Golf Enters An Age Of Affluence Around The World

For golfers and golf fans, this is the week. Like a robin’s trill that heralds the arrival of spring, the Master’s tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club is the harbinger of a new season. Ben Crenshaw, the 1984 champion, calls Augusta “one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the earth.” The tournament certainly is one of the top four on the international golf calendar. When millions of television viewers watch the 53rd winner don the club’s green jacket in Butler Cabin, the penalty strokes of last season will be dim memories.

golf2

The Golfing Spring

That is the tradition of the golfing spring, if not the demanding Masters. Spurred by the pageantry of the four days in Georgia among the flowering azaleas and dogwood, the thoughts of golfers everywhere will turn again to their favored fairways, even where snow still clings to the land.
This season, golfers also will be turning out in greater numbers than ever before, whether at the nine-hole Air Lanes Course near the Halifax airport, where around costs $7, or the breathtaking 36-hole Kananaskis complex beneath Mt. Lorette in Alberta.

Despite long waits and high fees, Canada is in the midst of the hottest golf sport in 30 years–since Arnold Palmer took the game by storm and President Dwight Eisenhower set up shop at Augusta near Butler Cabin. Fuelled by rising incomes and driven by a graying population, the number of golfers in Canada is growing by more than 10 percent a year. In 1988, there were an estimated 2.2 million players in Canada the vast majority playing public courses–and they spent nearly $1 billion on equipment, accessories, and greens fees.

That does not include the sums lavished on golf vacations, private club dues, initiation fees, lot purchases and equity shares. A Maclean’s canvass of game officials across the country indicated that there are 1,797 regulation courses, more than double the 825 that existed in 1972. In the United States, the National Golf Foundation reported last fall that there are more than 20 million American golfers and that industry revenues are $24 billion per year, including more than $9 million on travel and lodging.

From the sand greens of the Yukon’s 18-hole Annie Lake course to the windswept nine at Pippy Park in St. John’s, Nfld., from Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine to the 70 courses of San Diego County, legions of North Americans–including an increasing number of women–are demonstrating, as Jack Nicklaus told Maclean’s in a recent interview, that “golf is a game for all ages.” Indeed, Nicklaus has traveled the golfing equivalent of Passages: brash upstart, leading money winner, power player, a champion with major tournament victories in each of the past four decades and, now, successful businessman nearing the end of his tournament career. Mirroring Nicklaus’s accomplishments–often sparked by them–professional stars with big swings are rising from Queensland to Kyoto, and duffers are hacking away from Kapalua to Kabul.

Heading into last weekend’s 13th tournament of the season on the PGA Tour, 36 golfers already had earned more than $100,000, and fully 119 have won more than $1 million in their careers. But in an interview with Maclean’s, Crenshaw said that the huge tournament purses have placed “too much emphasis on the touring professional players.” He added: “We are just such a small percentage of golfers. We are not the game.”

All but five percent of golfers play on public courses and with most of the resources going to private developments, the average player is often out in the cold–or at least the dew of predawn, waiting for a starting time. In Dartmouth, N.S., 34-year-old insurance agent Michael McNaughton said that since he joined the Hartland’s Point club near the Armed Forces base outside of Halifax, he and three friends take turns going out to the course at four a.m. on Saturdays to claim tee-off times for the following weekend.

Annual dues are $385 a year, and he plays three times a week, enjoying a ten handicap. He admits that his wife, Ann, “can’t stand the golf season”–but he has made a deal: “I get up early with the two kids in the winter and do all that.” Roger Surette, the manager of Halifax’s largest golf shop, says that the city is “in the middle of a game sport” and also noted that “there are three times as many women players as there were three years ago.”

