Courses & TravelMarch 3, 2011

How Much Is Too Much To Play Golf?

Below is a recent column that was published in Golf World (Feb. 21). I would appreciate your feedback, especially from those of you who disagree. You can reach me in the comments box below, or on Twitter (click here).

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*I got a call the other day. It seems the folks at Erin Hills, the four-year-old public course northwest of Milwaukee that will host this year's U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open, raised the green fee to $200. Add the cost of a caddie and a tip, and playing there will set you back about $300. I hung up the phone and put my head in my hands.

               How much is too much to play golf? For me, it's $300. And if and when I pay that much of my own money, that rare scenario would have to include playing one of the world's greatest golf courses, with some of my best friends, and I have to be guaranteed favorable playing conditions. Otherwise, my time and money is best spent on a range. Or better yet, bowling.

Given the state of the U.S. economy, how can courses justify a green fee north of $300? Las Vegas' Shadow Creek is $500 and play is limited to Steve Wynn's best customers. If I owned a course, I'd reserve that rate for my worst. Pebble Beach is $495. Throw in a cart/caddie, gratuities, a sleeve of balls and a hat, and you've just spent $650. If Bones and Butch were both on my bag, I still couldn't have a good enough round to justify that cost.

For my taste, there aren't enough places like Coronado Municipal GC near San Diego. Besides a $35 green fee, it has three finishing holes that run along the scenic San Diego Bay. I love Coronado because I can play it 14 times for what it costs to play Pebble Beach once.

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Those defending high green fees say they are balanced by the laws of supply and demand. But the golf industry is coming off a fifth straight year in which more U.S. courses closed than opened. We're over-supplied and demand is down. Places such as Pebble Beach had no problem raising rates when demand warranted it; now that it has swung the other way, why hasn't there been a cost correction?

It's not just Pebble Beach. Would you pay $325 to play the Blue Monster at Doral in Miami? What about $350 to play the Dye course in French Lick, Ind., or the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island? Me neither. Other courses costing more than $400 include Pinehurst No. 2 and the Straits course at Whistling Straits not that far from Erin Hills.

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Obviously somebody must be paying these prices, but for how long? A $300-plus round of golf, for most people, is a one and done experience. Resorts and courses are clinging to a short-term mindset that potentially comes at the cost of the game's reputation. Long term, the dream of playing an elite course becomes nothing more than a far-fetched fantasy.

Consider this too: By making golf so expensive, these courses have contributed to their own pressures of success. A cranky caddie, bumpy greens or bad service (or, worse, all of the above), and the only thing that gets bigger is the pool of disappointed customers. It all reads like an Idiot's Guide to a Bad Business Model.

The days of smart and sensible are here to stay. It's amazing how much avid golfers will overlook when the course is affordable and they had fun. So I'll see you on the first tee at Coronado, where it's easier to make a swing without my head in my hands.

--Matty G.

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