Golf courses across Wisconsin closed down and locked up over the past few weeks, some right on schedule and others sooner than expected thanks to early arriving cold and snow. For most course operators it's back to the old "wait until next year," but for Bridgewood Golf Course in Neenah there won't be a next year. This year's closing is for good. Citing the double-barrel challenge of fickle weather in recent years and too much competition for a nine-hole course in a tough environment for our game, owner Rich Batley said the land would be better used for new development.
Here's some instructive irony. When I was talking with Batley about his decision to throw in the towel he noted that the flags were still in place in the event any golfers wanted a final November round.
Fat chance. "We got snow again last night," he said, "so that's not going to happen."
In a state with hundreds of golf courses and thousands of golf holes, losing nine for good is hardly cataclysmic. Even if it is technically the only golf course in Neenah – another with a Neenah address is outside city limits – there are enough places nearby for Fox Valley golfers to scratch their itch to play that one less nine-holer won't be a problem.
But Batley, whose business also includes an adjacent resort hotel, conference center and restaurant, said the decision was still a difficult step.
"Oh yeah, yeah," he said. "But at some point you need to take your heart out of it and put your head in and say, 'what's going to be best for the business?' "
In this case, staying in golf wasn't the answer. He wasn't the first Wisconsin course owner to reach the conclusion and won't be the last, but Batley's decision to go with head over heart is another reminder of the challenges facing the golf industry today.
Batley has owned the course for 16 years. Oddly, he didn't even play golf when he took it over (it was 18 holes originally but reduced to nine to allow for real estate projects) but later joined his club's weekly men's league and learned to enjoy it. But with just nine holes, Bridgewood had trouble landing the kind of lucrative outings big golf courses depend on and "when you're just relying on people to come and golf, it's difficult.
"(The decision) has been a couple years in the making. It was always, next year is going to be better," he said, but with few young golfers emerging to fill up tee sheets and with new irrigation and equipment needs that outpaced revenue, there was no more feeling next year would be better.
"We look at the land and the land was more valuable as something else," he said. "It was tough telling (employees) we were going to shut it down. Whenever you have to (let go) valuable team members it's a tough decision."
Joe Bowers, Bridgewood's longtime pro, said the closing was "a little bit of a surprise" but as understandable as it was sad. He plans to keep teaching golf in the valley but noted "a lot of people are going to have to find new places to go (for golf). Yeah, it's a lot of mixed emotions and a lot of people feel bad" because the course had been there so long.
Mixed emotions seemed the common experience.
"We are feeling many emotions and we understand that a lot of people made memories on this course," Batley wrote on Facebook. "We understand the community will also have many emotions about this announcement...For some locals this was their home course and maybe where they learned how to play golf and/or teach others.
"This is certainly a bittersweet announcement."
But evidence suggests it was the right move. Already, several prospective developers have approached with plans and a decision will come soon on what will become of Bridgewood GC. It's just nine fewer holes in a state with thousands of them but at least a few players will miss it.
"Such a bummer!" wrote one such golfer. "But THANK YOU for all the memories..."
Editor's note: This story first appeared in the November issue of Wisconsin Golfer, the official magazine of the WSGA.