The cost of public golf

The U.S. Open this week at Torrey Pines in San Diego represents another chance for the ancient game to bridge the historically wide gap between its blue-collar and white-collar cultures.

Torrey Pines is a true municipal course, a rare world-class facility that offers few restrictions beyond tight fairways and sloping greens – and most important, does not require a small fortune to play. If one of the game’s signature events can be staged there, the theory goes, then golf must be far removed from its days as an exclusive hobby for the rich and famous.

The theory, though, has some major holes.

No doubt the game is more accessible than ever, with more public golfers and more public-access courses. Yet the majority of these public-access golf courses do not resemble your friendly local muni. They are privately owned daily fee courses that are often more expensive. Hence, the challenge the game confronts, and it’s not likely to go away any time soon.

The average cost of greens fees for a course built before 1970, according to the National Golf Foundation, is $42.70. The average, however, for one that was constructed between 1970 and 1990 is $48.33, and $60.55 for those after 1990.

“The prices have gone up, especially on the weekends,” said J.F. Sorbella, a member of the Rutgers University golf team who plays out of Maple Moore Golf Course in White Plains, New York. “So if you work a lot, it’s hard to justify taking off to spend $50 to play a five-hour round of golf.”

The problem for golf courses is, naturally, a financial one. With real estate in short supply and the economy lagging, many public facilities in recent years have simply been forced to gradually raise rates. Others have been forced to close. According to the NGF, 575 public courses have closed in the last decade.

This reality, of course, won’t elicit much sympathy from golfers who are often seeking refuge from economic realities, not reminders.

“You need to have affordable golf courses, because if they’re not affordable, you might as well turn them into soccer fields,” said Sandy Tatum, a former USGA president. “Just because a course is public, that doesn’t answer the question, because Pebble Beach is public, too. The question is do you have affordable access to golf, and on too many fronts, the answer is no.”

The sheer volume of public-access courses these days would suggest the average golfer has reason to rejoice. According to a 2005 study by the NGF, only 27 percent of the courses in the U.S. are private, down from 62 percent about 50 years ago. Of 16,000 golf facilities, more than 11,000 are open to the public.

But numbers, as is usually the case, don’t tell the whole story. The problem is that municipal courses have grown only slightly in recent years while privately owned daily fee courses now represent 58 percent of the market. There is a huge difference between the two. Courses owned by entrepreneurs, unlike government-subsidized city or state parks departments, are primarily interested in making money. Such is the American way.

The average daily fee course runs to about $10 more per round than the average muni. That may seem like a manageable amount, but in the future, a privately owned course will not hesitate to raise its rates. As far as new courses, most must start out with more expensive fees, or they won’t be in business too long.

“The new courses are going to be priced higher because of the high contemporary cost of development,” said Joe Beditz, the CEO for the National Golf Foundation.

At the same time, the old courses in the hands of municipalities have to deal with the same problems.

A prime example is San Francisco’s Harding Park, which even after it was restored to tournament-worthy condition – it hosted the 2005 American Express Championship and will stage the 2009 Presidents Cup – is operating at a significant loss. San Francisco’s six public courses, in fact, lose more than $1 million annually because of cumbersome union maintenance contracts. While one solution may be to outsource the operation of the courses to private companies, a more ominous possibility is that some courses will need to be shut down.

“It’s a very complicated business process of running a first-class golf course, and municipalities are not structured to do that effectively,” said Tatum, who is in favor of privatizing the operations. “If Harding Park was left as is, the whole economic value would go down the tubes. It’s a very different world than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Golf is a very serious operation.”

It’s so serious that a greater number of municipalities around the country are turning their courses over to the private sector, a trend which is frequently met with resistance by those who fear these companies will be more concerned with their own bottom lines than the public’s interest.

Not even Torrey Pines is immune to headaches these days, although the issues stem mostly from complications hosting the Open.

When the USGA, for example, pays Torrey Pines $5 million for hosting the Open, the bulk of that money will go to a group of local businessman, the Friends of Torrey Pines, that initially spent $3.4 million to refurbish the course. They city’s own golf enterprise fund spent some $5 million to get the course ready, as well. However, as a consequence, since the USGA isn’t reimbursing most of that money, the bill will be paid by, you guessed it, the average golfer, with gradually increased greens fees beginning in 2009.

Given Torrey Pines’ prominent role this week, along with the USGA’s goal of supporting public golf, some say the association is not practicing what it preaches. They argue the USGA should make sure any increase in Torrey Pines rates is marginal.

“I’m really disappointed with the USGA,” said Paul Spiegelman, the founder of the San Diego Municipal Golfers Alliance. “We asked them to come in and protect golf and there’s just no interest. They run ads celebrating public golf with guys who put their shoes on in the parking lot, and yet at a critical time, they refused to do anything about it. I think their PR campaign is nonsense. It’s hypocritical.”

The USGA, of course, doesn’t feel that way. According to Pete Bevacqua, the USGA’s Chief Business Officer, the organization actually has language in its contracts with host sites stipulating they can’t raise greens fees exorbitantly in the years following an Open. Of course, the question becomes: What exactly is exorbitant? To some, the $13 increase set for 2009 certainly falls into that category.

Bevacqua claims the USGA is well aware that the health of golf across the nation depends on public golf. The only way to encourage increased participation is to make the game more accessible. Accessible means it must be financially viable, as well.

“If you look at how the population is growing,” Bevacqua said, “there will be an increased need for affordable public golf courses.”

Which brings us back to Torrey Pines. The USGA has made a point of saying the 7,643 yards South course was awarded the Open on its own merits. If it wasn’t any good, Tiger, Phil and the others would surely be somewhere else this week. But there is an underlying message that speaks to the changing times.

“It’s more than symbolism,” said David Fay, executive director of the USGA. “It’s an understanding and recognition that the majority of golf is played on facilities where you simply pay a fee. The profile of American golf has changed. So it makes sense to take the bellwether of United States championships and take it to United States golf courses where people can pay and go play without having to know someone.”

Fay might have a point, but people are paying more than ever.

Sam Weinman is the national golf writer for The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y.