The Santa Barbara Golf Club is in good physical shape but the economy and national trends are casting a long shadow over its future.

The Santa Barbara Golf Club is in good physical shape but the economy and national trends are casting a long shadow over its future. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)

For the Santa Barbara Golf Club — and others in the area and across the country — it’s a shame that the rules of the business don’t mirror those of the game: the lower the numbers, the better the outcome.

For the first time in memory, the number of rounds played at the municipal course during the ongoing fiscal year isn’t expected to reach 70,000, and is on pace for a 15 percent drop from the year before.

Local golf gurus attribute the downturn to a triple bogey of trends: a decline in the economy over the past year, as well as — over the past 10 or 15 years — an over-saturation of new courses, and the less explicable waning interest in the game nationwide.

To be sure, the municipal course on many days is still plenty busy, and city officials are quick to note how golfers this year have been raving about the current state of the greens.

What’s more, this year’s local drop-off in rounds pales in comparison to the national decline, which is more on the order of 40 percent, said Chris Talerico, director of the municipal course, 3500 McCaw Ave.

“Compared to the overall picture, it’s not that bad at all,” said Talerico, who took the job in December after his former boss, veteran golf director Richard Chavez, retired.

Nonetheless, the long-term decline is significant. The number of tee-offs at the municipal course reached its zenith in the mid 1990s — the height of the Tiger Woods euphoria, Talerico said. Back then, the city course logged as many as 100,000 rounds a year, which, by some accounts, is a few thousand too many.

City officials say a good number to shoot for is more like 85,000.

In any case, to lure back more golfers, the Santa Barbara municipal course in January launched a new special called the super-twilight discount. The rate, which begins after 2 p.m., is $15 for residents and $22 for nonresidents on weekdays. (Normal weekday rates are $30 and $40, respectively. Click here for more details.)

A series of discounted rates led to a surge in January tee-offs at the Santa Barbara Golf Course.

A series of discounted rates led to a surge in January tee-offs at the Santa Barbara Golf Course. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)

Talerico said the program has been a success. The number of post-2 p.m. tee-offs has surged to 200 in January, up from maybe 10 or 20 the month before, he said. The discount will last through March 8.

But the spoils of the discount aren’t enough to offset the sweeping trend, and city officials acknowledge that somewhere along the line, something’s gotta give.

“For the golf course, the majority of our expenses are on maintenance, so we’re left with the challenge of either increasing the fees to cover our costs, or reducing our maintenance levels,” said Nancy Rapp, the city’s parks-and-recreation director. “It’s a delicate balance.”

Less maintenance means golfers may begin to notice faster greens and browner fairways.

However, the course’s new golf manager, Mark Reed — who is credited for the current state of the plush greens — said quality fairways needn’t be the same shade of deep green as depicted in the televised PGA tour events.

“As long as the surface is playing, brown is good,” he said.

The municipal golf course is what’s known as an enterprise fund, meaning that even though it is run by the city, it sustains itself, and is not subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

This fiscal year, the course, which operates with a budget of about $2 million, is expecting a shortfall of $100,000. This has caused some belt-tightening — the golf course, for instance, is using less fertilizer and water — but the budget for 2009-10 could be even worse, officials said.

As for golf’s slumping sales, both locally and nationally, the economy explains only the more recent dips. In past years, golf in a sense has been a victim of its own success. During the height of the golf boom, many new courses were built. The trend had the effect of diluting the sport’s customer base.

“They kind of overdid it a little,” Talerico said of the golf industry in general.

In the 1990s, the South Coast witnessed the debut of Glen Annie Golf Course in Goleta and Rancho San Marcos Golf Course off Highway 154. Both public courses – which, unlike the municipal course, are privately owned — have floundered. The 18-hole Glenn Annie course operates in the red, and for years has been looking to become a nine-hole course by selling a portion of the land to real-estate developers. Ranchos San Marcos closed for a half-year in 2006 to complete a redesign, and has since reopened.

This fiscal year, Glen Annie’s business is expected to taper off by about 16 percent, roughly the same proportional decline as the one projected this year for the Santa Barbara municipal course.

Glen Annie general manager Richard Nahas said that while the number of rounds at his course is down by around 10 percent — to an estimated 40,000 from 45,000 last year — revenue is off even more.

“Golfers, to a certain extent, are addicts — they are going to find a way to play, but are just going to find a cheaper way to do it,” he said. “Maybe they’ll still play golf, but are not going to buy as many $60 golf shirts, or $15 cheeseburgers. They are going to bring a sack lunch.”

Glen Annie customers also have been taking advantage of discounts, such as a two-for-one Wednesday deal.

Nahas added that despite the owner’s interest in selling much of the land, Glen Annie is still investing time, energy and money into the club’s enhancement. For instance, the course recently received a fleet of new golf carts, and finished renovating the clubhouse and bar area.

“It’s better than ever,” he said.

In the end, officials affiliated with both courses are trying to send a similar message to South Coast golfers: Get out and play.

“What a better thing to do, to be walking out there on a sunny day, enjoying one of life’s pleasures,” Rapp said.

Write to rkuznia@noozhawk.com

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.