Oaks golf course closed; Pelican Point cutting 9 holes

The Oaks at Sherwood golf course in Baton Rouge was shut down Wednesday, while Pelican Point Golf Club in Gonzales said it will close the front nine of its Lakes course at the end of the month — two more signs of the decreasing popularity of golf in the Capital Region and nationally.

Pelican Point still has a second 18-hole course, the Links.

Dwindling membership and competition from other golf courses forced The Oaks to close a little over four years after investors acquired the property at 1655 Sherwood Forest Blvd.

“We’ve had 4½ years. It’s been a good run. We did everything we could to make it a success. Unfortunately it didn’t happen,” said Layne McDaniel, a member of the course’s board of management.

The Oaks is the latest golf course to close in the Baton Rouge area in recent years. Other courses that have closed include Briarwood Golf Club on Airline Highway, where Woman’s Hospital relocated; Fairwood Country Club, off Millerville Road, where a concept plan was approved for an apartment and retail/office development; Shenandoah Country Club Golf Course, where houses were built; and the Gonzales Country Club.

This is the second time the Sherwood Boulevard golf course has closed. In February 2009, a group of investors led by McDaniel acquired the then-defunct Sherwood Forest Country Club for the amount of its debt, $2.8 million.

McDaniel said The Oaks’ board met with American Gateway Bank, which holds the mortgage on the property. But those negotiations proved fruitless. The Oaks board plans to turn the property over to the bank later this month, after paying employees and vendors.

“We’re not really sure what the bank’s intentions are as far as development. I’m sure they’ll sell it,” McDaniel said.

At Pelican Point, Phillip Wright, general manager and director of golf, said closing half of the Lakes course will save the club $200,000 to $225,000 a year. “This will strengthen our long-term future,” Wright said. “We feel strongly we can support 27 holes. But it was difficult with 36 holes.”

Closing the front nine of the Lakes will leave 60 to 70 acres vacant in Pelican Point. The property will be developed for residences, but Wright said that is “several years down the road.”

“At this point, there are no plans,” he said.

The Oaks in Baton Rouge has around 60 investors, the majority of whom either live on the course or were members.

“Most people bought into this place without any real expectation of a return. They just wanted to keep it open because it’s got such great history,” McDaniel said.

The investors’ original business plan called for 300 members and around 15,000 rounds of day play, goals that appeared reachable at the time. At one point, The Oaks had 275 members, or people who bought annual passes, but that number has since dwindled to around 175. Revenue from the annual passes is what allowed the course to cover expenses during the winter and rainy months, when few people played.

But the economic downturn forced many private golf courses to allow public play and also hurt The Oaks’ effort to draw new members.

“All of a sudden you had probably 15 golf courses in a 20-mile radius to play, and that’s a lot of golf courses,” McDaniel said. “There’s just not enough golfers in Baton Rouge to keep all of them …. I mean all of them are struggling. The industry as a whole is suffering. I think somebody reported that 18,000 golf courses nationwide have closed in the last five or so years.”

The Oaks board slashed expenses and adjusted its business plan so that the course could have survived with around 200 members. But that plan would have required some help from the bank.

Don Ayres, American Gateway president and chief executive officer, said he couldn’t comment on the negotiations.

“From our perspective, it’s just unfortunate. Those guys fought hard to make it a viable club.”

Gordon Conn was a member of Fairwood Country Club for 20 years. When it closed, he joined Sherwood Forest Country Club. When it closed, he became an investor in The Oaks.

The Oaks’ closing is much harder to take, Conn said. He made new friends at The Oaks, and he expects to follow the group to another course, wherever that might be.

But the options, when it comes to private clubs, are fewer and much more expensive. The BREC courses he likes are crowded, and there is more competition for tee times.

Brennan Haggard, an employee at The Oaks for the past 2½ years, said he will move on and try to find another job. That’s not the hard part.

“But you can never have the friends and family you have here. My co-workers are my brothers and sisters,” said Haggard, who is 18. “You can’t replace this. It’s like I lost half my family at one time.”

The Oaks was like the “Cheers” of golf courses, he said: Everybody knows your name, and the members treated the workers as equals.

For the past few years nationally, more existing golf courses have closed than new ones have opened. Golf course construction boomed in the late 1990s, when the economy was bustling, the number of golfers increased and Tiger Woods was one of the most popular athletes in the world.

But the recession battered the golf industry and younger people have taken up other leisure time pursuits that are cheaper, easier and less time-consuming. According to statistics from the National Golf Federation cited by The Orlando Sentinel, the number of American golfers dropped from 30 million before the recession to 25.7 million in 2011. At the same time, the number of rounds played dropped from 500 million to 463 million.

“There are too many golf courses, not enough golfers,” Wright said. “There’s a correcting going on, but it is taking some time.”

Pelican Point members have mixed feelings about the closing of part of the Lakes, Wright said. While the majority are aware of how the development has struggled and the need to cut expenses in an economy that is growing slowly, some wish the course could still operate with 18 holes, he said.