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Oil spill or not, golf along Gulf as good as gold
‘Catastrophic’ incident leads to deep discounts at great courses in region
Brandon Tucker / Courtesy of Gulf Shores Golf Association
GULF SHORES, Ala. - From Louisiana to Florida and parts in between, tourism and golf have taken a hit because of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Now that it seems to be under control, golf industry officials are reiterating that British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in April never affected the quality of Gulf Coast golf courses, and it still isn't.
The good news is that the oil well has been capped, at least for now. And even better, the oil that covered thousands of miles in the Gulf of Mexico is out of sight. But the damage it has done to tourism and the golf industry on the Gulf Coast has been significant. As the fall season looms, Gulf Coast golf course operators are hoping for a stellar comeback.
"It was all perception," said Duncan Miller, executive director of the Gulf Shores (Ala.) Golf Association. "Even when the oil was out there, it really wasn't that bad."
And that was the message golf industry officials have been trying to get out all summer. Even while the volunteers and BP officials have been trying to clean up the spill, none of the golf courses were any less playable. If you played the courses, it is unlikely you would've noticed any difference, except that there were fewer players in front of you.
But summer golf on the coast is affected by vacationers, and that's where the tourist industry saw the biggest hit. Beaches, for the most part, were not closed, but tourists were advised not to go in the water. Add to that the daily coverage of the spill and the reports of doom and gloom, and families chose other areas to visit.
On the Alabama and Florida Panhandle coast, for example — where you'll find terrific golf layouts such as Kiva Dunes, The Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club — hotel and motel revenue has been down by more than 70 percent this summer, according to Miller. To counter, the hospitality industry offered deep discounts on rooms, and even then, occupancy was down 50 percent from a year ago.
"It's been totally catastrophic," Miller said.
The trickle-down effect to the golf industry is obvious, since much of the summer play comes from family members on vacation. Rounds in the area were down 30 percent from a year ago in June, 40 percent in July, according to Miller.
Public relations campaigns
Each of the states affected by the oil spill has forged public relations campaigns encouraging visitors, whether it's on the golf course, the beaches, nature trails or the resorts. The state of Florida, for example, has launched a golf-specific website letting everybody know that the golf courses on the Gulf Coast are in great shape, unaffected by the spill. And you may have seen the ads this summer on television about the Emerald Coast's pristine beaches of northwest Florida. For the most part, they weren't contaminated and courses like the Tom Fazio-designed Camp Creek and Greg Norman's Shark's Tooth were as pristine as ever.
"People have confused perception with reality," said William Seccombe, chief marketing officer for Visit Florida, the state's official tourism industry marketing group. "It's really had very little environmental impact in Florida. People have had this idea that there's been oil all over the place, and that hasn't been the case."
The state of Mississippi has been waging a PR campaign on TV and in print as well. Even during the worst times a few weeks ago when there were still large patches getting close to the shore, barrier islands protected some of the coastal areas of Mississippi. Not to minimize the damage, officials say, but the beaches in Mississippi remained largely intact.
And golf facilities — such as such as Fallen Oak, The Preserve, The Bridges at Hollywood Casino and Shell Landing — have been operating as usual, albeit with fewer players. Many potential visitors, no doubt, were scared away by media reports.
"It's affecting us because of the perception people have that the coastal area is covered in oil," said Janet Leach, program manager of sports golf marketing for the Mississippi Development Authority. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Golf Channel Am Tour major aims to help
One of the ways golf in the region might get a shot in the arm is from a new tournament on the Golf Channel Amateur Tour's schedule.
After talks with the Gulf Shores Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Golf Channel Amateur Tour decided to add a major — the Gulf Shores Open — to its schedule to help bring golfers to the region. Golfers will typically travel from out of state to play in the tour's regional majors, whose qualifiers can advance to the Channel Am Tour National Championships at TPC Sawgrass in September.
The tournament will feature 11 handicapped flights, with the top three individuals from each flight advancing the national event.
As the largest amateur golf tour in North America, the Golf Channel Am Tour is open to the public. It provides a "tour-like" experience for players of all ages and abilities. Entry fees for the two-day tournament are $295. For more information about the Gulf Shores Open or the Golf Channel Am Tour, click here.
Future looks brighter for Gulf Coast golf
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in recent developments has been the absence of visible oil. Just a couple of weeks after BP capped the well in mid-July, the oil slicks that spread over thousands of miles in the Gulf seem to have disappeared.
Scientists have offered a number of explanations, from evaporation to microbes that may have consumed much of the oil. Of course, the skimming efforts have probably help, too, and the two storms that swept through the Gulf this summer might have expedited the evaporation process.
The storms — Hurricane Alex and Tropical Storm Bonnie — could have just as easily been catastrophic in terms of their effect on efforts to both clean up the spill and cap the wells. Located off the coast of Louisiana, the site was missed by Alex, which veered south into Mexico and South Texas, and Bonnie weakened to the point where workers could quickly return.
"We've gotten some breaks," said Steve Nieman, tournament director for the Champions Tour's Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic, conducted at the Tom Fazio-designed Fallen Oak Golf Club in Saucier, Miss. "Some things have definitely gone in our favor."
Ironically, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon occurred during the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic in April, and it didn't affect the tournament. But Nieman, who lives on the beach in Gulfport, Miss., has kept a close eye on developments ever since. As of late July, he liked what he saw. The beaches looked clean; the workers who were busy collecting debris three weeks earlier had trouble finding any now.
"Oil spill or not, we've got some world-class golf courses designed by world-class designers," Nieman said. "I put it up against any region in the country. If you haven't been down here to play golf, you're missing out."