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Rookery to close Milford golf course in 2021

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The Rookery North course in Milford will close at the end of the year after its owners couldn’t attract more players. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ROOKERY

MILFORD – Less than a decade after taking over of the former Shawnee Country Club, the ownership of The Rookery announced that they will close the course next year.

Annual members of the public 18-hole Rookery North course were notified in late August of the decision of Adkins Management Co., which also owns the Rookery South course in Milton and Hooper’s Landing in Seaford. The company began leasing the 159-acre course nine years ago and bought it outright for nearly $962,000 in 2015, according to county land records.

Rookery Director of Golf Butch Holtzclaw said that Adkins took over the course because it was struggling under its previous owners as a private club.

“We hoped that by opening it up to the public and offering memberships that we could get some growth there, but it just hasn’t happened,” he explained.

The course’s No. 1 problem in Holtzclaw’s estimation? 10 miles.

That’s the distance from the Rookery South course off Route 1 to the Milford course, and with the courses largely trying to draw tourists from Delaware’s coast, most are happier to stop at the Milton course rather than trek farther north. Annual members happily play both courses, but even reduced greens fees couldn’t convince enough public players to try Rookery North, Holtzclaw said.

“We thought that once we started getting people going there, we could create a following,” he added. “But it just never materialized.”

While Milford has experienced a building boom of residential homes in recent years, especially with the opening of Bayhealth’s campus in the city, Holtzclaw said the course had yet to see a corresponding bump in players.

Just as many Delaware golf courses struggled financially through the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic – due primarily to prohibitions on the use of golf carts that most players want – so too did the Rookery’s courses, Holtzclaw said.

“We were actually pretty busy the whole time, we just weren’t generating revenue,” he said, explaining those who paid for annual memberships were out walking the courses.

Since the restriction on carts was lifted in May, course revenue has stabilized to its typical levels, but its events and restaurants revenue is still down about 60% versus last year, Holtzclaw estimated.

As Adkins assessed the future of the Milford course, Holtzclaw said that they needed to see another 4,000 to 5,000 paid rounds a year for the course to break even. Over the nearly decade under their watch, the course’s usage has grown, but the managers weren’t confident that such a big jump in rounds was going to be possible anytime soon, leading to the difficult decision to pull the plug after 2020.

What comes next for the former Shawnee Country Club remains to be seen, as Holtzclaw said that there is no impending sale despite rumors and it has not been listed for sale. Adkins will retain ownership for the time being and entertain any offers that may come, he said.

“Who knows? The city or the state might want to come in and do something,” Holtzclaw added.

The Delaware State Parks office owns both Deerfield country club and Garrisons Lake Golf Club, having bought them to protect the lands from development after previous owners looked to sell. Golf courses in Delaware have a long history of falling into development, with four former courses in New Castle County currently proposed for or already undergoing such changes.

With the state and municipalities strapped for cash on outside capital expenses amid the pandemic, it may not be likely that public ownership is forthcoming. An outside investor may be willing to keep the course open to bank on the future growth of the Milford area though.

Larry Hirsh

The golf industry as a whole has been consolidating in recent years as players fell to a decade low of about 23.8 million in 2016 amid the fallout of the Great Recession, according to the National Golf Foundation. Interest has risen in the past few years, however, with the 24.3 million players taking to courses last year and the total rounds played rising 1.6% year over year.

Larry Hirsh, president of Golf Property Analysts, a golf course brokerage and advisory firm based in Conshohocken, Pa., said that the industry is actually seeing a boost in interest amid the pandemic, with golf being one of the few sports easily played outdoors with social distancing.

A lot of factors, including location, competition, revenue model, and more, are playing into whether a course is faring the pandemic well, he said. It has certainly driven some courses to hit the market this year, but others are seeing their rounds played increase by 20% to 30% over a typical year, Hirsh added.

“One of the biggest questions for courses will be whether this resurgence and increase in rounds played is sustainable,” he said.

 By Jacob Owens

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