Trend away from country clubs, golf clubs persists in Western Pa.
Editor's note: A previous story incorrectly reported that Glengarry Golf Links near Latrobe was set to be sold at auction in December. The course has been under new management since July 1, 2013. The new owners are moving forward with a series of improvements expected to last well into the future.
Victor Bonomo was attracted to the house he bought seven years ago in Uniontown, in part, because of the country club across the street.
“When we moved in, I ran over and joined ... They had a 10-minute waiting list,” said Bonomo, 85, a retired PepsiCo executive.
Today, Bonomo is among a number of members and former members of the Uniontown Country Club voicing dissatisfaction with the direction the club has taken.
Owner Brian Boyle, who bought the 106-year-old country club in 2010, told members during a recent meeting that he would close the club Oct. 1 if a buyer can't be found, those in attendance said.
Boyle declined to comment.
But the Uniontown club's story is all too familiar, playing out time and again throughout Western Pennsylvania where some club proprietors are struggling to remain open, and others are searching for ways to repurpose the sprawling properties.
Dwindling membership and the inability to attract younger players to golf are plaguing country clubs across the country, forcing them to change or close.
Once the playgrounds for the monied elite, private country clubs such as Churchill Valley and Highland in Ross have closed, said Jeff Rivard, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association. Others are changing in an effort to stay open.
“Many private clubs have become public, maybe a dozen,” he said. “Others have been bought by members.”
Some clubs are waiving initiation fees and offering sliding scale memberships to attract players.
Efforts to breathe life into the Uniontown Country Club's bottom line failed. A plan to build condos on the outskirts of the property was scrapped.
New menu items at its dining room — BBQ chicken, fish tacos, Buffalo chicken wings and beef sliders — haven't attracted a younger crowd while galling the older members.
“The food is not good,” said Bonomo, who wrote a letter to management about the food and other issues.
When he got no reply, he scaled down his membership to a social member and eventually quit.
A number of country clubs and golf courses in the region have gone by the wayside.
In North Huntingdon, two former courses, Lincoln Hills Country Club and Carradam Golf Club, are housing plans.
The possibility of turning the Uniontown Country Club into a housing development troubles neighbors.
“I'm very concerned … I would hate to see houses there,” Bonomo said.
Members like Dick Hughes, who joined the club in 1967, are equally frustrated.
“Obviously it makes me sick,” said Hughes, 73, who lives a quarter-mile from the club and plays a round of golf there five or six times a week, usually in 31⁄2 hours or less.
It was different when Hughes joined 47 years ago and the club had as many as 400 members lining up to play.
“You had to call early in the morning to get a tee time in the afternoon,” he said. “Today there's no U.S. Steel, no Republic Steel ... it's pretty hard to keep a place going.”
Tom Bummer, golf pro at Uniontown, has been through this before. He was the pro at Churchill Valley, which closed in 2011.
Across the country, fewer rounds of golf are being played on fewer golf courses. Some 157 courses closed last year, while just 14 new ones opened, the National Golf Foundation said. That trend has held for eight consecutive years and will continue, the Jupiter, Fla.-based organization said.
The golf industry, which received a tremendous boost after Tiger Woods joined the PGA tour in 1996, has been suffering through some lean years. The Tiger “bump” is gone, experts said.
“The average guy, 28, married with a kid, is going to play once a week,” Bummer said. “He's not going to join a club.”
Experts attribute the drop in golfers to declining national incomes and the busy lifestyles of younger people. Golf's high cost and time demands —18 holes can take 41⁄2 hours — has sent younger folks looking for something else to do.
On a recent summer day in Uniontown, the club's grounds crew did maintenance work, Bummer fielded phone calls in his office while, just outside his window, a group of women enjoyed doubles tennis. None knew for sure if they would have jobs or a place to play in the near future.
Boyle told Bummer “there are (people) interested in buying it as a golf course” but that's about as far as it goes.
“Lots of rumors,” one worker said.
Membership, which has declined to about 60 current golfing members, now comes in four price levels ranging from $400 to $800 a year.
“We just don't have the people willing to pay to belong to a private club,” one member said.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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