In Winnipeg, about 300,000 rounds were played last year on city courses, and at the venerable St. Charles Country Club there is a four-year wait to join–and it costs $15,000 simply to get on the waiting list. In Saskatchewan, the three public courses in Saskatoon were so crowded last summer that golfers arrived on Thursday nights with sleeping bags so that they could be at the front of the line when weekend tee times were assigned starting at six a.m. on Friday. At the 27-hole Holiday Park Golf Course, officials processed 100,000 rounds. In Vancouver, Donald Gardner, executive director of the B.C. Golf Association, says that “every course is jammed to the gunnels, and membership costs are going out of sight.”

Even the couch potatoes are getting in on the act: in addition to regular men’s and women’s pro golf telecasts, such as last weekend’s Dinah Shore Classic from Rancho Mirage, Calif., networks in Australia, Canada and the United States are broadcasting so-called skins games, in which four leading pros play for thousands of dollars on each hole. The second Cadillac Golf Classic at Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ont., with a $1-million pot, will feature Arnold Palmer, Fuzzy Zoeller, Curtis Strange and Dave Barr. And next month, the inaugural Canadian Airlines International at the Abbey will match teams of male and female pros from six countries. The Abbey itself is a testimony to the commercial success of spectator golf: largely because of proceeds from the annual Canadian Open, the Royal Canadian Golf Association, which bought Glen Abbey for $3 million in 1981, last year paid off the outstanding $821,111 mortgage.

The move to golf is evident throughout the world. In the United States, a report by the National Golf Foundation last fall said that new courses are opening at the rate of 200 per year, but that 350 to 400 “will be needed to keep pace.” The demand also has spread to unlikely quarters of the globe. Several courses currently are being planned in the Soviet Union, and the grass grows on fairways fed by desalinized water at the desert links in the United Arab Emirates. In China, which plowed its courses after the Communist takeover, there now are six golf clubs and Premier Zhao Ziyang, 69, has said that he is sleeping and eating better since he turned plowshares into clubs. Before the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, government guards escorted foreign diplomats to the Kabul Golf and Country Club for rounds across a lake from the battlefield.

golf1

Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

The boom comes as solace to golfers of the world, maligned as they are by poets and statesmen who have tried to ban the sport. Canada’s Irving Layton wrote of golfers: “No theory of pessimism is complete which altogether ignores them.” George Bernard Shaw denounced the game as “a typical capitalist lunacy,” and Mark Twain remarked scornfully, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard disagreed, choosing to hit a six iron during a stroll on the moon in 1971. Ike Eisenhower disagreed, braving political scorn by setting up operations at Augusta where he fell under the tutelage of Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones, who won 13 major titles as an amateur before retiring to his law practice and founding Augusta National in 1931. Through dutiful instruction at the hands of Sam Snead, Richard Nixon also managed to bring his score down into the 80s–although Snead revealed that Nixon once played a Watergate of a shot from “some appalling rough.” Said Snead: “I knew he threw it out. What could I say? He was the president.”

In a recent issue of the weekly magazine Golf World, Ken Raynor, head pro at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Me., said that President George Bush’s best regional round was 76 and that he is “usually good for an 86 or 87”–evidently without the aid of any hand mashes. As for Canadian leaders, accounts of their golfing prowess are greatly underplayed. One of the few anecdotes to survive from an era before media manipulators and lobbyists were about Canada’s eighth prime minister, Robert Borden, who once started off around with a familiar admonition: “Now, Borden, keep your damn fool head down.”

That is appropriate advice for golfers today, particularly at a time when architects and developers are ripping up vacant fields and building new courses as never before. In Nova Scotia, two new layouts opened in the past two years; another near Halifax is under way, and three nine-hole courses are being expanded to 18. In Montreal, at least five courses are under construction, and another ten are being planned. In South Shore Longueuil, architect Graham Cooke is supervising construction of a 36-hole course in the open style of Scottish links. Built for the city and scheduled to open to the public next year, the development includes 900 building lots.

In Saskatchewan, the growing pressure for courses has prompted four different developments. Three new courses are being planned in the Winnipeg area. And in the golf-hungry Lower Mainland of British Columbia, 25 new courses are planned.

