Sports

Golf's two solitudes

Developers scramble to serve high-end players

JAMES DEACON May 6 1996
Sports

Golf's two solitudes

Developers scramble to serve high-end players

JAMES DEACON May 6 1996

Golf's two solitudes

SPECIAL REPORT

Developers scramble to serve high-end players

Before they officially opened a year ago, the proprietors of Angus Glen Golf Club in

Markham, Ont., had planned to charge a peak-times fee of $65 per round. But pre-opening de mand for access to the dramatic new layout was such that the owners raised the per-person fee to $90. Even at that, the course was virtually sold out between May 1 and Oct. 31. Its clients were mostly companies booking large groups or tournaments, and, by any measure, it was an astounding success, one that many other top clubs in Canada hope to emulate. To top off a great year, the course was named the Best New Canadian Course by the influential U.S. magazine, Golf Digest. Still on a roll, Angus Glen is considering

building a second course, and will open the 1996 season charg

ing $100 per round. “Last year

was beyond our wildest expectations,” says Kevin Thistle, Angus Glen’s general manager. “We were having to turn people away.”

Just as golf in the 1980s was dominated by the development of lavish and astronomically expensive private clubs, the 1990s trend is to high-end public courses. From the spectacular mountain setting of Westwood Plateau in Coquitlam, B.C., to the dunes and beachside beauty of The Links at Crowbush Cove in P.E.I., public gems offer private-club amenities without the staggering initiation fees.

They appeal to companies and organizations that buy tee times to host tournaments or to treat valued or prospective clients. But like the private clubs of the 1980s, the high-end public courses are aimed at the elite market, leaving a gaping hole in the golf world. With public-course players accounting for 80 per cent of Canada’s approximately four million golfers, many simply cannot afford daily fees of up to $145.

In both Canada and the United States, the total number of golfers declined in the early-1990s recession, and officials fear that even fewer people will take up the game unless it becomes more affordable. “People will simply find other ways to spend their money,” says John Gordon, executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. That may already be happening. On the surface, the equipment market appears healthy thanks to the boom in titanium-headed drivers that cost up to $600—more than what most people pay for complete sets of clubs. But across the country, manufacturers say that the total number of clubs sold has been relatively flat for the past few years. Many blame the sport’s inaccessibility. “Courses are jammed,” says Michael Francis, a marketing manager for Wilson Sports Equipment Canada Inc., “so there is a great need for good, inexpensive public golf.”

In urban areas, the few reasonably priced facilities are crowded and the pace of play is painfully slow. The clamor at the

first tee intimidates beginners, and the prospect of a six-hour round discourages people with families who have little free time. Jack Abraham, a 39-year-old trucking executive and married father of two who lives in Bedford, N.S., near Halifax, says he has to be on the course at sunrise to beat the crowd. “I’m out at 5:30 a.m. and home by 9 a.m.,” says Abraham. “If you’re losing a half day from your family, that is definitely a problem.” Golfers in the United States face similar problems, and the Professional Golfers’ Association of America thinks it has a solution. The PGA, which represents professionals who staff country clubs and public courses alike, commissioned a 30-acre practice and teaching facility and two new courses in Port St. Lucie, Fla., by renowned architect Tom Fazio. Courses by Fazio, co-designer of The National in Woodbridge, Ont. (annually rated the best course in Canada), often command greens fees of $125 or more. At the PGA Golf Club, high-season rates are $66, including cart, and $34 in low season. ‘We could retire our debt quicker if we charged $80 [U.S.] a round,” says Jim Awtrey, chief executive officer of the PGA, “but then we’d just be like everyone else.” Awtrey added that “if we can take this prototype and do it at a dozen or more centres around the country, then we will have made the game more accessible.”

With no such initiative in Canada, golfers will have to hope that competition among the high-end clubs will eventually bring prices down. In the Vancouver area, the battle is already fierce. “If public players hear that another course is in better shape or has a special deal on green fees, we will just be left out,” says Christopher Hoy, head professional at Northview Golf & Country Club. But as long as corporate demand remains strong, golfers on a budget will have to find other places to play.

JAMES DEACON

JOHN DeMONT

HAL QUINN