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Want great, cheap golf? Look past the corporate powers

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

HARMONY, Pa. - Tim McNulty is about the last guy you'd mistake for a golf course owner.

He's at ease sitting at an old wood picnic table with an ivy-covered silo missing its roof the first thing in his line of vision. He's wearing worn jeans - not fashionably factory-faded - actual worn jeans. Dusty too. His hands are callused and hard. There's plenty of dirt under those fingernails.

These are the hands of a man who's done real physical labor and lots of it.

None of these things would make you certain McNulty could never be a golf course owner as much as his words however.

For McNulty is sitting at that picnic table with splinters talking the kind of crazy talk you'd never hear in any of those plush clubhouses that every new course seems to need these days.

"I just think people are wary of spending a lot of money these days," McNulty said. "There's a lot of apprehension out there. Average families want to keep their money close. Golf courses are going to have to adjust in my opinion. It's up to the courses to make golf more along the lines of going to the movies or bowling."

A golf course owner talking about making golf as common man as bowling? And actually meaning it?

Yeah, right. And Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens are really best friends now, Britney Spears' kid is going to have a normal childhood and Martha Stewart is truly as smiley happy as she acts on her lame PR makeover "Apprentice."

Only, this fantasyland myth is reality. McNulty, a farmer turned golf course owner practices what he preaches at his Strawberry Ridge Golf Course in Western Pennsylvania. The green fees are never more than $25 including cart, and less than that for seniors and kids. The golf's inventive, challenging and scenic.

It's easy to brush it off as just a Butler County, Pa. thing at first. For traveling throughout this county 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, you run into course after course that practices this approach to pricing. But as you look back on it, you realize that one thing tied those courses together more than just geography, the same thing that's been apparent in other great value courses in a year spent traveling around the United States, Canada and Mexico covering golf.

They almost all were run by individual, small business-type owners.

Could this be the key to revitalizing an industry that hemorrhages golfers every year at a pace that even ex-FEMA director Mike Brown would call unacceptable? Is putting affordable golf in the hands of the people simply a matter of getting more courses in the control of a person rather than a corporate monstrosity?

Two views of golf

Consider the case of two ownership styles. CEO of Iberostar Hotel & Resorts Jose Antonio Gonzalez entertained a group of golf writers on a lavish trip that included a meal under a Sistine Chapel replica ceiling where wine flowed freely for a preview of the new Cancun P.B. Dye Playa Paraiso Golf Club. At the dinner, Gonzalez admitted he didn't understand golf, spoke of Dye as Iberostar's almost Yoda-like, all-knowing guiding force.

Then there's McNulty.

McNulty greeted one golf writer by looking up from the tractor he was fixing himself. He offered a soda and a hot dog in that picnic area. McNulty could talk golf for hours though. He studied books by old golf design legends like Donald Ross and new-age architects like Michael Hurdzan before coming up with his own design for Strawberry Ridge.

"No. 14 is the hole I like to sit in the middle of the fairway of, drinking a beer at end of the day," McNulty said, smiling. "Just looking around at the trees, the mountains and the valley. So that's probably my favorite hole."

It's hard to imagine the Iberostar CEO sitting in the grass, downing a beer. Gonzalez looks at golf in straight business venture terms, calculating that a Dye resort course can bring more guests to Iberostar's Cancun area resorts. McNulty looks at golf as what has to feed his family, sure. But he also sees his business from the perspective of a father with four kids who understands what "the money's tight" truly means.

This difference doesn't necessarily affect course quality. Hire Dye and you're going to get a great golf course as Iberostar does in Playa Paraiso. But the difference comes through in course pricing. Playa Paraiso is around $220 to play in Cancun, where labor is definitely cheaper than in the U.S. Now obviously a celebrity architect Dye course is going to be more pricey than a no-name McNulty course, but is an almost $200 difference per round necessary?

It's a question worth asking that too many golfers take for granted.

"I read a quote in one magazine where Arnold Palmer said we had to look at ways to make golf more affordable," McNulty said. "It was sort of funny to me, because have you seen what they charge at a lot of Arnold Palmer designs? I don't think there's a lot of people in the golf business who even know what affordable is to the average family in America."

It's sort of hard to get down with the people when you're flying in your personal Lear jet from ceremonial course opening to ceremonial course opening. When you're cutting the cornstalks yourself along the 606-yard, par-5 12th as McNulty is on Strawberry Ridge, it's a little different.

Lone voice power

Hoping that golf is going to become more of a mom-and-pop industry is a fanciful fool's vision, of course. The Troon Golfs and American Golf Corporations aren't going away anytime. Resort golf courses take huge chunks of cash, amounts that few individuals are able or willing to dole out of their own bank accounts.

McNulty's been building Strawberry Ridge as he goes, doing almost all the actual dirt moving on a bulldozer himself, and still he expects to have spent $3 million by the time it's fully finished with a low-key restaurant.

The point is not to call for more individual ownership of golf courses, but to recognize the ones that are. The ownership status of a golf course should be consulted as much as the designer's name, slope rating and yardage figures when picking where to play.

For that, more than any other single factor, may be the best barometer of the experience you're going to get.

Mattaponi Springs is a first-year course that's getting a lot of praise in northern Virginia golf, even though you have to want to get there to get there. Still anyone who saw first-time owner/longtime patent attorney Jim Oliff standing by, watching the workers put in the last bits of sods around the clubhouse, making sure it was placed down just the way he envisioned on a media preview day last year isn't surprised.

"(Jim) wanted everything done right, down to the smallest detail, no matter how long it took," Mattaponi Springs architect Bob Lohmann said, laughing. "And believe me, there were people wondering about how long it was taking us."

You might not want to work for Oliff. You will want to play his course. That's his only course, not one in an empire.

Looking for great golf at a reasonable price?

If you can run into the owner of the course at the course most days and shake his hand, if he's out on 17 re-examining the rock wall, or has a wrench in his hand in the cart garage, you have a Super Bowl favorite's chance of discovering that wish.

Small business hands-on owners equal happy golfers. A corporate CEO in the air usually means trouble for your family's bottom line.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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