All In The Family

Published on Wednesday, May 17th, 2017 in Features

The Links at Avalon, South Course No. 2

Once the majority of the golf industry, family-owned courses are becoming fewer and farther between.

by Bob Sherwin

That guy behind the counter, the one ringing up the greens fees, knew your name and the names of all your family members. And you knew his. Conversations were brief but invariably included a laugh over a flagging swing, a inside joke or retelling a story that transcended your shared experience.

That was a time when spending five hours at the golf course felt like a family visit. You showed up at the same time each week, your foursome’s names were already on the starter sheet, and your favorite turkey/mayo sandwich, prepared by the wife of the guy who rang you up, was waiting in a cellophane bag in the snack shop at the turn.

Those friendly-and-familiar, family-owned local golf courses, at one time abundant and prosperous, have been on a power fade over this past generation.

“A lot of what we do depends on relationships,’”says Ron Hass, whose family has owned The Links at Avalon in Burlington since 1988. “There’s a lot of mutual loyalty. That’s vital to what we do. That’s the fun part of being in this business. It’s a personal business.”

Hass, who has tried to conduct business in the same fashion for the past three decades, has witnessed significant changes in the game during his time. Golf has changed so much that about the only constants are profanity and gravity. Equipment has evolved to the point that if you don’t keep pace with the technology every two or three years, you’ll always be 10 yards behind your buddy. Rules and course boundaries have been retrofitted to address the modern excesses of this ancient game.  

But among the biggest changes is not how you play or what you play with, but where you play. There’s a good chance that the first course you played as a youngster is no longer around, folded into a housing development or strip mall. While many courses have been built, many others have closed, and most of the survivors have consolidated into various marketing conglomerates.

“It’s good being with a family,” says Fred Jacobsen, who has had working responsibilities with a couple north-of-Seattle golf courses over the years, but primarily has worked at Snohomish Golf Course, owned by the Richards family for more than a half century. “They (families) understand the peaks and valleys of the business.”

The disappearance of family-owned courses “hurts all of us,” Jacobsen says. “Single-family ownership is the backbone for developing golfers. It’s hard to develop golfers on a full 18-hole course.”

Last year, the humble Wayne Golf Course in Bothell, owned by the Richards’ for 63 years, was sold. A conservation group purchased the property with initial plans for a park, moving on from hackers to hikers. 

Another north-end course that has been transformed into a city park is Ballinger Lake in Mountlake Terrace. The nine-hole layout was once thriving, teeming with golfers. In 1987, more than 61,000 rounds were played at Ballinger, among the highest count in the nation for a nine-hole circuit. However, that number dwindled to fewer than 16,000 rounds by 2013, forcing course operators Tyrone and Carol Hardy to back out of their lease with the city. They conceded that the slow recovery from the 2007-09 recession and poor weather conspired to erode their financial stabilty. 

The Hardys were among the many family-operated golf courses swept out by the recession. Wellington Hills Golf & Country Club in Woodinville, operated by various families for more than 80 years, closed in 2012 to make way for a sports complex. Tall Chief Golf Course, a dandy, wooded 18-hole tract in Fall City, shuttered completely in 2013 in favor of a housing development and RV camp site.

At least a dozen locally-owned courses around the state have closed, or sold out, since 2010, changing the face of golf ownership from your neighbor, to a number — one as likely to reach China as Chehalis.

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