A Scalping at St. Andrews

July 2005

You and your golf buddies have always dreamed of visiting St. Andrews to play the Old Course, and now, inspired by this year's British Open, you're finally going to do it. So you call up a tour operator and ...

Hold everything!

There's a right way to book this trip and a vastly more expensive way. Do it the right way and your round on the Old Course will cost you about $219 at recent exchange rates. Choose Door No. 2 and it will set you back as much as $1,800.

Think about it -- up to $1,800 for one round of golf.

This two-tiered pricing system for tourists, with one group paying eight times more than the other, is the handiwork of a company called Keith Prowse Ltd. The London-based corporate hospitality firm has an exclusive deal with the people who run the Old Course to purchase about 3,200 rounds a year (or roughly 7 percent of the total). Bundled with hotel rooms, meals, van transportation, food vouchers and various souvenir knickknacks, most of these tee times are marketed by Keith Prowse as the Old Course Experience.

This summer, one Old Course Experience package includes three nights at the Old Course Hotel and three rounds of golf -- one of them on the Old Course -- for $3,500. What tourists are really paying for, though, is that guaranteed time on the Old. To figure out what the tee time costs, we priced all the other components of that $3,500 package if they had been bought separately. These figures are based on an exchange rate of $1.90 per £1:

• Two rounds of golf in addition to your Old Course round: 1. New or Jubilee course, $105; 2. Kingsbarns, $277.
• Three nights at the Old Course Hotel (double occupancy): $797.
• Two dinners: $172.
• Two lunches in the Links Clubhouse: $76.
• "Official souvenir merchandise and souvenir photograph": $191.
• Van rides from the hotel to the golf courses and back: $40.

Total: $1,658.

So that's the a la carte price of everything but a round on the Old Course. Subtract $1,658 from the package price of $3,500 and you get what your Old Course Experience round on the Old Course is costing you: in this case, more than $1,800.

You don't need to pay anywhere near that much to play the Old Course. Indeed, most visitors can play the world's most famous links for $219. But the Old Course Experience does have many tourists over a barrel -- specifically, those who want guaranteed tee times and who (a) have more than eight players in their group or (b) haven't reserved their times in the previous calendar year.

St. Andrews

If you're the typical American golfer, your trip to Scotland revolves around the Old Course. You want to play in the prime time of summer, but you probably book the trip no more than six months in advance, not in the previous calendar year. You doubtless have a list of other great "rota courses" in the area you want to play as well. Pinning down exact tee times on the Old Course is critical because it allows you to book other choice courses around those times. Otherwise, your whole itinerary is up in the air.

Big group? Didn't book way ahead? You'll almost certainly have to pay a huge premium. It's a bit like paying for "scalped" tickets at a major sporting event or concert. The difference is, the scalping at St. Andrews is officially sanctioned. Naturally, Old Course Experience officials don't care for that comparison. They argue that the premium is no different from paying extra for a first-class seat on an airplane or a ticket to the Super Bowl. But again there is a difference, and it's a big one: The airlines and National Football League teams are profit-making enterprises. The Old Course is public-owned, not-for-profit, and open to all.

Golfers might feel better about spending that kind of money if most of it went to the Old Course or the charming old town of St. Andrews. But it doesn't. St. Andrews Links Trust, the nonprofit organization that manages the town's six courses, including the Old, New, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove, generates only about $1 million a year in revenue from the Old Course Experience. Most of the money from those premium tee times is going not to the Trust but to Keith Prowse, a unit of the publicly traded British food-service conglomerate Compass Group PLC. Consider that $3,500-a-person Old Course Experience package. By Golf Digest's calculations, the Links Trust will see only $455 of the $1,800 premium paid by tourists. The remaining $1,345 or so from this package, minus expenses, goes to Keith Prowse.*

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