Strangling the goose that's laid golf's golden eggs
MIDLAND, Ontario - Every day, almost without fail, an announcement of a new golf course lands on my desk. Almost without fail, these are upscale public courses, with fees somewhere in excess of $125. Some charge double that. Seldom do I hear of one costing less.
My home course, a short but challenging 85-year-old semi-private track, has doubled its annual dues in eight years. Despite the unquestioned generosity of my employers at TravelGolf.com, I am not making twice as much as I did in 1996. This excessive increase mirrors a cross-Canada trend, from what I've seen and heard during my recent travels.
For two decades I've been preaching that the long-term viability of golf depends on the two "A"s: affordability and accessibility. Upscale courses charging up to $1,000 per foursome are neither.
This is not to say that the two "A"s are extinct. Let me use my own backyard as a flickering beacon of hope.
I recently played in a four-man scramble at Simoro Golf Links, a 6,300-yard course 25 miles or so from my front door. For $75, we got a round of golf with cart, an excellent steak dinner, and every participant received a prize with a retail value of about $50. Everyone at Simoro, from cart girls to the course owners, couldn't have been more hospitable. The golf course was a touch quirky, but lots of fun and in generally good condition.
While Simoro is not Toronto's Glen Abbey or Bear Mountain near Victoria or Fox Harb'r in New Brunswick, it is satisfactory - affordable and accessible -- for 90 per cent of us recreational duffers. The modest clubhouse serves decent food and cold beer, reasonably priced. Speaking of value, weekday green fees are $34; an annual membership is $1,095.
At Orr Lake Golf Club, a rustic 18-holer 15 minutes down the road, a round costs $30; a full annual membership is $750. The conditioning may be a little suspect, but the hospitality never is.
A slightly longer drive gets you to the new Settler's Ghost where you fork over a mere $49 to play an excellent layout that is bentgrass tee to green. "We wanted a terrific golf course that was great value," says Head Professional Mary-Pat Quilty. An admirable but seemingly rare sentiment, unfortunately.
Coincidentally, I had just finished a story on golf in Northern Ontario for a magazine and had been struck by the vast disparity between the golf markets in metropolitan areas and in the hinterland. Take Timberwolf in Sudbury, for example. Three hours or so north of Toronto, it was named best new golf course in Canada in 2000 by Golf Digest. It costs all of $60 to play it.
If you drive from Simoro, which is about an hour north of Toronto, to Timberwolf, you have to pass Rocky Crest, one of the top two layouts in the Muskoka vacation region in my estimation. Its guest fee is about three times that of Timberwolf, which was designed by the same architect, and about five times that of Simoro.
There is a place for the Rocky Crests to coexist with the Settler's Ghosts. The problem is that we seem to be building more of the former and not enough of the latter.
This observation comes on the heels of the most recent study on golf participation undertaken by the Royal Canadian Golf Association. It found that although Canada has a high per-capita participation rate (18.6 per cent or 4.9 million golfers), that number dropped five per cent in two years.
"The most alarming findings of the survey showed that only 246,000 people took up golf in 2001," the press release said, "41 per cent fewer people than 1998 and the number of junior girls playing the game fell 36 per cent to 60,000, the lowest level in 10 years."
"Whenever you see a considerable drop-off, a red flag must go up," concluded Paul MacDonald, the RCGA's Director of Membership Development.
I would suggest that flag should have been raised some years back by any number of national golf associations, not just the RCGA. The National Golf Course Owners Association, the Canadian PGA and the Canadian Society of Club Managers should have been monitoring golf's supply and demand situation much more closely. Instead, they allowed their members to continue the deadly practice of strangling the goose that has been laying the golden egg during the longest golf boom in history.
What we need as quickly as possible is more Simoros, Orr Lakes and Settler's Ghosts - courses where you and I, our daughters and sons, our parents, can play as often as we like for a fee that is within most budgets.
June 23, 2004