August 25, 2009

Scotland, On Sale

My friend Ray could serve on the Council of Economic Advisers. In spring 2008, nine members of my club made a pilgrimage to Scotland, and six months before we left, Ray predicted that our trip would coincide with the worst dollar-to-pound exchange rate in recorded buddy-trip history. That turned out to be prescient. Ray missed the peak by a few pennies, but we paid more than $2 per British pound. Gasoline cost us almost $10 a gallon, a round at the Old Course was almost $275, and our bill at the world's worst Italian restaurant worked out to $80 a man.

Shortly afterward, the global economy hit a shank, and golf in the British Isles went on sale. Our 2008 trip (including air-fare, lodging, meals, rental cars, crummy presents for our wives and 14 rounds of golf) added up to something like $5,000 a man. This past spring, I went back by myself and discovered bargains everywhere, beginning with my plane ticket, which was cheaper by a third. Best of all, the exchange rate had improved to $1.50 -- a quick-pay discount of 25 percent on everything I bought, including bad food. If you still have a job and haven't defaulted on your mortgage -- yet -- you should think about grabbing your clubs and heading to St. Andrews for a week or two, even if you have to tap stimulus funds to pay for the trip. How fast can you pack?

You should think about grabbing your clubs and heading to St. Andrews.'

I played golf in Scotland for the first time in the summer of 1992. The exchange rate then was the worst it would be until mid-2008, but everything felt like a bargain because Scotland's American golf bubble hadn't happened yet. The standard caddie fee on the Old Course was just $32 (plus tip), and my green fee at Carnoustie was a little less than $15 -- prices that now seem like something out of a late 19th-century Horace Hutchinson golf essay. A few years later, though, big-name golf clubs in England, Scotland and Ireland noticed that American visitors didn't seem to care what anything cost, and many of them raised their guest fees to multiples of what they had been. That was profitable for those clubs, but it made Scottish and Irish golf increasingly expensive for Americans with wanderlust.

Now things have turned the other direction. The economic downturn in the United States went global. Business is way down for American golf-tour operators, inexpensive hotel rooms are easier to find, and some well-known courses have reduced their fees and opened more tee times to visitors. In the United Kingdom this past spring, I ran into a lot more Swedes and Germans than I did Texans. That's good for prices, but you'd better act fast. Ray says the deals won't last forever.


The proper way to put your golf glove in your back pocket is with the fingers hanging out. Don't wear polarized sunglasses when you play. They distort depth perception.