Is golf becoming more accessible or expensive? Architect answers
Is golf becoming more accessible, or more expensive? The answer is complicated, and according to golf course architect Tom Doak, it’s a bit of both.
I recently attended a Q&A with Doak hosted by the National Links Trust at their symposium in Washington DC. The National Links Trust is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect and promote accessible and affordable municipal golf courses across the United States
In college, Doak traveled to Scotland on a scholarship to explore golf course architecture, where it all began. The moderator, Golf Channel’s Damon Hack, asked Doak if America is moving closer to how the golf industry works in Scotland or even further away.
“I think some of both,” Doak replied. He described the sport as divisive in a way where accessible golf is getting better, but “where the high end just keeps getting higher.”
Doak outlined the problem with thinking of golf solely as a business. He explained that the very first golf course he ever built, “we designed it from the idea that it was going to be a $50 golf course.” Every decision they made was with the intention of maintaining the course at that price point. Then something changed. The course started getting a good amount of hype and the client decided they could try charging $90 for a round instead of $50.
“That’s the capitalist system we live in,” Doak said. “If you do good work, people are going to pay more for it, so they’re going to charge more for it.” And while America has been quite successful with that system, it means that “building a great and affordable golf course doesn’t last long.”
The costs of building and thus joining a private club are getting more expensive all the time.
“The bad part of it in my business is that the standard of what a new golf course should be and how well it should be maintained is prohibitive,” Doak said. “My new clients have to be private equity guys – that’s who can afford to do it.”
Ray Cronin is co-founder of Club Benchmarking, which provides business intelligence for private clubs. He was cited in March 2022 Golf Digest story, who says his company puts clubs into three buckets based on their finances, and a quarter of those clubs “are those that have invested consistently over the last 20 years, especially since the financial collapse of 2008-09. They have very strong balance sheets , member waiting lists and initiation fees north of $50,000.”
Even the low end of private memberships are too expensive for most of the playing population, with initial costs around $10,000 and annual dues in the thousands.
Bob Randquist, executive director of the Golf Course Superintendent’s Association of America, estimated that annual maintenance budgets in 2020 ranged from $500,000 a year for a daily fee course to $1 million a year for a private club.
But it’s not all bad news. The other end of the spectrum is also getting better.
“Good golf is more accessible to the public now than it has been in a long time,” Doak said. “There are some really good public courses that have been renovated, there are some great new resort courses that have been built, it’s a lot easier to travel overseas and see all that.”
This is true. There’s no shortage of good resort golf (some even reasonably priced), and several municipal courses have recently received highly praised facelifts (including Doak’s Memorial Park in Houston). Of GOLF’s latest top 100 courses in the US list, about a fifth are publicly accessible with 15 at ski resorts.
Private golf may not be getting cheaper, but public golf is getting better all the time.
When Doak was in Scotland, he was struck by how different everything about golf was. “I thought, ‘Oh no, we’ve kind of got golf wrong,'” he said.
This can be a relatively common sentiment when people compare the closed elitism of the American golf system to some found abroad. While US club membership prices are rising, overseas membership fees remain drastically lower. Additionally, a thoughtful letter to the right person can get the average golfer a tee time at some of the best private clubs abroad, while in America this tactic won’t get you very far.
“One of the easiest ways to put it is golf over there, it’s a part of life, it’s a big part of their culture. And over here, it’s a business,” Doak said. “You take your kids out , you walk your dog and you play 18 holes in two hours at the same time.”
But Doak said he’s optimistic about the future, and he likes the fact that more people are taking an interest in the game and in his job.
“There’s just a wealth of young talent in architecture,” Doak said. “I think that probably applies to all the other aspects of the game as well.”