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Playing 18: How did golf get to be so damn expensive?

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

AUBURN-OPELIKA, Ala. - I always have pretty much the same conversation with myself when this filthy-rich buddy of mine calls up, acting all superior, wanting me to play at a nearby golf course that charges $100 green fees.

The first part of the conversation always involves a comparative, financial analysis. Let's see, $100 could buy:

• About two weeks worth of groceries.

• Two full tanks of gas, even at current prices.

• One new "outfit," according to my wife.

• Ten hours of tennis, two days of bowling, two weeks of fishing.

• Five hits of prime, crack cocaine.

As you can see, I get desperate toward the end of this conversation. Then, I think: Let's see, they're charging $100, which means it's a fairly prestigious course, which means they got a big-name architect, which means he made the course as hard as he could get away with, which means I will lose at least 10 balls, which means three sleeves of ProV1s or 10 cases of Top-Flites at Wal-Mart.

Then there's the drinks at the end of the round, which I always seem to end up buying (he's filthy rich for a reason), new tees and all the assorted junk you end up buying at the golf shop.

Then I enter into the final phase of my rumination. Golf is too damn expensive. How did it get this way?

I'll tell you how, at least partly. They've built too many new courses that charge too much. Golf is an iffy financial investment these days unless, it seems, it's part of a ritzy new development. The developer can lose money on the course, but make it back by charging more for the housing. Then, this semi-private course reaches its membership goals and goes private, locking you out. Now you can't play there even if you could afford it.

There's no way anyone should have to pay $100 to play golf. You should be able to play a good course for around $30-$50. It's possible. I know it is. In fact, I just traveled to a place not so far away where it's an everyday happening.

The Auburn-Opelika area was voted the top metro area in the U.S. by Golf Digest. Among other reasons is the price. I've played some excellent courses here and the green fees were in the range I just mentioned.

Auburn Links charges $20-$37 in green fees, Moore's Mill charges $45-$50 to the public and $35-$40 for member guests and Grand National charges $55 for its two top-tier courses, Lake and Links.

If those courses were in, say, South Florida, parts of the Carolinas, Phoenix or any of a number of other places, those green fees would automatically double.

A lot of these "upscale" courses charge so much because of their misguided financial plans as well as "amenities." Let me give you greedy business types some tips: I'm betting the vast majority of golfers could do without the amenities.

Ditch all the pretty flowers and fancy landscaping. I want pretty flowers, I'll go for a walk in the woods or to the botanical gardens. Make your courses more natural and save landscaping fees, which we pay for anyway.

Ditch the ball boys who wipe down your clubs without asking, then look at you like you're Donald Trump. Now you have to fumble through your wallet to see if you have any singles. At the worst, you won't have any singles and have to tip him a $5 bill. At the very least, it's an awkward social situation.

Knock out the management companies and save yourself the corporate overhead. You don't need to wait weeks to get permission to offer discounts and specials. You can do it on your own, spur of the moment. You know what's going on in your own community, they don't because they're usually hundreds of miles away.

Ditch the fancy clubhouse. All you need is a little shack where I can check in, a little grill where I can buy a hot dog and a bar where I can buy post-round drinks. A good bartender is worth 100 times more than all the personnel combined in a golf management company.

Get rid of any swimming pools, fitness centers and tennis courts. When's the last time a buddy called up and said, "hey, let's go play 18 holes of golf and three sets of tennis."

And as for you architects, don't make the rough impenetrable. Have you checked the prices of golf balls today? Give me some rough where I can at least have a chance of finding my ball, and don't make the stuff too close to the fairways. We aren't all Tiger Woods. Think about the average golfer, who shoots well into the 90s, when you design your little course.

I may boycott newer courses that charge outrageous prices and stick to the old reliables that offer good golf without all the fancy baloney. There are still many around, like Hyde Park in Jacksonville, Fla., which charges under $50, and Possum Trot in Myrtle Beach, which does the same. Just to name a couple.

The game of golf picks up about three million newcomers a year, but loses that or a little more annually. Think about it: if they could keep half the ones quitting, the industry would make a fortune and then we could all look at the pretty flowers.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • cost of play

    mike falleur wrote on: Sep 7, 2005

    Isn't the question "is it better to host 32 rounds a day at $125 per, or 120 rounds a day at $50 per?" It is amazing to me how many courses pick the former.
    What is missed with high end golf pricing is the foot traffic in the restaurant and pro shop. Those 32 rounds played at high prices won't buy as much food & pro shop items as the 120 at $50 per round. The greens fee discount is partly made up elsewhere on the facility.
    My brother operates a discount golf publication, and is often surprised at courses whose management won't let them discount to increase foot traffic. An empty tee sheet on a quality course is a waste of a beautiful asset, let alone financially destructive.


    • RE: cost of play

      garth domokos wrote on: Apr 27, 2014

      golfing is a dying activity...it's a rich mans game, and is impossible for the vast majority for more reasons other than cost to even consider it an average mans activity. Where I'm from, $50 a round is way too much or the average person.


