Am I too poor to play golf?

Even for those of us with good jobs, the game poses uncomfortable questions
A golf player inside a sand trap in the shape of the dollar sign

A few years back, I was traveling down the West Coast when I realized I was near a famous course. For the heck of it, I went online to check if a last-minute tee time was available. I can’t recall if I could get on, but I remember doing a double take at the green fee, which was slightly more than my weekly salary.

Looking back, I’m shocked at how shocked I was. What was I expecting? It costs me at least $80 to play at my local courses. It stands to reason I might need to borrow against my 401k to play a world-renowned course.

Eighty dollars is about the average weekend rate for the three public golf courses closest to me, one of which is a city-run venue. That’s just for the tee time; if I want to grab a hot dog and Coke at the turn, or a couple drinks after the round, add another $20. Forget hobby; at those prices, golf really is an addiction.

I have a stable income with my family’s business, and I’m good at it, too, recognized as one of the Top 40 Under 40 in my industry. My wife has a steady job as well. At first glance, we shouldn’t have to think twice about our recreation budget. However, we own a home, have car and school payments, and are saving to start a family—realities most young couples face. That we reside in Connecticut, one of the most expensive states for living in the country, doesn’t help. In short, dropping $80 for 18 holes is a difficult decision for me.

There are online tee-time aggregators that offer discounts, and if you’re looking to play a twilight nine or willing to travel to a course that’s remote or rundown, you can find some deals. But I’ve noticed the prime-time slots—Friday afternoons, Saturday and Sunday mornings—are more expensive than going through the course.

And that’s just to get on the property. New balls? At minimum, $20 a dozen. A good range finder is about $200. Tees, gloves, clothes, a bucket of balls at the range, lessons: These expenses add up quickly, especially against the $1,000 I have set aside to spend on golf for the season.

Then there’s equipment. On the surface, this isn’t a barrier into the game; you can find a used set for not much money. But there is peer pressure to keep your clubs current, especially when someone in your group is suddenly outdriving you with a new $500 driver. The implication is clear and somewhat sinister: If you don’t buy the latest gear, you’re getting left behind.

Which is a bummer. Money, or lack thereof, shouldn’t affect the scorecard. And it brings a deeper, more depressing question:

Am I too poor to play golf?

That’s not self-pity; my friends—all relatively in the same tax bracket—discuss it as well. I know I’m well off compared to a lot of people, but golf makes me question that.

It’s a feeling that can lead to cognitive dissonance when my friends and I play. Instead of standing on the first tee ready for our round, we think, Well, let’s hope this is worth it, because there goes getting dinner and a movie. It’s hard enough to hit the fairway as is. Add that thought, and, well, no wonder my scores stink. (Maybe I’d consider taking lessons if they weren’t $120 an hour.)

When I hear about initiatives designed to grow the game—which typically include faster pace or ancillary-themed activities like Topgolf—they don’t resonate with my friends and me. If we want to make golf more accessible, that conversation starts and ends with lowering the cost of entry.

Many public courses have junior rates and programs that make the game affordable for kids, which is great. But once kids turn 18 years old, they’re often out of luck. Why can’t more courses designate a day or league, or perhaps six and 12-hole rounds, at lower prices? There are pockets around the country with such endeavors, and The First Tee does its part at the youth level, but it hasn’t spread around the country yet.

Yes, it will attract inexperienced golfers, which brings its share of etiquette breaches and slow play, but new customers are something the game needs. Discounted greens fees could be exactly what’s needed to open the funnel.

What’s worse, some of the public club pros and workers understand this, but far too often these decisions are made by public administrators, not golf-specific officials. It’s tough to get that conversation started when they view the sport not as a passion but as a number in the accounting books.

In Scotland, the home of golf, it really is the people’s game. Residents can access some of the best courses in the world for $200 a year, and there are no cart fees, because only the disabled ride. Players aren’t passed on the unnecessary maintenance costs: Scottish links depend on nature, not sprinkler systems, for water, and if there’s not much rain in a summer, well, the fairways will be rolling. Last I checked, things are still going strong over there. Some of the tenets are being applied in the United States, but nowhere near the scale it needs to be successful.

I believe in some quarters golf is trying to become a more inclusive experience. It just needs to ensure the financial part is addressed as well. It’s not just golf. Other forms of entertainment—the price of an NFL ticket or a night out with my wife—can be just as costly (if not more so), but those choices aren’t as tough. A football game or city visit might be once or twice a year; I hope my golf doesn’t become that infrequent.

Despite the financial stress that comes with playing, I do love golf, and I can’t wait to get back out on the course. The golf season has finally arrived here in the Northeast. Hopefully that doesn’t break my bank account.