By Mike Lednovich
Domenick Gambardella and Carla Foreman were stunned after receiving an email late last year from the Omni Hotel’s Oak Marsh Golf Course informing them the golf course was significantly hiking their green fees.
Gambardella heads an informal golf group that played Oak Marsh on Thursdays. The group had been paying $70 per player. The email informed him the new rate would be $92 with the stipulation they had to guarantee 16 players. If the group showed up with fewer than 16 golfers, the rate would skyrocket to $130 per person.
Foreman is a member of the Amelia Island Women’s Newcomers golf group that had been playing at Oak Marsh for more than 10 years. They were paying $42 for nine holes. The new rate at Oak Marsh now was going to be $90.
As a result, both groups left Oak Marsh and now play elsewhere.
The escalating cost to play golf on Amelia Island at resort prices is a recent trend not limited to the Oak Marsh Golf Course. Consider the following:
- The Golf Club of Amelia Island at the Ritz Carlton has eliminated all of its various membership programs and now offers just one golf membership at $30,000 to join and $500 per month in dues. If you’re under age 45, it’s $15,000 and $390 per month in dues.
- Amelia River Golf Course has increased its initiation fee from $1,000 to join three years ago to $10,000 this year. Members’ monthly dues were doubled last year.
- A mere three years ago, Oak Marsh offered locals a golf pass at $200 for the year and $45 green fees. Now, there are no membership programs or discounts for locals. Green fees now range from $140 to $89 (after 3 p.m.) during the week. The weekend rate is $155 to $105 (after 3 p.m.) Hotel guests get a discounted price.
What’s driving these soaring golf course prices?
Because of the pandemic and some phenomenal weather, rounds played in the U.S. soared by 14% in 2020, and another 6% in 2021. That’s an unprecedented two-year increase of almost 20%, according to data compiled by the National Golf Foundation.
Inflation has also driven up costs.
“In our 2022 budget we had forecast increases of 6% for fertilizers, chemicals and sand for the bunkers,” said Amelia River General Manager Mike Block. “The actual increase in costs came in at 15%. No one saw that coming.”
Golfers at the Golf Club of Amelia Island said they started seeing price changes several years ago.
Local businessman Tom Miller enjoyed golf privileges under the umbrella of a corporate membership at the club.
“I was part of a 10-member group under a corporate membership at the financial services company I worked for. I was paying $100 a month in monthly dues,” Miller explained. “Then I got an email from the Golf Club of Amelia informing me that they were no longer honoring corporate memberships and they were converting me to single member status. My monthly dues were increasing from $100 to $450 a month. I told them no thanks.”
Along with corporate memberships, the Golf Club of Amelia also offered a limited play membership. That program also was terminated but the limited play members who were already on the books were kept active.
Several members of the limited play program said last December the club notified them their monthly dues were increasing from $290 to $390.
Representatives at the Golf Club of Amelia Island did not respond to requests for comment.
Amelia River Golf Club has experienced a resurgence in golf memberships since a new group of investors assumed the land lease in 2020 with the city of Fernandina Beach.
The club offered memberships at $1,000 but just 12 months later hiked the price to $3,000 and doubled the monthly dues. The memberships increased to $6,000 in 2022 and now is at $10,000.
“When I became general manager, Amelia River was greatly under-priced in the market. They had all kinds of membership programs with prices all over the board,” explained General Manager Block. “Our market strategy is to provide a quality golf product, and we’re looking to have 80% of our rounds played by the members.”
The new lease owners have made numerous improvements including a new $900,000 pro shop that includes high-tech hitting bays.
Former players at Oak Marsh said the golf course has transitioned to a 100% resort fee structure.
“Our group used to play Oak Marsh regularly for $42 after purchasing a $200 golf pass. Then the Omni did away with the golf pass and we negotiated $60, then it went to $70. Now they want that $90 rate and we had to have 16 players,” Gambardella said.
