Perhaps you know that golf has a bit of an affordability problem. It’s never going to be a game that will have a truly broad reach, but even the middle class is probably starting to feel a bit closed out. I played nine holes of golf on Sunday afternoon. Late, it was almost evening. It was at the least glamorous course you could imagine. The least expensive place around. It cost $28. And what struck me most was that the course was almost deserted. Late Sunday afternoon is not a popular time for golf during football season. Wouldn’t the course be better served with a $15 rate? Or even $20? It is October. Wouldn’t this scare up a few more groups? Or, would charging that much invalidate the people who pay $50+ earlier in the day?
For most of my life I didn’t pay to play golf. When I was a kid my parents paid the bill. I was on the golf team in college and that allowed me to play plenty of free golf. After college it was working at golf courses. For a five-year stretch or so through my late twenties I might have paid two or three greens fees a year while playing the most golf of my life at top-level courses. During this time I also got balls, clubs, gloves, tees, range balls and any number of things for either no or little cost. This is a great way to play golf. But, it ends, and when I stopped working at the golf course I came face to face with a hobby that I could barely afford. I’ve played fewer rounds of golf in the past three or four years than I’ve ever played in my life.
Part of this is just life, it’s just time. Golf is time consuming and when you aren’t already at a course and can’t hit a few balls quickly after your shift or play nine holes for free before dark it can be hard to motivate. It’s hard to coordinate a group, or find the right tee time. But, another reason is that without free golf and free practice, I’ve become a good bit worse. I was never a great player, but I was all right, and I got accustomed to playing at a certain level. But, to stay at that level, I’d need to practice and play a lot of golf. I simply can’t afford to do that. I don’t really practice much anymore, I settle for rolling the dice when I go out to the course. There are times I play like I used to and there are times that I play so poorly I don’t really recognize my own shots. I’m getting better at becoming a casual golfer, but it’s not easy.
Of course, I could always take a lesson or two to improve my game, but there’s another dilemma. Golf lessons aren’t cheap. Never has this point been hammered home more efficiently than it is in the most recent Golf Digest. The magazine proudly unveils its list of the game’s best instructors. The bold font on the cover says, “I can help you,” by Sean Foley. Sean Foley is Tiger Woods’ instructor. Inside the magazine Foley has a tip for hitting your fairway woods. He says you should swing at them smoothly and consistently. He suggests you approach a 3-wood like a 9-iron and even recommends alternating between the two clubs on the range. I’ve got two things in response to this. First–what if you can’t hit your 9-iron? Second, this is the worst, most general tip I’ve ever heard. And, Golf Digest is constantly full of wisdom like this. Some stupid blurb re-packaged by a famous player or coach. You’ll never learn golf from blurbs. But, this is as close as you’ll ever get to having Sean Foley actually help your game. I imagine it’s not the easiest slot to get, but if you can, Foley charges $250 an hour. Compared to his peers this makes him a shocking bargain.
Among the top-50 teachers listed in Golf Digest, exactly ONE of them charges less than $100 an hour. That’s Manuel De La Torre of Milwaukee Country Club. He charges $80 an hour. Hats off, Manuel. More commonly on this list you’ll see 2, 3, 5 hundred dollars for a lesson. And, then things get comical. Fifteen thousand dollars for a “day” with Hank Haney. Twenty thousand will get you same with Dave Pelz. Can you get a good short game in a day? NO. Can you be swindled? Certainly. I should throw in a disclaimer here that all of the teachers on the list would probably be a great help to your game over a period of time, but really where do these exorbitant fees come from? Should learning anything cost so much? I guess these guys have the right to make as much money as they can, but when did coaching become something you got rich doing?
Even if you throw out the outlier, high-end guys like Haney, what is the purpose of this list in Golf Digest? Is this their only clientele? Certainly people who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on instruction read Golf Digest, and if that is who they are targeting doesn’t that say enough about golf in itself?
The magazine publishes a list of the best golf courses and just like this list of teachers who will never teach the average player, the average player will never set foot on the Top-100 courses. But, a course is something different. It’s something you could appreciate without playing and who knows, maybe you get on one day. Maybe you save up for a Bandon Dunes trip. But, whose goal is to spend ten grand on a lesson? I think the number of people using a picture of Cypress Point as their desktop background outnumbers the ones who use a picture of Dave Pelz by about 10 million to one (the one is probably Pelz himself or Phil Mickelson).
The point of all this is, I’m disappointed in Golf Digest. I’ve never been a fan of their instruction sections, but it’s almost impossible to learn from a magazine anyway. Here’s a chance to actually help, but this list seems like an especially big waste of time. Singling out teachers who don’t need the accolades while there are plenty of decent teachers who are probably scraping by and plenty of players who would like to know where to go to find these people who give affordable lessons. I know Golf Digest will always have a place on the tables in the locker rooms of country clubs, but I wonder if the number of clubs, and the number of people who gather around those tables will continue to get smaller.
I still like to play golf, I just wish I had the money to play it more often. I fear I’m not alone in this sentiment.