Nowhere is the class building in Canada as accelerated as in the Toronto area. Of the 35 courses scheduled to be completed this year across the country, roughly half are being built in southern Ontario. With waiting lists as long as ten years and entrance fees as high as $30,000 at established Toronto clubs, the gentle hills to the north and east are alive with the sound of bulldozers this spring.

Belgian-born architect Rene Muylaert, who lives near London, Ont., is overseeing construction of four courses between Windsor and Toronto and has another six on the drawing board. “This is the biggest boom I’ve seen,” he said. George (Mac) Frost, owner of the Spring Lakes Golf Club north of Toronto, added: “There’s a development boom for golf facilities. Unfortunately, most of the courses are schemes to attract members to pay the development costs. There is very few facilities heat for pay-as-you-play golfers.”

Because of soaring land prices–up to $25,000 an acre–a common marketing device is the sale of equity memberships, whose values can rise and which the owners can sell. Last July, the exclusive Beacon Hall Golf Course–designed by Atlanta-based Robert Cupp–opened 30 minutes north of Toronto. Lawyer Bryan Leggett and partners had sold 220 shares at escalating prices of $35,000 for the first 50, up to $55,000 for the last 20. Annual dues are $4,300. With all shares now sold, Leggett said that the memberships are worth $65,000. To offset the $3.8 million for the 264-acre property ($14,400 an acre), the founding partners and a developer built a series of townhouses now selling for up to $600,000.

Bill MacWilliam, one of two founding partners at nearby St. Andrew’s in Stouffville, said that he began selling $28,000 memberships last June. By the time the 350 places sold out in September, the price had risen to $32,000, not counting annual dues of $2,100. MacWilliam, who recently sold his interest in a Toronto golf shop, is planning a second 18 nearby at Aurora with memberships starting at $35,000.

One new course in the planning stages started more on a whim than on any grand financial design. Frustrated by having to wait for a game of golf at a public course in 1986, Chris Haney and some friends decided to build their course below the Niagara Escarpment, 45 minutes from Toronto. The club will operate on a nonprofit basis and is restricted to 400 members–the order of selection determined by a draw. The first member picked paid $17,025. Then, the cost of each subsequent share increased by $25 until the eventual membership–which included a case of Veuve Clicquot champagne–sold for $27,025. As the millionaire inventors of the successful board game Trivial Pursuit, Haney and cronies could afford to play games and chase their dreams.

The pursuit of par, whether at $50,000 or $5 around, is an enduring avocation. Canadian essayist Arnold Haultain attempted to capture the lure in The Mystery of Golf, published in 1910. “Curiously enough,” wrote Haultain, “its chief difficulty arises from its primary simplicity. In golf, you hit a stationary ball.” But even more demanding than that, he added.

On the pro tour, golf has become a metaphor for conservative ideology. Says Terry Hanson, PGA Tour vice-president of communications: “The corporations like the demographics–middle-aged, upper income–of golf fans. And corporate America is conservative. The CEOs like the fact that there are no drug or strike problems in the game, that the players pay their expenses, and that, unlike other professional sports, if they don’t play, they don’t get paid.”

But for Crenshaw, the rewards are more personal and enduring: “Golf teaches us something every day, how to try to handle ourselves, how to better ourselves.” It is a game based on the honor system, where players keep their scores and count the penalties assessed to them by the rules. And, as Nicklaus says, “in golf you get beat every day. It’s an excellent learning experience.” One hapless golfer learned that painful lesson while shooting triple digits on the Old Course at St. Andrews, the home of golf, in Scotland. As recorded by Toronto writer David MacDonald, the golfer’s disgusted caddie fixed the man with an unblinking glare after the round and declared with the distinctive lilt of the heat: “You need an `accountant’–no a caddie.” Increasingly, beneficiaries of the golf boom are making that same discovery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *