'For me not to go, I'd pretty much have to be cooking squirrel for dinner and living under a bridge."
That's golf nut Howard Walker, who runs a Northern California building-supplies business, talking about an annual buddies trip to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort
, an event I joined this summer.
This much we know: Normal economic rules don't apply to golfers hellbent on a buddies getaway. We saw evidence of this in a 2011 Golf Digest survey:
Nearly half the respondents who took buddies trips told us they'd still go on them even if their annual incomes dropped by 25 percent. One in 10 would go even if they lost 50 percent of their income.
But what about the flipside? As of early August, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up nearly 150 percent from its trough in 2009. Golfers who've had any money in the market must be feeling at least a little richer. What impact does that have on their vacation plans?
These are three of the most notable effects that occur when golfers feel a surge of consumer confidence, travel executives and buddies-trip planners told me:
• More "occasional" golfers start coming along. It's not strictly the hard-core avid golfer on buddies trips anymore. It's also the man or woman who plays three or four times a year and is looking for a diverting trip with friends. Which is great—as long as everybody's on the same page about what the trip is going to be like. When you combine tee-time oversleepers and blister-complainers with 36-hole-a-day enthusiasts, sparks will often fly.
• When times are good, golfers boost their off-course spending on stuff like food and drink and souvenirs. During the mid-2000s, says a friend who organizes a regular trip to the British Isles, "guys were dropping obscene amounts in Scottish pro shops." He recalls, not fondly, another year when they "ran all over Dublin looking for restaurants with the best wine lists when we could have been having a great time in a pub."
• The "once-in-a-lifetime golf trip" is making a comeback. Inquiries for 2014 trips with the high-end travel firm Haversham & Baker have "absolutely exploded," says founder and CEO Sam Baker. "Through July, we had 21 percent more inquiries than ever before." Of that group, nearly two-thirds are new customers. "These are people who've been saving up for a big trip, and they're finally feeling ready to spend the money," Baker says.
One thing you don't see a lot—at least among the middle-age desk jockeys who make up golf's core—are groups that suddenly decide to take more frequent or longer buddies trips now that their retirement accounts are looking flush.
Why is that?
Some think it's because the stock market's gains are masking deeper economic weaknesses. "Yeah, our 401(k)s have done better, but in terms of real purchasing power, most of us working guys have lost ground," says Howard Walker. "Wages aren't rising, but prices are."
Others say it's a matter of age. I heard from a couple of buddies-trip planners who say they have the money to play more golf, but their bodies can't handle 18 holes (never mind 36) for five or six days straight. They'll keep their trips to three or four days, thank you very much.
But there's one other factor that might be the most important: the clock. Especially when you've got children at home, and maybe a spouse with a full-time career, it's not easy to say, "I'm going to be gone for five nights this year instead of two."
No matter how well the market's doing, there's no Dow Jones Industrial Average for time.
Let's say you want to take a $5,000 "golf trip of a lifetime." The stock market's nearly 150-percent gain since 2009 is an obvious anomaly. But if you put away $500 a year, assuming a 7-percent annual return, a 15-percent tax rate and inflation of 3.2 percent, you'd have $5,000 in less than eight years. Don't expect 7-percent returns for stocks? OK, with a 3.5-percent annual return, you'll be there in nine years. Not so long to wait for the trip of a lifetime.