Winter means the end of golf season in a large swath of the country. But courses in the regions that see snow and frigid temperatures don’t all go unoccupied during cold months. Instead, an estimated 225 of those incorporate a range of formal activities, from groomed trails for cross-country skiing to other forms of recreation like ice fishing, ice skating, and tubing.
It’s not as simple as it sounds though, and having help from experts, plus access to a large market of skiers, often means the difference between making money or simply being an asset to the local community.
“There are a lot of people who seem to realize they don’t know a whole lot (about winter sports), and there are certainly those who want to make a minimal investment and get a maximum return,” said Jonathan Wiesel, a consultant who advises facilities through his company, Nordic Group International, in Bozeman, Montana. “You can actually start off with a pretty nominal investment in terms of grooming equipment, or go whole hog with a $250,000 snowcat vehicle if you have the resources and weather patterns to generate enough snow.”
The latter is critical and varies tremendously by region.
“In the Rockies, where there’s so much air in the snow, generally you need a foot of snow on the ground before you start grooming trails,” said Wiesel. “In the Midwest or on the East Coast, there is much more dense snow and some places will start with four to five inches. If you don’t have a probable 60-day season, it’s not worth considering, especially if you can’t get the Christmas holidays within that timeframe.”
Snow is rarely an issue at Bridger Creek Golf Course in Bozeman, which had welcomed cross-country skiers on an informal basis after opening in 1994. But then the local Bridger Ski Foundation approached co-owner and Director of Golf Mark Holiday.
“Things had gotten a little chaotic with people coming here to ski, so when the Foundation said it wanted to groom the trails, we thought that was a good idea,” he said. “We helped them set up trails that avoided tee boxes and greens and they groom it when necessary. It’s been hugely popular.”
All money generated (annual passes cost $100 for a family and $40 for individuals) goes to the Bridger Ski Foundation. “The thing that we get from it is incredible thanks from the community,” said Holiday. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say thanks for letting us do this. It’s really a goodwill gesture on our part.”
Holiday believes other courses could do it and make some money. “I know had we done that and made it a whole separate business, we would probably do fine with it,” he said. “You could charge for a yearly pass, have ski rentals, and bring in people to teach it. It wouldn’t necessarily be a huge moneymaker. But if you have a group like we have that is so good at it, and all we have to do is step aside and let them do it.”
At Deerpath Golf Course, a municipal facility in Lake Forest, Illinois, that is managed by KemperSports, General Manager Vince Juarez sees 20 or so people using groomed cross-country trails along the course on a typical winter day. Certain course areas are specifically designated for skiing trails, with greens and tees roped off to protect them from damage.
“To me that’s high utilization during the offseason,” he said. “Everybody has to remember that as a public facility, we’re here to serve the residents of Lake Forest. You might not see the direct benefits of being open during the winter, say for cross-country skiing, because it’s free to residents. But you’re going to see it down the line when they come back to the course to play golf, have lunch or dinner, or sit out on the patio or have an event here. That’s when you see things come full circle.”
Direct benefits are visible at Leo J. Martin Golf Course in Weston, Massachusetts, which has hosted cross-country skiers since 1974. The state-managed operation, known as the Weston Ski Track, includes two groomers and eight snow guns that create a 2.5-kilometer trail. Once real snow falls, the entire course is groomed for 15 kilometers worth of trails. But recent weather has been an issue, according to General Manager Jim Burke.
“It’s just below break even with the last few winters,” he said. “It probably has to snow three times for us to make money. You have the hard core-cross country skiers (more than 1,000 season passes are sold annually) who will come out, but it’s the casual skier where you make the majority of the revenue. More than anything it’s an amenity to the taxpayer.”
Season passes cost $399 for families; $189 for individuals; and $79 for high school students. One-time daily trail fees range from $11-$15 per person.
“You would need a market for it,” said Burke. “Just because you have cold weather and snow making capabilities doesn’t mean there will be a market. Leo J. Martin is 15 minutes from Boston, so it’s in the ideal area. But I’m also the general manager at Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton, which is 15 miles down the road. If we did the same thing there I don’t know if it would be successful. It’s about location. A lot people don’t want to travel to Vermont or Maine, and we’re the only place that does it primarily because of the start-up costs needed.”
Among the major criteria that would be assessed during a feasibility study are whether a golf facility has enough land to make it viable, a climate that’s conducive to snow-making even without a lot of natural snow, and the financial resources to undertake the effort of embracing winter activities.
The 800-acre Theodore Wirth Regional Park, a six-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, is the second largest city-owned park in the U.S. after New York’s Central Park. It has the largest groomed trail system in a North American park, parts of which go over an 18-hole course and a 9-hole, par 3 course. Winter activities are so essential here – the venue will host a World Cup Sprint Finals for cross-country skiing in March 2020, the first one held in the U.S. since 2002 – that the main golf course was redeveloped three years ago to create more space for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tubing.
Since 2017 the park has outsourced a majority of its winter operations to the Loppet Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on outdoor adventure in the Minneapolis area. The Foundation pays the park a rental fee for park access and use of a Trailhead building that opened in 2018.
“We ran the operation for years and years, and our golf maintenance guys would shift into winter recreation work,” said Roxann Maxey, Golf Course Operations Manager for Theodore Wirth Regional Park. “But they worked seven days a week for eight months on the courses, so the last thing they wanted to do was transition into grooming cross-country ski trails. And we realized that people who are into that sport do a better job of maintaining, developing and marketing it. We have four snow grooming machines that go for $700,000 each, so by partnering with a non-profit they can go out and knock on doors of ski enthusiasts and corporations to help offset those expenses.”
“Golf can be looked as a sport that in some people’s eyes doesn’t necessarily serve all,” added Maxey. “Providing access for more people with winter activities, and the business that brings in, has really helped the golf business in Minnesota become a bit more financially stable.”