  • Cheap golf

    Bill wrote on: Aug 31, 2005

    I think Tim has hit upon one of the major problems in trying to increase participation in golf. The majority of golfers just want to play on a good course and dont need all the extras. Iam quite capable to carry my clubs and clean them. A good sandwich and beer after a round is all thats needed. I dont go to a course to have a five course meal.


  • Cheaper golf

    Shanks wrote on: Aug 30, 2005

    Silver-spoon-sucking blue-bloods make me sick. It must be nice not to have to be concerned how much you spend for golf. Does that idiot think that golf courses don't charge what the market will bear? And that designers don't do exactly the same thing? Oh sure, Pebble Beach REQUIRES $425/person to keep the course up. Ditto for Pinehurst no. 2 for $350. Puh-lease. Tim, thanks for the update on great golf at reasonable prices ... the rabble really appreciates it. I hope that Gerald McMahon reads this blog one more time because I want him to know that I can even break 80 ... moron.


  • Tim, you've lost it

    Gerald McMahon wrote on: Aug 30, 2005

    Wow, I have read several of your articles that have led me to believe that you have more than one screw loose, but this one takes the cake. If you want to pay 30-50 to play golf, fine, play those courses...but don't insult the finer, classier facilities with your rediculous comments. You obviously know little about the kind of money it takes to keep a course of Top 100 caliber going and you obviously don't make enough working at your current job to be able to get inside the gates of America's best courses, thankfully so. I suggest that you keep your own vendettas to yourself, write articles about golf courses, experiences, etc. but don't bore us with your gripes about not being able to afford to play the elite clubs, either public of private, we don't care what you think is fair. Do you question you barber when he gives you the price for a haircut? No, he has a business to run and needs a certain $$$ figure to make it successful, his family needs to eat too. You have gone over the edge, maybe if you didn't spend $100 on the crack you mentioned in your article, you would have a clearer mind while writing, plus you could then afford to pay more for golf...I will no longer be checking your OPINION at this site, you are a complete village idiot. By the way, can you break 90?
    G. McMahon
    Palm Beach Florida


    • RE: Tim, you've lost it

      Nope wrote on: Jun 3, 2017

      Utter gibberesih and full of vitriol and insults, typical of someone who can afford to pay thousands a year for their hobby. Golf is preposterously expensive. Golf actually started as an accessible sport for everyone and has gradually been taken over by the "upper" class (in terms of money, not taste or sense). You just go back to your buddies at the country club and complain about poor people.


    • RE: Tim, you've lost it

      TR wrote on: Jun 24, 2012

      I agree with Gerald. The complaining sounds as ridiculous as whining about horse riding and polo being too expensive. It would be like a blue collar worker going into a verbal tantrum, saying that art and car collecting are, all of a sudden, becoming too unreasonable. Golf is a bourgeois sport, just like yachting and flying. There are cheaper ways to do all of the above, but in the end it’s not practical to be participating in a hobby if you have to work extra hard to budget for it...it's simply stupid. Playing a round once a week, costs peanuts for the wealthy. It's chump change to them. When you complain about it hurting your budget, but continue to play, well...then, you're the chump. 9 out of 10 guys you see strutting around on the course probably cannot easily afford to be. The guys who can, you call pretentious. The ones who can't, they call posers.


    • RE: Tim, you've lost it

      Doc wrote on: Jun 21, 2012

      Since the beginning of time, golf wise, the average golfer has supported the courses nationwide. The pros and sponsors only make each other richer.
      When a golf course offers better deals than club "X" we go there because it's our way of saying 'thanks' for providing a nice place to play a round of golf.
      Gerald as is with many 'mr. know it all's' is like Lee Trevino said once at Las Colinas. Lots of people play golf but few know how to play the game. He meant regarding the rules of golf. You'll see more richie rich guys cheating at golf than regular weekend players. We play it for fun. I'm not mister moneybags but did retire at age 52 and for the past 10 or so years have enjoyed the fruits of my labor and my low cost golf. I'd challenge Gerald to a round anytime, if we play by the rules of the USGA. Just bring your supposed handicap and I'll bring mine and we'll see who shoots closer to their 'so called or stated handicap'.
      Gerald is a wus. His daddy was one too, and his sons will turn out to be wus' too.
      It's genetic in his situation.


    • RE: Tim, you've lost it

      tim wrote on: Aug 31, 2005

      Gerald, I was going to rip you a new one, but Shanks did it for me quite nicely.


    • RE: Tim, you've lost it

      Hoyt Decker wrote on: Aug 31, 2005

      I think Tim's point is that it's the high-dollar courses that are struggling to survive in many areas. Take a walk around Myrtle Beach, for instance. That's a fact.


  • sssshhhh

    mediaguru @ www.hookedongolfblog.com wrote on: Aug 29, 2005

    Shh. Don't tell anyone... But I can play an Aurthur Hills course here locally for $31 including cart.
    Some deals are out there.
    I think many of the places that want to charge $100+ will eventually go belly up due to lack of customers.


    • RE: sssshhhh

      Erik wrote on: Sep 6, 2005

      Gerald used the word "classier" in his high-pitched screed.
      Those who resort to such a term in ordinary conversation clearly lack it the most when in the company of others.
      Gerald would appear to have a lot more dollars than sense.


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