Gambardella also heads the Amelia Island Newcomers Men’s golf group that plays on Mondays at North Hampton Golf Club in Yulee where the Newcomers pay a group rate of $44 for 18 holes.
“With more and more of the island courses going to resort, private and semi-private rates, there are fewer and fewer choices for island golfers,” Gambardella said. “It’s changed dramatically very quickly.”
The Omni provided this statement on its golf course pricing: “Omni Amelia Island Resort prides itself on the award-winning program it provides golfers of all ages and skill levels. The resort offers a range of pricing structures to serve the different types of golfers visiting the resort including its members, group guests, transient guests, and tournament groups. Our strategy is to continuously improve our golf courses in order to provide a first-class golf experience.”
Other than Oak Marsh, the Golf Club of Amelia Island and Amelia River, there are only two other golf courses on the island: The Amelia Island Club at Long Point is exclusively private and the city of Fernandina Beach’s 27-hole public course.
The Omni last year opened the Little Sandy short course with 10 holes ranging from 30 to 125 yards and an 18-hole putting course. It costs $50 to play.
That leaves the city’s golf course as the only option for budget-minded golfers, and it remains to be seen if the golf course can improve conditions in order to justify its green fees, as shown on the golf course website, which range from $55 to $40 (after 1 p.m.).
“Everyone can see the potential of the place. We’ve taken it to a point and now we’re ready to take it to the next level,” said newly hired General Manager David DeMay at the City’s Golf Course Advisory Committee meeting.
DeMay detailed improvements that are needed to made, such as the driving range that suffers from constant flooding after storms and has to be shut down.
He told the committee about issues with the practice putting green that needs to be redesigned and moved; leveling numerous uneven tee boxes; extensive tree trimming and turf for bare fairways on the south nine. At that same meeting it was reported that more than 20 golf carts at the course were in disrepair and could not be used with customers walking off the grounds in frustration.
He said the 20-plus-year-old clubhouse still has its original carpeting in place, has old kitchen equipment and now has roofing problems. The pro shop has insufficient merchandise.
Five years ago, when Block was working at Oak Marsh, he remembers an executive saying “there are too many golf holes on Amelia Island” in reference to why golf revenues were down.
“That situation certainly has flipped. It’s all about supply and demand,” explained Block. “Now there are only so many golf courses on the island.”
Mike Lednovich is a 30-year career journalist who previously was a staff writer for GolfWeek SuperNews, Southland Golf Magazine and GolfXtra Magazine.
Editor’s note: Mike Lednovich, most recently known here as a Fernandina Beach City Council member and mayor, is a highly experienced journalist who worked 20 years in Ft. Lauderdale and Orange County, Calif. plus several earlier years in smaller newspapers. He also has written for many golf magazines. He’ll be doing special projects for the Observer, and we are very pleased to have him with us.
Supply and demand is what it is all about. Time will tell if these price increases will be sustainable. Until the Pandemic, the golfing industry was going through a decline; but the ability to get outside revitalized the sport to a certain degree. This certainly is an opportunity for the city course although it is a dual-edged sword. Increased play is going to result in increased revenue but at the same time result in increased wear and tear on an already degraded condition. It will be interesting to see how the city management reacts.
Everyone should support the city golf course so that it can generate enough revenue to improve conditions and make it an afforable and challenging alternative for golfers of all experience and ability levels.
The greens fee at the recently reopened (after major remodeling) St Johns (county) Golf Club in Elkton nearly doubled for the COUNTY EMPLOYEES under the Wellness Program and increased roughly 50% for general public. Reading your account of similar issues on Amelia Island supports my leaving the golf bags at home when planning visits there.
The “Mens Club” membership became impossible to join at 80+ members with reported difficulty in arranging even 10 play dates this year.
I think the county intended to recoup the investment made to remodel all in the first year in the face of record high interest in public play there: its nearly impossible to reserve a tee time as a single player that would allow for completion before complete darkness.