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Posted: June 25, 2011 7:56 p.m.

Rough Times

Breaking down the state of golf in Newton County

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Andy Bowman, the head pro at The Oaks Course, gives us a handy tip on how to hit a punch shot to get your ball out of rough situation.

If you play The Oaks Course often enough, chances are you'll eventually run into Landon Cheek working in the pro shop. Cheek is a Newton graduate and currently a student at West Georgia.

Three years ago, Cheek won his third straight Region 2-AAAAA champion. He was also the last talented player at Newton.

Golf is a multi-billion dollar industry and, during the last 20 years, has captured a global market.

During the last decade in particular, golf has gone through major changes. Its popularity has spread worldwide, and international golfers have taken over professional golf in the past few years.

One look at the latest PGA major championships results paints a clear picture. In the nine majors dating back to the 2009 Masters, international golfers have taken six, including the last four straight.

Golf locally is immensely popular too and it's also changed during the past decade. The Oaks and Indian Creek Golf Club are Newton County's two options and both provide an excellent golf experience. And while the two courses are vastly different in many ways, they share one thing in common. Both have seen better days.

 

High costs and low funds means play is down

Bryan Raines and his father took a huge gamble in 2001 when they bought the defunct Covington Plantation golf course. Raines, a former collegiate golfer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was at home as a golf pro. After the purchase, he faced the daunting task of turning nothing into something at newly renamed Indian Creek.

The next seven years saw membership grow from nothing to a peak of about 250 members. Then the housing market crumbled and everything changed.

The housing crash hit Newton County hard. A large number of the county's residents rely on the construction trade for income. With a surplus of new homes in the county and throughout the state, construction dried up. So did the money for golf.

"A lot of our members and people who play here were heavily involved in construction," Raines said. "That's 70 percent of our business. We have a lot of members who have cabinet companies and sprinkler companies and they're all self-employed. When there's no work, there's no money and no money for golf."

During the late 1990s, membership at The Oaks peaked around 160. Since then it's fallen steadily and hovered around 100. Much of The Oaks business is walk-ins.

The cost to operate a golf course isn't cheap. According to owner and director of operations Dick Shulz, The Oaks has an operating budget of $1.3 million and he said the break-even point is 35,000 rounds per year. In 1998, The Oaks had close to 46,000 paid rounds. Last year, they did 34,000. Because of declining revenue, Shulz has had to get creative with cost-cutting measures.

"There are certain things you can't control," Shulz said. "We've had to cut services. We eliminated six water coolers. People don't think about something like a water cooler makes a difference but that's about $2,000 a year saved per cooler. That's allowed us to basically keep an employee and it's been our goal since '98 not to lay anyone off."

Golf has never been a cheap sport to play, especially for kids. Parents can

 

Another variable is learning the game. Both courses employ PGA professionals. Andy Bowman is The Oaks head professional. At Indian Creek, Raines is the head professional. In a whim, he goes from club manager and director of maintenance to instructor, but he doesn't mind.

"I love to teach," Raines said. "That's my background. That's what I love to do. I don't have as much time to do it obviously because of all the hats I wear but I still teach a pretty good bit."

 

The state of high school golf

When asked who the best player they ever saw come out of the area, both Shulz and Bowman answered immediately in stereo.

Before Cheek dominated golf at Newton, Danyel McKibben was perhaps the most talented player ever to come out of Newton. McKibben was also the last collegiate player to come out of Newton.

With more than 68 percent of the close to 20,000 students in the Newton County School System on free or reduced lunch, there simply isn't the talent pool of golf there once was.

With three high schools vying for golf talent, the strength has shifted to Eastside. Alcovy's program is still in its infancy and outside of Matt Moore, no players have been the caliber of Cheek or McKibben.

All the talent has ended up at Eastside. Tate Miller, Ace Cook and Nick Green are all headed to college in the fall to play golf. Taylor Lazenby, who was part of Eastside's 2010 Region 8-AAA championship team along with those three players, is attempting to play this fall.

Eastside graduate Taylor Smith, who played at the same time as Cheek, is currently holding his own at Georgia College & State University. He made the field for the U.S. Amateur tournament last year and has had the most success recently.

Fortunately, once players at the three high schools make their respective golf teams, the two courses pick up the tab on course fees. The Oaks has long been Newton's home course. Shulz provides full access to both the boys' and girls' teams and has hosted region tournaments while Raines supports both Eastside and Alcovy.

"I've always looked at it as, I want to give back to the community," Raines said. "When I played at Parkview, Summit Chase was always nice enough to let us play so I have done the same thing."

Shulz and Raines both admit they lose a lot of money by supporting the local high school programs. But Shulz said, the benefits far outweigh the costs in the grand scheme of things.

"Our philosophy is, there's a certain duty to serve the community," Schulz said. "We’ve supported Newton from day one. It costs us a lot of money but with the kids, it's good to expose them to the sport and it will also help us in the long run."

 

What the future holds

With the economy affecting how people spend any extra money they may have and the recent demographic shift, the survival of both The Oaks and Indian Creek may depend on the youth in the county.

"The PGA has given us a directive to get the juniors in this county involved and learning how to play," Shulz said. "We will make it as inexpensive as possible. We've started to do after school clinics, three-day clinics and a family clinic in the evening. We do a dollar a hole for the kids — so there are many things we are doing to get the community involved and grow the sport."

Both the Oaks and Indian Creek are involved with the Get Golf Ready initiative — a five-session introductory golf program designed to introduce new or novice golfers to the game.

Whether or not the two golf courses can get back to where they were before the bottom fell out of the economy is unknown. Currently Raines is looking for two or three investors to infuse some cash into the club for a share of ownership. As it stands, Raines said membership is down to about 175 paying members with another 35-40 memberships on hold.

Conversely, nobody knows where the three high school golf programs are headed or if there will even be one at Newton in five years. With so much uncertainty, one might question why either Shulz or Raines wouldn't just throw in the towel and consider a career change.

The short answer is both are in it for the long haul, and, at some point, things are bound to turn around.

"Money for golf is the first thing to go and the last thing to return," Raines said. "I think people are going to be tighter with their money than they were before. But the core golfer will return. I just think people will be wiser with how they spend money on golf."

At The Oaks, public play is a staple that continues to thrive. Without the robust membership numbers, Shulz knows The Oaks bread and butter will continue to be the recreational golfer. Keeping things simple and providing a valuable product has kept them going so far.

"Supporting a private country club is darn near impossible," Schulz said. "The key is, you have to have a golf facility and a golf professional that is committed and will take the time.

"I could sell all 275 acres to the county and they could keep it a golf course or not. But the reason we have survived in this economy is because (wife) Nancy and I watch it and we love it. We came here 21 years ago and made a commitment that we were going to build a recreation facility for the whole family."

spend $20 on a basketball, football or soccer ball and let their kids form games on their own. However, golf equipment is expensive and greens fees can run anywhere from $25 to $40 and up. Even a day at the practice range can cost $8 and up.

 

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