Where’s the Post-Panic Golf Boom?

I’m not often wrong, but I definitely misread this Great Recession thing. “Hot damn!” I told my golf-architect pals last winter. “You’ll be up to your armpits in federal funds! You’ll go down in history for Pinehurst No. 12, Pebble Beach New and Bethpage Mauve!” I even advised one of my designer friends, Bill Amick, to invite New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to Tavern on the Green to discuss a new muni in Central Park. I told Bill, “You could call it The Links at Strawberry Fields!”

My mistake was in assuming that our current financial crisis would lead to a national consensus on stimulus spending and jobs programs. The Great Depression, remember, was good for golf. New Deal programs such as the WPA and CWA spent millions of dollars on ball fields, boat ramps, hiking trails and golf courses, which allowed taxpayer money to trickle down to the likes of legendary golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, who used it to build classic public courses like Long Island’s Bethpage Black (site of the 20002 and 2009 U. S. Opens) and Kansas City’s Swope Memorial (host to the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship).*

*For a thorough exploration of the New Deal golf boom, read Jeff Silverman’s terrific article, “Going Public,” in the June 15, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated Golf Plus.

This time, however, a perfectly good Financial Panic will be wasted. The wimpy $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed last year explicitly ruled out funding for “basketball courts, tanning salons, swimming pools, wineries, bordellos, puppy mills, sweat shops, cockfight arenas, sidewalks or paved areas within 400 yards of Keith Olbermann, and golf facilities.” Golf, in other words, will not be allowed to benefit from 10% unemployment and trillion-dollar deficits.

I raised this sorry state of affairs a few months ago in North Carolina during my six-courses-in-one-day golf outing with famed golf architect Tom Fazio. “Politically, it’s a different deal,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “You and I would like for this country to be like Ireland and Scotland, where every community has its own golf course. But there’s a lot of people who don’t play golf, and they don’t want that. And they don’t want an art studio, either. They want jobs for the industry that they’re in, or they want ‘economic development.’”

Tom, while searching his bag in vain for a driver that would hit the ball 290 yards with a two-yard draw, came up with an even better reason for our lawmakers’ indifference to golf course development: “The difference between now and the thirties, if you think about it, is we have enough golf courses out there.”

Enough courses? We have sixteen thousand of them, actually, in the U.S. alone. A non-golfer might argue that we have more than enough, given the fact that courses are going out of business, declaring bankruptcy or otherwise giving every indication that they might better serve their communities as dog parks or frisbee fields.*

*I would argue that we suffer from a golf-course shortage. That will become apparent in the spring, when the millions of golfers who normally stay home on weekends to watch Tiger Woods rush, en masse, to the links.

If a municipality really wants a golf course, Tom went on, it can acquire one for far less than it costs to build one. “But where are they going to get the money from? You look at every state and municipal budget — they’re broke! And if they’re not broke, they won’t spend on recreation. They’re shutting down recreation.”

The upside, Tom admitted, is that he can now play golf almost any day of the week. Which is easy to do, since Tom’s winter office in Tequesta, Fla., is right across the highway from the Jupiter Hills Club (No. 10), designed by his tour-player uncle, George Fazio.

For more of Tom Fazio on the plight of the golf industry, check out my feature, “Back to the Drawing Board,” in the February 2010 issue of GOLF Magazine. Or simply click here, saving yourself a few bucks and pushing my former employers that much closer to insolvency.

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