When golf courses shut down in March of 2020, it was a long month or so waiting for them to reopen. When the announcement finally came out in April that golf could once again resume, I immediately hit up the golf crew about getting back on the course. We clearly weren’t the only ones with the idea though, because by the time we settled on a time we could play, the closest available was at the Golf Club of Rancho California, about 75 miles away. We didn’t think anything of making the drive from Long Beach to Murrieta at the time, as we were just happy to be playing golf somewhere. Little did we know that the grind to find a tee time was about to become the norm for the next three years, with no end in sight.
By now, you’re likely well aware of the “COVID boom’s” impact on golf. To sum up, nearly 7 million more people across the country have played golf in some form since 2019, and just 2 years after the pandemic started the number of rounds played in the U.S. increased by 20%. The big picture is that this is a huge win for a sport that, prior to the boom, many were ready to send the way of Blockbuster and fax machines.
And it’s not just the typical crowd that’s flocking to golf; a game that has traditionally been stereotyped as only being enjoyed by old, white men is more diverse than ever. Of players that have picked up the game since 2019, the largest segments of growth, both by volume and percentage, are kids, people of color and women.
But as always seems to be the case, this good news comes with a bit of a catch. In this instance, it’s that all this golfing is making it hard to golf.
Let me explain by asking a rhetorical question: when was the last time it was easy for you to book a weekend tee time at a popular course?
To take this back to Economics 101, the demand for golf has risen sharply and the supply of golf courses and tee times is struggling to keep up. Unfortunately in this case, there’s not a straightforward answer like “just make more tee times.” While courses spread tee times out to at least every 10 minutes during COVID to promote social distancing, most courses have gone back to 8 or even 6 minute intervals to add more tee times and keep up with demand. Shrink those gaps any further and it’s going to make your already-five-hour round even longer, which nobody wants.
Another answer would be to build more golf courses, but that’s not as simple as it sounds either. The last time golf saw a spike in participation was the late-90s through the mid-2000s (aka the Tiger boom) and as a result, new courses started sprouting like the growth would never end. However, the boom ended around 2006 and since that time, there’s been significant market correction on course supply. In that 17 year span, the number of courses in the U.S. has dropped by 13%, a dip that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. The development spike peaked in 2000, when nearly 400 new courses were built across the country; last year saw just 10 new courses open. Meanwhile, over ten times more courses closed their doors in 2022.
While this trend made sense, and honestly was necessary, during a lull in interest in golf, the sudden influx of new golfers has brought the number of golfers per course back to levels we haven’t seen in 2 decades. This dilemma is even more pronounced in California, where despite having the second-most courses of any state (only Florida has more), the number of courses open to the public lags behind when compared to the number of public golfers. California averages more than 4,000 golfers per public golf course, which is the third-most in the country and nearly twice the national average.
Then there’s the issue of land: property rates are out of control, there are housing crises seemingly across the country, and finding enough space for a new golf course in SoCal seems like an impossible task. That’s not to mention the fact that there are attempts such as AB 1910 (aka the Public Golf Endangerment) that seek to shutter active municipal golf courses in favor of housing developments. There have been attempts to revitalize defunct courses where the land has remained unused, but those opportunities are few and far between.
Course operators have at least taken one step in capitalizing on the rise in demand: increasing tee time rates. No surprise here: California, where everything is more expensive, is among the leaders here as well, with the average tee time costing $64 in 2022. This is not necessarily all bad news, as theoretically increased revenue for courses should lead to the ability to hire more staff, improve conditions, and provide new or improved amenities. On the flip side, it doesn’t do many favors for a game that’s already considered too expensive and reserved only for the elite.
It might be easy to take all this information as doom and gloom, but let’s remember the big picture: golf is in a great place. The game needs to continue to grow and evolve to stay healthy, and this is just part of that growth process. Popularity will wax and wane, tee sheets will open wide and slam shut, and the industry will innovate to meet demand, but the important thing is that courses stay open so that we can continue to enjoy this sport we all love.
In the meantime, while we wait for this surge to mellow out, here are a handful of tips to keep you playing:
Methods once reserved for Black Friday TV deals and Taylor Swift tickets have made their way into the golf world. By now, you probably know how far in advance tee times become available so if there’s a coveted tee time you’ve just got to have, set your alarm, have the page bookmarked, and have your credit card ready.
You know what tee time everybody wants? Saturday morning. You know what tee time less people want? Wednesday at 1pm. If you just have to get a round in but work’s getting in the way, take a half day. Or get out with the dawn patrol and work later. Or take a weekday off and work the weekend. Or squeeze in 9 after work. Or schedule an “important work meeting” at the local track. Do what you need to do; work can wait.
If you live in one of the major population centers of SoCal (which, let’s be honest, includes most places), consider making a trip to where the competition for tee times is little less steep. If your favorite course is booked up, see if one of the less “prestigious” courses in your area still has times. If all of LA, Orange County, and San Diego are at capacity, head on out to the Inland Empire or Ventura. Maybe you brave the heat and take a trek out to the desert during the summer months when nobody wants to play out there. If you’re looking for vacation ideas, you could also travel out to a lesser-known golf destination and check out the local links there.
Need some inspiration? Check out some of our course guides.
If you haven’t already, check and see if any of the courses in your city have a resident program. Some courses will offer special benefits to residents of the city, including discounted rates and, of particular importance to this topic, the opportunity to book tee times before the general public.
Almost all courses now offer a policy that tee times can be cancelled up to 24 hours before the scheduled tee time. If you don’t find what you’re looking for when you first search a week or more out, keep checking throughout the week, especially the day before. You may just get lucky and find the time you’re looking for.
If you want to take the guess work out of this, as always, there’s an app for that. Check out teetimealerts.io, where you can register for alerts based on the course, day, and time you want to play and get an email when a spot opens up.
Tired of the public course circuit but don’t have access to a private course? Start making golf friends. You never know who you’ll meet that might turn into your hook-up for that course that’s on your bucket list.
If you’re struggling finding golf friends, you’re best option is always to…
This could mean joining a private club so you don’t have to compete with the public for tee times. Many have opted for this route recently, with private club membership in SoCal growing by 8% since the beginning of 2020.
If private club membership isn’t an option for you though, you could also join a public club and find the simplest solution to any problem: let someone else solve it for you. There are hundreds of public golf groups in SoCal that host tournaments at least once a month, meaning all you have to do is show up and play. By the way, you’ll also get to scratch that competitive itch, have the chance to win a little prize cash, and make new friends along the way.
Alternatively, you could also start your own club. Booking individual tee times is limited to a specific window, but if you have a larger group and call up a course to plan a tournament, you have some more flexibility on when you can play. Plus, you get all the benefits of being in a club listed above with the added bonus of doing it all on your schedule.
Bottom line: Golf’s surge in popularity may be putting a limit on when or how often you can play, but don’t let that stop you from finding the time and enjoying yourself when you do. Good luck out there!