It's been a dozen years since York County last saw the opening of a completely new public golf course.

And it's been 12 years of tumultuous change in the golf industry, both locally and nationally.

In 1998, the "Tiger Effect" was just taking hold and the economy was booming. Tiger Woods' trailblazing victory in the 1997 Masters marked a seismic shift in the sport. It brought unprecedented interest to the game and brought in a large new wave of diverse players.

In 2010, the "Tiger Effect" has a whole different meaning and the economy is in the tank. Courses are closing at an alarming rate, the number of golfers and the number of rounds played are down. And general interest in golf seems to be declining.

But the latest addition to the York County golf scene is hoping to buck those daunting trends and succeed where others have
failed. Royal Manchester Golf Links is aiming for a May 1 opening, according to Scott Bennett, the club's head golf pro. However, Bennett admits that the opening date is a "moving target" at this point, largely dependent on the weather and getting the proper government approvals.

The course, covering just under 200 acres, is located at 5700 Board Road in East Manchester Township, just north of Northeastern High School. From the golf course, you can see the Brunner Island power plant's smoke stacks. That's appropriate, since PPL Corporation owns Royal Manchester. But the course will be managed by Raspberry Golf Management, which also operates Raspberry Falls Golf and Hunt Club and Old Hickory Golf Club in Virginia.

The course has been approximately a decade in the making and has gone through several different names and incarnations. But its opening finally appears imminent. That's great news for York County golfers. It's always nice to have more options. But Bennett knows there are challenges ahead.

"(The economy) concerns us," said Bennett, 35, who was the head pro at Raspberry Falls for six years. "It's a scary time. We modeled this after Raspberry Falls, except in pricing structure. This isn't northern Virginia and we know that. The pricing structure is important. We feel our rates will be competitive with the rest of York County."

Pricing is key: The weekend morning rate at Royal Manchester is expected to be $60 to ride. That's among the highest rates in York County. Heritage Hills Golf Resort is the highest at $72. Springwood Golf Club is also $60. The rest of the county public courses have lower rates. But the Royal Manchester rate is significantly lower than Raspberry Falls' top price of $105. Still, even at $60, Bennett feels Royal Manchester will be a bargain.

"The level of service and the quality of golf course will make this one of the premier golf destinations in York," he said. "We'll provide a classic golf experience."

In order to make a good impression on the local golf community, Royal Manchester is holding off on its opening until things are just right, according to Bennett, who said the course could've been rushed into a fall 2009 opening.

"We look at it like a rocket launch," he said. "You just get one shot at it. We don't want to have to offer apologies. You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

The attractive 6,398-square foot clubhouse -- which will also hold banquets and weddings for up to 175 people -- will feature a full-service bar and restaurant. It's expected to be ready for opening day, as are the extensive practice facilities and a golf academy.

The links-style course will feature bent grass from tee to green and relatively few trees or water hazards. But its rolling terrain, high rough and large undulating greens should provide the course with some teeth, as will the wind. There will be four sets of tees -- Blue (6,962 yards), White (6,372 yards), Gold (5,559 yards) and Forward (5,078 yards).

Bennett said the course will be home to the Northeastern High School golf team and may also hold some physical education courses for the school. He also wants to develop golf leagues.

"PPL wants this to be a place that meshes with the local community," he said.

YCAGA head likes what he sees: York County Amateur Golf Association executive director Dave Bennett (no relation to Scott Bennett) has walked the course and he's impressed with what he's seen.

"It's going to be a nice challenge," he said. "It's definitely got a lot of links characteristics. It's got a couple risk-reward holes for big hitters. And the rough will narrow the course. It's really a nice layout. There will be a lot of course management involved."

Royal Manchester will be a part of the YCAGA and will host some Match Play events this year before becoming a part of the YCAGA tournament rotation in 2011.

"I think it will be up there with some of the top courses in York County and should compare well with the courses in the Harrisburg area, too," Dave Bennett said. "There's a lot of buzz from a lot of the players. They're anxious for it to open. They want to give it a shot."

The key to Royal Manchester's success, however, won't be just getting players to try it. They have to keep players coming back, again and again.

The last public course to open in York County -- Springwood -- couldn't do that and suffered some serious financial difficulties. It didn't help that Springwood opened in 1998 with the highest greens fees in the county at the time -- $60.

Since that time, York County has seen the closure of two courses -- Hawk Lake and Red Lion Country Club. Hawk Lake was formerly known as Yorktowne and was completely made over in 2001, but the makeover apparently didn't impress the local golf community and it was closed in 2006. It's expected to be the future home of Memorial Hospital. The long-term future of Springwood and Heritage Hills, meanwhile, is uncertain. One or even both could eventually close in favor of development.

The contraction in the number of local courses mirrors a national trend. The National Golf Foundation said there were 90 more golf course closings than golf course openings in 2009. That same organization reported that the number of rounds played decreased from 518.4 million in 2000 to 489.1 million in 2008 and the number of golfers decreased from 30.0 million in 2005 to 28.6 million in 2008.

Can Royal Manchester overcome those declining numbers?

If the economy improves and the course lives up to early expectations, the answer is yes.

If not ... well, only time will tell.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dis patch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com or at 854-1575, ext. 455.