PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

On The Road Again

By Peter Finch Illustrations by Gary Taxali
May 31, 2011

Golf-industry stats have made for some grim reading lately, but one positive note I often hear is that golfers still love their annual buddies trips -- and insist on taking them regardless of the economy.

Is this true? An online survey of Golf Digest readers suggests the answer is yes. Sixty-five percent of the more than 2,600 respondents said they take an annual buddies trip. Of that group, 44 percent said they'd still go if their household income dropped by 25 percent. One in 10 said they would go even if their income fell by half.

The big draw: camaraderie, cited by 59 percent of respondents as the thing they love most about their buddies trips. ("Playing a ton of golf" was most important to 33 percent, in case you're wondering.) Says Dave Czech, a Florida sales executive whose group recently visited Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail for the 12th consecutive year: "Guys are willing to do without other things so they can make this trip."

This is not surprising to Oleg Urminsky, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and an expert on spending. "There's been a lot of research on 'mental accounting,' which suggests that most people don't treat their spending as one big pot," he says. "Rather, it's a bunch of smaller buckets. That golf-trip money is in one of those buckets." When people focus on cutting costs, they mainly look to cut their variable spending, things that change daily or monthly. Says Urminsky: "The golf trip money is spoken for -- it's like it is already spent."

That's not to say these outings are immune to downturns. A little more than half of our survey respondents say the economy has affected their buddies outings. They're going on fewer trips (77 percent), finding cheaper lodging (52 percent), staying fewer nights (42 percent), driving instead of flying (31 percent) and playing fewer rounds (30 percent).

This year Dick Pregno, a retired Lucent Systems district manager, cut his group's annual Jekyll Island, Ga., trip back to four nights, from its usual five. This didn't save them a fortune -- it amounted to about $150 apiece, or about 20 percent of last year's total for golf, lodging and food -- but it had an important psychological effect on the guys who were worried about the expense.

Gennar Gillead, an Atlanta computer consultant, is part of a crew that has traveled to Las Vegas, Charlotte, Biloxi, Miss., Orlando and Jacksonville over the past decade. This year they picked Myrtle Beach, partly because they liked its prices and partly because everyone is within driving distance, so nobody had to fly. The trip cost $326 a man for three nights at a hotel and three rounds of golf -- about $100 less than the "awesome deal" they got two years ago for four nights and three rounds in Biloxi.

Many buddies trips have gotten smaller in recent years, with a core group of eight to 12 golfers making the trip instead of twice that many or more before. They're also waiting later to book their trips. "I think this might be an effect of all the uncertainty," says Kevin Drum, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Golf Association. "It used to be you'd book a year in advance. Now it's sometimes as little as 30 days, which is extremely short for a group of four to eight guys."

Whenever they book, groups are finding better deals by playing one destination off the others. "The resorts have gotten a lot more competitive," says Chris Marquard, a Michigan golf retailer who leads a trip to the northern part of his state each spring. "Even in season, you can go to pretty much any major resort in Michigan and get a stay-and-play package for $100 a night. It used to be $100 just to play golf." Many resorts are throwing in "unlimited" golf each day. "On our first day at Treetops this year, we'll play the Rick Smith course once and the par-3 course four times," Marquard says.

Those sorts of experiences are what buddies trips are all about -- and, in Urminsky's opinion, suggest an intelligent way of thinking about spending. "People need to have savings goals, but they shouldn't be shortsighted about it, cutting things that they really get a lot of enjoyment from," he says. "Be farsighted: Ten years from now, will you regret canceling this trip and not having those memories? Then you should go on the trip and find some other spending to cut."