Some of Canada's top private golf courses were recently in the news when Golf Digest released its Top 100 ranking of tracks outside the United States.
Toronto's St. George's Golf and Country Club and The National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont., at Nos. 10 and 17, respectively, topped the list from a Canadian perspective and 12 others also made the grade. Hamilton Golf & Country Club in Ancaster, Ont., the site of this year's Canadian Open, is currently 27th and will surely be praised to the hilt when the charming Harry Colt-design hosts the PGA Tour in July.
While certainly not the be all and end all, it is a clear signal that Canada has no shortage of outstanding golf courses that goes far beyond the 14 mentioned in Golf Digest. That said, the health of both private and public clubs has never been so tenuous since the game exploded in popularity a generation ago.
Back then, baby boomers and their children were seeking a refuge from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life and found it in record numbers on the golf course. The boom continued as a dynamic young player named Tiger Woods came along and attracted even more duffers to play the game, both at private clubs and public courses. (In Canada, Mike Weir's emergence around the same time as Woods helped grow the game in much smaller yet still significant numbers.)
But the halcyon days are long gone and it's tough to figure how many of Canada's private and public clubs will survive in their existing state. Membership is dwindling and, aside from the select few, private clubs are desperate for more members, preferably younger ones who will remain full-fee-paying players for years to come.
The crux of the issue hides in plain sight at this time of year for golfers from St. John's to Victoria. After all, do you have time to sacrifice five to six hours of your day at an average cost of at least $50 a pop -- trending up to over $100 -- at least 50 times a season? That's what it takes to make joining a private club worth it, assuming that you can even afford to spend about $4,000 per season on golf.
It's simple math, really.
Membership dues average out to about $3,000 for a middle-of-the-road golf course in a typical Canadian community. You can add about $1,000 per season for an average club in and around a major city or subtract roughly that if you want to play a down-market rural track. Throw in several hundred bucks for balls and equipment and likely that amount more on food and drink and $4,000 seems to be about the average outlay a typical golfer could expect to play each year.
Oh, and did we mention an initiation fee if you are looking to become a member for the first time?
'Don't do it unless...'
Initiation fees are difficult to pin down. Typically, the price tag for a mid-level course, if you were to walk in off the street, is about $10,000 -- though those figures vary widely and are often reduced by family rates or other programs permitting prospective members to either defer payment or spread costs over several years. If these figures make your head spin, even if you love playing the game, imagine what it must do to those people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy golf industry with heavy public and private participation.
A club pro at a respected, up-market Toronto facility that charges a roughly $40,000 initiation fee and about $5,000 annual dues, recently had this to say when I asked him his thoughts about joining a club in my community.
"Don't do it unless you can get your cost-per-round down to about $75," he said, his identity kept secret in order to protect his job.
I can (barely) afford the financial outlay. But for my own personal situation to measure up to the pro's calculation, it would mean I would have to find time to golf about 50 times a year, which is really only a half-year. On top of that, I have to accept that I'm going to pay a one-off fee of several thousands of dollars to join and another $1,000 a season on related costs -- some of which I admittedly enjoy in the form of frosty beverages dispensed by a kindly server in an immaculate clubhouse or on a patio.
I'm likely going to take the plunge. But I certainly understand why others in my position take a pass.
No matter how you slice it -- pun fully intended -- golf is not a cheap pursuit, whether you kick it around your local municipal layout a few times a week or are a member at an upscale private club who somehow manages to squeeze in 100 rounds in a country where the season lasts about six months.
'Seen as elitist'
Canada has been spared the massive closures that have taken place in the U.S. Yet trouble looms.
Municipally-owned courses in cities such as Winnipeg or London and Kitchener, Ont., are running significant operational losses year over year with many civic governments voicing concern how much longer they can prop them up. Golf Canada executive director Scott Simmons said that lobbying the federal government to eliminate the ban on claiming golf course dues and expenses is a top priority for the national governing body he heads.
"It's unfair and exists from a time when golf was seen as elitist," Simmons told me in a wide-ranging interview this spring. "The [rule] is out of date."
Simmons is right. The ruling has existed for some 40 years and doesn't take into account the masses that started to flock to the game in the late 1980s.
If Simmons and his lobby group, which includes a number of golf-related bodies, can get that ban lifted, it would certainly help. That would clear the way for individuals and business to claim golf as an entertainment expense directly related to doing business, in much the same way Canada's NHL teams benefit from corporate season-ticket holders doing the same.
The problem is far more extensive, of course, and a tough economy certainly doesn't help.
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