The cost of golf in America

Please allow me to diverge from practice talk for a second.  Sometimes things come up and I can’t help but focus on them for a little bit.  Yesterday it concerned the general costs of golf in America:

Recently I turned 35 and along with that came an increase in my monthly dues at my home course.  I went from the 30-34 bracket of the “intermediate” membership to the 35-39 and so my dues went from $298 to $381 per month (including a monthly mortgage assessment).  There’s also a $50 per month food minimum, locker fee, club storage fee, annual charges for keeping the GHIN handicap number, Thursday and Saturday game entry fees and a few other optional charges that can accumulate over time.  All in all I was averaging just over $400 per month and will now be somewhere a shade above $480.

I joined Riverside last July because I had to leave Columbia and needed a place to practice on a daily basis.  At the time I thought I would spend a year at Riverside and then figure out what to do next, but recently it was brought to my attention that I signed a two year contract so I will be there for the next year in order to play that out.  It is what it is and I, more than 99 percent of golfers, can spend the time to get my money’s worth out of the track.  However, considering that I was contemplating dropping my membership, and my job is to practice golf daily, it got me curious about how many people were joining courses and playing the game in general, especially in their 20s and 30s.

The monthly dues for a 35-year-old add up to $5,760 per year, minimum.  That’s a good bit of money in an economy with a high unemployment rate and, from what I have read, a large number of underemployed.  It’s a chunk of change for anyone, really.  $110 per week; so if you play twice a week every week (through the winter) you are spending $55 per round.  That’s not too bad considering the amount of work that goes into maintaining a private course and the cost of golf rounds in general in the states, but it could be a hard pill for a young family to swallow.  The more I thought about it the more it made sense that golf is on its decline.  I hadn’t even considered the fact that it can literally take an entire day to play from the time you leave your house to the time you get home.  That can be a good or a bad thing, just depends on your point of view.

Then I started Googling course closures and ran into the HBO series Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about the crisis in golf.  I had heard about the show a couple times so decided to give it a view and wasn’t too surprised by the numbers they were giving.  Golf has been in a steady decline since the boom that Tiger brought into the game from the 90s to early 2000s.  Now, on average, 130 golf courses have closed permanently each year for the past 8 years.  That is one course closing every 2.8 days of the year for 8 years.  Jack Nicklaus was interviewed and said his design company had zero course design jobs in the States and all of the work was in China and Russia.  Were there simply too many courses built in America or is it the decline in the sport’s participants that is causing all of the shuttered windows?  I’ll just assume it’s a bit of both, but the price of being a member here in the US also doesn’t help.

I have talked with a large number of people around the world lately and it seems that in a lot of places (Australia, NZ, England and a few other countries around Europe) annual dues are less than half of what I am paying at one of the most affordable courses in Portland as an intermediate member.  I don’t want to come off like I am venting, but there has to be a different way to run things if you can be a member of a nice course in Sydney for $2,000 a year, or about 1/3 what you pay here.  If I am considering dropping my membership because of the costs involved and my day job is to practice golf there is something wrong.

I did recently find an alternative way of having unlimited golf balls and playing privileges.  My plan was to get an unlimited range card from a local range for about $1,000 a year and then pay $1,400 for an entire year’s worth of greens fees at one of the public courses (Broadmoor has an annual deal for unlimited rounds).  That would cut my annual costs by over $3,000 and I would still have a place to play on an as-needed basis.  Personally, if things don’t change financially that is what I will do starting next July, but for the time being I will use as much as I can while in my current contract.  It seems to me that more courses should have a deal like that to entice all of the golfers who would like to play more but don’t want to commit to the financial burden that is a private club.  This doesn’t necessarily address any of the issues of golf in general, but it would at least encourage people to get out more and enjoy the game more affordably.

Also from the HBO show I found it interesting what TaylorMade’s former CEO Mark King thought about the future of golf.  His ideas are to do whatever it takes to make the game fun as he thinks people are not playing because it is inherently frustrating/difficult.  He has created a new 15″ golf hole and put those holes at roughly 100 golf courses across the country this summer to see if people enjoy it more and they have found that it is working.  They say that not only are people having more fun, but it speeds up pace of play by an hour, which is amazing.  Perhaps if there is a bigger hole and a round is less than 3 hours (so they can get more tee times and more people playing) and costs 60% of current costs more people might come out.  It is an intimidating game to newbies and takes a large investment that a lot of people simply can’t afford and those who can might not want to spend all that money on one type of recreation.  You could always cut two holes, one 15″ and one standard 4.25″ and depending on handicap you play a certain hole.  If it makes the game faster, more accessible and more fun then go for it.  Hell, if I ran a public course I would try it out for a couple of weekends just to see what kind of buzz it generated in the golfing community. Couldn’t hurt.

All of this is the tough/frustrating part of the game that I have come to love.  I don’t want golf to continue to have the air of an elitist sport.  If there is a way to make it more approachable we should pitch in to help make that happen.  I played a two-on-two match at Heron yesterday with three guys I really enjoy golfing with and the entire game came down to the 18th hole.  It was an all day back and forth epic match and the epitome of what is good and fun about the game.  Competition, camaraderie, frustrations and elations, quality shots and overcoming misses, challenge and an eventual victor.  The day was an amazing summer golf day and worth every penny that was spent.  But… how many people are willing to put in the work and shell out the expenses to get to the point where they can have days like that?

I’m not sure why golf in America is as expensive as it is, but it kind of breaks my heart that this game doesn’t seem to be for everyone.  There is so much beauty in the sport and as the TaylorMade CEO said,  “If we don’t have kids graduating from high school playing golf, what’s the game going to look like in 20 years?”  It might not be my place to pose these issues, but I spend so much time on golf courses and can’t help but think about who is and who isn’t playing the game as well as the general attitude towards the sport from those who have never played.

Unfortunately I don’t have the answers right now and I’m not overly familiar with the costs of running a course so can’t get into specific numbers, although I am looking into that in the evenings as it has become an interest/hobby of mine as of late.  For the time being I will continue to practice and try to inspire some people to play this game through my own successes and failures.  Every day is a new day and you never know how you’re going to do out on the course until you get out there and give it a go.  It’s a beautiful sport that everyone should have access to if they are so inclined.

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