Senior Center’s discount golf program in Myrtle Beach area to be discontinued

ablondin@thesunnews.comJune 21, 2013 

— Thousands of senior residents and snowbirds on the Grand Strand were upset in January when National Golf Management officials decided to no longer offer special rates on their 22 courses to holders of the Grand Strand Senior Center’s VIP Golf Book.

The senior center’s golf group will soon be without concerns. It is being dissolved.

The 20-year program that has offered discounted golf rates to its members will be discontinued at the end of September when the current annual memberships expire.

The fundraising program hit a peak of about 10,000 members in the early 2000s and still had about 5,000 members in each of the past few years.

“I know how to take care of senior citizens, I think,” said Ray Fontaine, executive director of the Horry County Council on Aging, a private non-profit that owns and operates the 11 senior centers in the county. “I’ve been doing it 30 years. This program became bigger than life. To tell you the truth, it’s a lot of work.”

Though the end date is officially Sept. 30, the senior golf group has essentially already disbanded. Members have not received special rates through the customary weekly emails for the past several weeks.

In the meantime, the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association, which operates the competing Myrtle Beach Golf Passport discount card program, is asking its courses to honor the senior VIP Book through September as if it were part of the Passport program.

Nearly all Strand public courses offer Passport rates, and daily and weekly specials will be emailed through the Passport program to all VIP Book members who can be contacted.

“We’re trying to assist the Grand Strand Senior Center in its dilemma in getting out of the golf business,” MBAGCOA executive director George Hilliard said. “… It’s a community effort. There are a lot of seniors in the area and we want to help them out.

“What happens beyond September still remains to be seen.”

Fontaine is hoping to extend the cooperative effort with the MBAGCOA and its Passport – by encouraging former VIP Book members to purchase a Passport – to help fund the senior center for the foreseeable future, though details are still being deliberated.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to give our seniors the same program if not better for the same price where we don’t manage our program anymore,” said Fontaine, who last met with MBAGCOA officials Thursday. “It’s going to be a better program than we ran. That’s what they do well.”

Tony Perry was the volunteer director of the senior golf group for the past two decades, and senior center officials say he resigned after learning of the recent discussions with the course owners association to end the program. Perry could not be reached for comment Friday.

The solution is simple going forward for VIP Book members. The age 50-and-up golfers can purchase a similar card at a similar price in the Passport with equivalent if not better benefits including member tournaments and restaurant and show discounts.

The solution for the senior center is more complicated, as it must replace the lost funding the book generated.

The Passport and VIP Book, which still had 74 participating courses on the Strand and surrounding areas after National Golf Management’s decision, are two of the three primary discount programs accepted by most courses on the Strand. The MyGolf card – formerly the Grand Strand Golf Association – with more than 230 courses in 12 states and Canada is the other.

The VIP Book program started in 1994, and golf book members have accounted for approximately $200,000 annually in recent years through $20 center memberships and $20 VIP Book purchases – it’s unknown how many members would have joined the center without the golf benefit.

Fontaine said proceeds help offset operational costs of the senior center on 21st Ave. North in Myrtle Beach, where membership can begin at age 50 rather than 60 at the other 10 centers because of the golf program. The Horry County Council on Aging provides home-based services to seniors including meals, house cleanings, etc., and Fontaine said it serves more than 11,000 seniors.

“I really have to make this work,” said Fontaine, who recently sent out 4,500 explanatory postcards to members throughout North America. “I have to make our golfers happy; I have to get money to pay the bills; and I don’t want to run the program anymore because it’s a pain.”

Fontaine said suggested funding for the senior center in 2014 through the Passport includes a quarterly donation to be determined and up to four fundraisers, be them golf tournaments, raffles, etc. Passport members age 50 and older would be able to join the senior center at a reduced rate. “I don’t want to lose these people,” Fontaine said. “We’re coming close to getting it right.”

Hilliard and the MBAGCOA are not yet ready to commit to any funding in particular.

“If they’re going to be able to send people our way to purchase the Passport we can work out some type of a payment to them. But nothing has been decided at this time,” Hilliard said. “Their board has to agree and our board has to agree on some type of donation if that’s going to happen.”

The Passport annually costs $42.50 including tax, and approximately 10,000 Passports have been sold in each of the past few years.

A change in Passport eligibility for 2013, coupled with the inclusion of more Strand courses than the VIP Book, contributed to the senior program’s demise.

“We were hardly able to get the courses anymore because we were being shut out,” Fontaine said. “Our golfers were frustrated because they couldn’t use what they thought were the good courses.”

In the recent past, the Passport was available only to residents of 10 S.C. counties and four N.C. counties in close proximity to the Strand, or owners of second homes on the Strand. For 2013, it welcomed anyone including perhaps the senior center program’s largest group – snowbirds who did not own Strand property.

“We decided other cards are open to everybody, why are we restricting ourselves?” Hilliard said.

The MBAGCOA may soon restrict the number of Passports sold if it experiences a surge in popularity, however. Owners don’t want to affect the golf package business. That’s why most Passport tee times have to be booked within 48 hours of the time, and why membership was previously limited to nearby homeowners.

“We don’t want to interfere or detract from the golf package business, which is the main business here,” Hilliard said. “We’re not interested in everybody having the card. We don’t want to have 40,000 or 50,000 cards out there.”

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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