The problem isn't so much a lack of golf facilities in the U.S. as it is a lack of the kind of facilities that are most needed. Namely, municipal courses and public driving ranges. Unfortunately, most of the money being invested in golf courses these days is in the area of resort development and luxury real estate. The Acme Golf Corporation borrows a chunk of change from the Savings and Loan, buys a tract of desert, pays a big-name architect to sculpt a 36-hole layout, names it after a famous Indian and sells house sites for a half million dollars each. Nothing like doing your bit to solve the tee-time crunch.
"A lot of real estate developers have been using golf lo build an address." says Maxwell, "and as a result some markets have been overbuilt. There are as many as 18 golf facilities for sale in Phoenix alone. That ought to tell you something."
It tells me that all those people clogging up my home course ought to move to Phoenix. "When the NGF says we need to open a course a day by the year 2000," says Randy Frey, the editor of the NGF's newsletter, Golf Market Today, "it doesn't mean you can open a course just anywhere. The major metropolitan areas is where they need more courses."
In recent months some of these golf resorts and developments have failed—enough of them to lead many to wonder if the golf boom is already a thing of the past. For instance, the Ballymead Country Club in Falmouth, Mass., which was financed with a reported $39 million borrowed from the troubled Bank of New England, has filed for Chapter 11 protection. Landmark Land Co., the nation's largest golf resort developer, with 23 golf courses nationwide, financed its construction projects by borrowing money from the two federally-insured savings-and-loan institutions it owned in Louisiana. When the Office of Thrift Supervision cracked down on thrifts last year, Landmark had to put a large portion of its portfolio up for sale. But in these and other instances, it isn't so much that the golf boom has petered out as it is that the real estate boom, and the days of unsupervised S&L financing, are over.
Meanwhile, existing golf facilities in big cities have been overwhelmed. The NGF fears that golfers in Los Angeles and New York City might one day be forced to spend their entire careers smacking balls in multitiered driving ranges, as now happens in Japan, where an estimated 85% of golfers never play on a real course. Small wonder the Japanese, who think nothing of commuting to Hawaii for a couple of rounds, are buying up courses around the world as fast as they can lay down their yen.
One solution to the shortage of courses near the major metropolitan areas? Build them cheap. Build them simple. Build them, if necessary, at just nine holes. "I'd like to see more of what I call entry-level courses," says Fay, "which would be the equivalent of the local ski area that a youngster cuts his teeth on. Really low maintenance, without a lot of bunkers. No railroad ties. Carry your own sack or pull a trolley. But that's golf. You still have to hit it. It's the same game as they play at Pine Valley or Pebble Beach."
Carry your own sack. Music to a golf Grinch's ears, for one of the truly rotten side effects of the U.S. golf boom is that in an effort to speed up the game and increase revenues, more and more golf courses require players to rent carts. Golfers are not even given an option to walk. "I find it ironic that there's supposed to be a fitness boom, but meanwhile walking is being phased out of golf," laments Fay. "Twenty years ago you needed a letter from your doctor to be able to use a cart. Now you practically have to get a letter from your doctor to be able to walk."
Twenty years ago. Back before golf videos, instructional schools, metal woods, island greens and Sansabelts. Back before the boom. Well, I think I have come up with a solution. It's a sport that is economically affordable, environmentally sensitive, low-maintenance and efficient in its use of land and space. Like golf, it is sedentary, cerebral and satisfies the primal urge to whack around a hard, round object on a green, mowed lawn.
Anyone for a round of croquet?