In my next life, I'm going into a business that's not weather-driven," vows Walter Lankau, owner of the 36-hole Stow Acres Country Club outside Boston. "It will drive you crazy."
That's not a minority opinion. Most golf-course owners I know will admit to being weather-worriers, if not borderline obsessives. It's dollars and cents. At a place like Lankau's, which charges $55 to $65 a round plus $18.25 per cart rider, a rainy day in mid-season might mean anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 in lost revenue if it's a full washout.
"We're a very high-fixed-cost business," says Joe Guerra, whose Sequoia Golf owns and manages more than 50 courses, most of them in the South. "Because our cost structure remains the same no matter how many customers we have, low-volume days really hit us hard."
Mother Nature delivered more low-volume days than usual in 2011. The Northeast suffered through a cold, wet spring, then got hammered by Hurricane Irene. The Upper Midwest reported record flooding, and California had the soggiest summer in its history. Texas and much of the Southwest broiled as a drought covered nearly a third of the United States. (Also, the woeful U.S. economy hasn't helped.)
Lankau figures he sold 20 percent fewer rounds than average last spring. The four-course Cog Hill Golf & Country Club near Chicago was off by more than 6,600 rounds through May—a drop of 25 percent from 2010, says owner Frank Jemsek. "No question, our rounds in Texas were down because of the drought," says Jim Hinckley, CEO of Century Golf Partners, which has 24 courses in the state. "Dallas had 72 days over 100 degrees, a record."
Apart from the lost revenue, big storms tend to leave big messes. "We'll spend two to three days just cleaning up," says Dan Feehan, who owns the River Islands Golf Club near Knoxville, Tenn. "That pulls us away from other things we're trying to do to maintain and improve the golf course."
One of last year's hardest-hit courses was Vermont's Quechee Club, which lost 22 of 36 holes to Hurricane Irene. The club had flood insurance, which is helping to pay for repairs, but general manager Ken Young says the policy's limits could have been higher. "Some people are calling this a 100-year storm or a 500-year storm. Our limits were for more like a 10-year storm."
Guerra's reading of several data-heavy climatologist newsletters (did I mention golf-course owners track this stuff closely?) suggests we're in for at least one more year of "La Niña" weather. That means parts of the Southeast will be much warmer, and parts of the North will be chillier and wetter than usual. "Looking at a much warmer than usual winter, we'll plan for additional labor," Guerra says. "The worst thing is to be caught without enough staff. You've got to make hay when the sun is shining."
He'll get no argument from Walter Lankau, who says the first few months of the golf season often set the tone for the year. "Enthusiasm is highest at the beginning," he says. "You get a good spring, and it can carry over into a good summer. But for many days last spring, we had 38 degrees and rain."
One of Lankau's biggest complaints about the weather is shared by many in the golf business. News media, they argue, too often use scary-sounding weather forecasts to get viewers' attention. When golfers hear it might rain, they make other plans—even if the chance of rain is slight. A few years ago, a group of owners approached weather .com about this. "We just wanted to make them aware that overly pessimistic forecasts can have a negative impact on business," says Mike Hughes, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association. "It doesn't have to be 'partly cloudy.' It can be 'partly sunny.' " He believes the meeting has had an effect on the website's forecasts.
The key to maintaining your sanity as a golf-course owner, says Chicago's Jemsek, is not to worry about things you can't control. It's a lesson he learned from his father, Joe Jemsek, who bought Cog Hill in 1951.
That's a message most golf-course owners have probably heard at one point or another. The truth is, it's not always easy to do. "When you get a rainout on a weekend in peak season," says one golf-course owner, "you just want to cry." He asked me not to name him because he'd rather everyone didn't picture him sitting alone in his empty clubhouse, weeping.
On the theory that a little revenue is better than none, many courses roll out special offers when the weather is less than ideal. One of the catchier ideas in the spring and fall is "pay the temperature," a deal in which the day's predicted high temp equals your green fee. At the Wilds Golf Club in Prior Lake, Minn., they go one better: The fee is the actual temperature 30 minutes before your tee time.