When making a tee time turns shady
Illustration by Madison Ketcham
Editor's Note: This story appears in Issue 7 of Golf Digest. Read our latest issue in its entirety through our digital-edition app.
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I've received only one death threat in my career. As it goes, working in golf involves a lot of pleasant interaction with folks in collared shirts who are happy to meet you. But back in 2009, leading up to the second U.S. Open at Bethpage, I went undercover to investigate a shifty concierge service that let golfers skip the notorious ritual of camping overnight in cars to get on the Black course, now No. 8 on our newest ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses. An exorbitant markup above the green fee (I paid $850) included black-car transportation to and from Manhattan. My story detailed how a cadre of locals coordinated to flood the dial-up phone system, booking, canceling, then rebooking tee times for clients in the wee hours of the morning. After it was published, the leader rang my office with some choice words regarding the degree of physical harm he might inflict.
Why dredge this up more than a decade later? Only to illustrate how quaint this scheme was compared to what’s going on elsewhere today. At Singapore Island Country Club in Singapore, police recently investigated the “millions” of booking attempts the private club’s online-reservation system was receiving daily. The suspicion is certain members hired computer programmers to build automated software that scooped up roughly half the tee times in seconds. Some of these bots were even designed to block other members’ bots.
“There are more golfers than tee times available in Singapore at the moment,” writes our International Editor Ju Kuang Tan via email. “Pre-COVID, golfers without club memberships went to Batam and Bintan [Indonesia] by ferry to play, and they drove across to Johor, Malaysia, to access the many golf courses there. All of this is impossible now [because of travel restrictions].”
Are such shenanigans coming to a course near you? I’ve set my alarm for midnight more than once this season to reserve a tee time. Contrary to the expectations of many, golf ’s surge in popularity during 2020 has experienced no letdown. As we welcome all the new golfers that boost the vitality of our great game, we might also think about protecting the dignity of how we make plans to play with each other.
Bethpage now uses the CAPTCHA feature to block automated usage of its booking system, but bot operators are smart people who are constantly looking to expose a weakness. Most golf courses use old software that would be easy to target. Not to be a fearmonger, but it’s possible “hackers” might replace its primary context in golf someday soon.
Earlier this summer, rumors of a “dark site” where the booking window opened a few crucial minutes earlier circulated at one public course in Connecticut. Accusations of golfers selling tee times were followed by a stern email from the men’s club administrator regarding dubious last-minute changes and general circumvention of the rules and spirit: “So no more, ‘I forgot’ or ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘We made a mistake.’ Be forewarned: The course is going to start cracking down.”
Lakeside Park Club in Virginia is stemming the tide by simply having members make requests for weekend golf directly to golf-shop staff. Let humans with accountability be the final arbiters of who plays and when.
The club where I play in New York never had tee times until the pandemic. Large clusters of eager golfers gathering around the first tee jockeying for position used to be part of the social fabric. But, of course, the order now co-enforced by the ForeTees app was the safe and correct move. We’ve since shifted back to a hybrid system.
Ballots, lotteries, blocks allocated just for walk-ups—there are a variety of methods courses use to grant golfers a fair and equal opportunity. But some are growing outdated. As technology continues to change the way we live and schedule life, the game is going to have to adjust to ensure the traditional essence of a tee time remains: That is, a sacred covenant between friends that is not to be broken, except for true medical or family emergencies.
Invest all you dare in cryptocurrencies. I’m putting my money in tee times.