Myrtle Beach golf is on the upswing

Paid rounds played on the Grand Strand in the spring golf season increased for the second consecutive year, and the increase was more significant in 2011.

After increasing approximately 5.5 percent in March, April and May in 2010 compared to 2009, they jumped another 8.7 percent this year over last in a season when greens fees and profits are at their peak for course operators.

The gains are based on the collection of a $1.50 per-round transaction fee by marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday that is affixed to golf package and walk-on rounds. The fee is not collected for replay rounds, complimentary rounds or rounds played by course members.

The numbers are welcomed by a golf tourism market that is still in the early stages of recovering from a nationwide economic recession.

May rounds were up 14.7 percent, including a 20.6 percent surge in package rounds. Golden said March was nearly flat, and April was up 4 percent overall and 7 percent in package rounds.

"The package side is what I think is a really encouraging sign, particularly in May," Golf Holiday president Bill Golden said. "Everyone seems a bit more optimistic this year after the spring. We're confident this will continue on into the fall and continue the momentum we have."

The gains in 2010 carried over from less significant increases in rounds of 1.5 and 2.3 percent in October and November, when greens fees approach those of the spring.

The spring followed weak numbers in January and February for the second consecutive year, largely because of poor weather.

Golden believes marketing initiatives have driven interest. They include an ESPN Radio campaign that included numerous ads and the hosting of the Mike & Mike Morning Show at Barefoot Resort during the Hootie & the Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am, and marketing campaigns in cities with direct flights to Myrtle Beach.

Weather and an increase in direct flights may have played a part, as well.

"I think there are a lot of contributing factors," Golden said. "Certainly we've got marketing momentum built up in the past couple years. ... I think now we're starting to see that increased [airline] capacity translating to more golfers coming to Myrtle Beach in the spring.

"I think we're starting to see a slight bit of restoration in consumer confidence and people are willing to make golf trips. And I think we had a great spring season for weather and that was a factor."

The spring had been slumping before 2010. Rounds in March, April and May fell between 13.8 and 18.3 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.

The fee collection numbers showed rounds fell 12.4 percent in all of 2009 compared to 2008, and 8.4 percent in 2008 compared to 2007. But the decrease in 2010 was negligible at 1.86 percent and 2011 could get courses back in the black in terms of rounds played.

They're still not making the profits per round they were a few years ago, however, after the closing of 20 courses from 2005-2007 increased demand and allowed courses to raise rates.

Classic Golf Group general manager Tommy Smothers said his four courses were up an average of 9 percent this spring.

"We're happy with those numbers, though obviously our revenue isn't as high percentage-wise as our rounds, and that's due to the fact we're discounting heavily and offering free rounds as part of package promotions," Smothers said. "But we're happy with the trend that's taking place."