Bloomberg News

No-Snow Winter Sends Skiers Golfing as Smith Recalls Merrill

February 15, 2012

(Adds Krongel comment in sixth paragraph.)

Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The golf course is getting plenty of use this month at the private Woodmere Club on New York’s Long Island, which has had to adjust to the unseasonably warm and dry winter on the U.S. East Coast.

“I’m a bit of a skier, and I have a place in Vermont that I usually rent out, so I’m now caddying when I’m not managing the club,” General Manager Don Mollitor, 52, said with a laugh. “I need to supplement that rental income.”

Only 29 percent of New York State is covered in snow, compared to 99 percent a year ago, according to the U.S. National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Chanhassen, Minnesota. That’s the least amount of snow cover since the center began keeping records in 2004, and an example of the uncommonly dry, warm weather that has made people forget skiing and grab their golf clubs.

Winthrop Smith Jr., a former Merrill Lynch & Co. executive whose company, Summit Ventures, owns the Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, said his ski area has had 15 percent fewer visitors this winter than last.

“It’s very much like my old world,” Smith, 62, who ran Merrill’s international brokerage unit before leaving the firm in 2001, said in a telephone interview. “You can’t control the market; you can’t control the weather. So you just have to learn how to manage the different environments.”

Smart Snowmaking

Most ski areas are managing well, according to Michael Krongel, a director at Mirus Resort Capital, an adviser to resort companies. Eastern ski areas have faced year-over-year revenue declines averaging about 3 percent, Krongel said, citing a small sample of areas whose financial figures he’s seen. One New York ski area Krongel wouldn’t identify has had 30,000 fewer visitors this season, with revenue down 6 percent. Smart, cautious snowmaking is helping some ski areas during the downturn, as the resorts trim expenses while maintaining their reputations as providers of good skiing surfaces during tough times, Krongel said.

The $6 billion U.S. ski industry had 60.3 million visits last year, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Golf is a $76 billion U.S. industry, according to a 2005 report by Golf 20/20, an industry group.

“Some of these guys just aren’t getting any weather breaks whatsoever,” Krongel said in a telephone interview. “It’s not so much that they aren’t smart, it’s a question of what are the gods doing to them?”

Since Oct. 1, 7.4 inches of snow has fallen in New York City’s Central Park, compared with 57.7 inches through Feb. 10 a year ago, according to the National Weather Service in Upton, New York. January was the 13th warmest in Massachusetts since 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Yearly Change

“We went from an incredible snow year last year, which we hadn’t seen before, to this,” said Krongel, who’s worked at ski areas since 1968. “I just don’t remember anything like this.”

All of Sugarbush’s trails are open, Smith said. The skiing was very good last weekend at Hunter Mountain and Windham Mountain in New York, Krongel said. Both said if people don’t see snow in the valleys, they have trouble envisioning it in the mountains.

“It’s the biggest issue we have,” Smith said. “If there’s no snow in the backyards in the greater metropolitan areas of New York and Boston, the perception is we don’t have snow up here.”

The Olympic Regional Development Authority, which oversees the slopes in Lake Placid, and the Ski Areas of New York combined to truck in snow to New York City’s Union Square last week.

‘Snow Up North’

“We were reminding people that there’s still snow up north,” Ted Blazer, 56, the authority’s president, said in a telephone interview. “It’s perfect mid-winter conditions.”

It isn’t an East Coast phenomenon, though some relief has come to the Rocky Mountains. On Jan. 6, Vail Resorts Inc. said visits were down 15 percent compared with a year earlier, making the Broomfield, Colorado-based company unable to open some trails at Vail for the first time in 30 years.

Plenty of snow has fallen since the announcement and Vail Resorts’ mountains are now at or near full operation, Kelly Ladyga, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mail.

Without snow in metropolitan areas, Northeast golf courses have capitalized, drawing players throughout the winter and doing maintenance and renovation months earlier than normal.

The Mattawang Golf Club, a semi-private course in Belle Mead, New Jersey, hosted almost 1,000 rounds in January, including one 60-degree Saturday on which the course drew 190 golfers, said Mahlon Dow, the club’s head professional and manager.

“That’s a good number in June,” Dow said in a telephone interview. “It looks like October out there.”

Snow-Free Fairways

Putnam National Golf Club, a 53-year-old public course in Mahopac, New York, that’s usually under more than a foot of snow at this time of year, stayed open in January and February for the first time, doing about 1,100 rounds since late November, said John Napier, its general manager.

“Last year we hit snow the third week of November and we didn’t see grass again until April,” he said in a telephone interview.

Winter play has been a financial help to golf courses, though minimally, because private club members pay by the year and public or semi-private clubs charge deeply discounted winter rates. The weather has helped in other ways.

Shackamaxon Country Club, a private club in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, is undergoing a total bunker renovation. That has created jobs, kept suppliers happy and elated club members who won’t be inconvenienced later in the year, said Matthew Galvin, the executive vice president at RDC Golf Group Inc., which operates the course and Putnam National.

Additional Revenue

“The weather’s been a godsend as far as additional revenue, but perhaps in a larger economic way, it’s allowed golf courses and country clubs to do a lot of work over the winter that usually falls to the spring or summer,” Galvin, a director of the National Golf Course Owners Association, said in a telephone interview.

Woodmere has been averaging about 30-35 golfers a day on weekends. The greens usually close for the winter in December.

“It’s difficult to think about skiing when it’s 50 degrees, and you can be out there playing golf,” said Mollitor, Woodmere’s general manager for 13 years whose ski house on Vermont’s Okemo Mountain sits vacant. “People aren’t getting into the groove.”

--With assistance from Brian K. Sullivan in Boston and Bradley Keoun in New York. Editor: Michael Sillup

To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net


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