ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Standing amongst all the whirling, beeping slot machines, dodging a few college kids and a host of grandmothers, Ben Watson felt more than a little out of place. A New Yorker, Watson is used to driving the 700 miles to Myrtle Beach a few times a year to gorge on golf.
"To be honest with you, we wouldn't be here if gas prices were lower," Watson said. "We've got our spots picked out in Myrtle Beach, know were we want to hang out down there after playing. But when it's costing you 50 bucks to fill up your tank once, it makes you think about things.
"So we decided, 'What the hell! Let's give AC a shot this year."
It's difficult to put an exact number on how many golfers that America's rising gas prices have influenced. American Automobile Association officials say that Labor Day weekend travel overall came in far below their original projected estimate of 34.5 million Americans traveling 50 miles or more by car. The agency attributes most of that dropoff to surging gas prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Golf courses have clearly noticed along the East Coast corridor. Several secondary golf destination markets such as Atlantic City and even relatively unknown ones like Butler County, Pa., are gearing up marketing campaigns to attract golfers who are suddenly more interested in staying closer to home. Golf resorts in traditional hotspots such as Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C. are attempting to keep their customers with special promotions.
"I think there's more of an awareness of the golf options that aren't as distant," said Rob Clark, the general manager of the Seaview Marriott Resort & Spa's two golf courses. "That people are realizing what we have to offer in Atlantic City, and in some other areas, too. That you might not have to travel all the way to Myrtle Beach to get in a nice golf vacation.
"We have beaches too."
It's certainly not hard to find golfers like Ben Watson and Brad Nelson these days. Nelson swung away happily on Cranberry Highlands, one of the low-priced Butler courses in Pittsburgh's shadow, feeling no need to drive another six hours down 1-95 to Myrtle Beach.
"If I can play good courses here for cheap, why drive anywhere else?" Nelson said. "It's not about the beach to me. I'm only interested in the golf anyways."
Butler's only been promoting itself as a golf destination in an organized campaign of multiple courses for about the last year. But some of its courses long recognized the value of being on the familiar route to Myrtle Beach for many Northerner golfers, while not being nearly as far as Myrtle Beach.
Sometimes a pit stop can evolve into the actual destination.
Coincidently, another gas shortage helped give Butler, Pa., its first start as a golf destination. The oil crises in the 1970s first drew many Canadian and New York golfers to the greater Pittsburgh area.
"I guess you can thank Jimmy Carter for me finding Butler," Ontario golfer Denny Batz said, laughing. "You end up staying at a place like Conley's to save gas money one year and before you know it, you're coming back to the area every year."
Golf courses in the traditional vacation hot spots for Northeast hackers don't take stories like that lightly. The Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head is attacking the gas price issue head on. Sea Pines now offers a $40 Gas Guzzler refund to guests.
Resort officials hope the refund will bring more golfers to its three courses and draw attention to how prices at the pump are affecting tourism.
"Our hearts go out to the people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and we understand the financial impact that this hurricane has had on the entire country," said Sam Zabawsky, Sea Pines marketing director. "We hope that by offering a gas rebate, we can encourage visitors from other parts of the United States to join us for a fall vacation."
For Myrtle Beach, an area that's long lived off its ability to offer reasonable golf vacations, the gas pump cash drain could be even more devastating. Having been hit with declining round numbers and a recent rash of course closings, the Grand Strand is particularly vulnerable to gas prices diverting golfers to closer-to-home destinations.
Several Myrtle Beach hotels reported that they had more cancellations than usual over Labor Day weekend and that some of the canceling customers came right out and said the gas prices were keeping them home.
With that mind, even small-time Grand Strand businessmen are trying to fight the power of oil. The Monacos, a family that rents out its own condo in Myrtle Beach through a Web site, is offering its guests a $100 gas rebate this season.
Still there are plenty of others who feel the fuss over the impact of gas prices on golf travel is a bunch of hot air.
Ted Coyle, a frequent traveling New Jersey golfer, seems surprised that someone would even ask if gas prices would cause him to limit his golf trips.
"No, it's not going to change my travel at all," Coyle said. "No way. You're going to let a few extra bucks at the gas station dictate your life?"
Even Rob Clark, the GM at the Seaview Marriott hoping that more Northeast golfers will become used to Atlantic City Golf trips, wonders how long the window will last.
"I don't think gas prices are going to keep people away from resorts like Pinehurst for any length of time," Clark said. "I know they wouldn't keep me away. But maybe I'm different."
Time will tell. How gas prices will affect golf travel is an issue that's only on the first tee.
September 20, 2005