learning Center
on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Rochester.

Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

The results of a recent survey conducted by Minneapolis-based Morris Leatherman Co. state that 28% of respondents use municipal golf courses, compared to 31% that use community ball fields and 68% that use the city’s trail system.

Former Rochester City Administrator Gary Neumann, who has voiced support for maintaining all four city-owned golf courses, said the results of such surveys point to the challenge facing cities when it comes to investing in public spaces.

He said finding an activity that caters to a dominant portion of the population is an impossibility, so cities must find ways to address a variety of interests.

“Our whole program of recreation is based on serving one strong minority group with what will make them enjoy the city better and then a different minority group — and I’m talking minority in terms of numbers — is in (another activity),” he said. “If you think you are going to get a majority of people in favor of any of those things, I think you are wrong.”

Rochester City Golf Courses

Northern Hills Golf Course on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Rochester.

Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

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