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Smart Golfers Find Where Price Is Right

Despite proliferation of high-fee courses, it's possible to play a round and not pay a fortune.


At first glance it would seem to be a wonderful time to be a golfer in Orange County. After all, in the last seven years, six public golf courses have opened and a seventh is scheduled to be finished in September.

But this is a golden era for public golf only if you have plenty of gold. At tee time on the weekend (which now usually includes Friday) will cost you $80 at the cheapest of the courses, recently opened Coyote Hills in Fullerton.

To play one of Pelican Hill's two courses this weekend, you will have to scrape together $175.

Weekday prices aren't as steep--the range is $55 to $130--but are certainly still out of reach for the common man--or woman.

For the golfing masses, the situation is maddening: there are too many people chasing too few tee times on lower-priced courses.

Mike Pearson, head professional at Imperial Golf Course in Brea, and his staff hear the evidence every day. Pearson says his course regularly turns away 50 to 60 callers looking for tee times daily.

"They ask us, 'Who do you suggest we call?' " Pearson said. "And we say, 'Try Dad Miller, Green River, Anaheim Hills.' They say, 'We've already tried those.'

"They're all saying the same thing: there just aren't enough affordable golf courses."

Relief isn't likely any time soon. The primary problem is the high cost of building golf courses in Southern California, particularly Orange County, says Jay Colliatie, director of golf at Pelican Hill.

Pelican Hill, with two courses on the Pacific Coast, is a unique case. The land, of course, is extremely valuable and construction costs were pushed up by severe terrain and stringent environmental regulations.

But the upscale trend is driven by more than just costs; the demand is definitely there. The higher-priced clubs offer a country club-like experience, and there apparently is no shortage of people willing to pay dearly for it.

So where does that leave those who cannot afford such steep fees?

Up Tijeras Creek without a paddle? Not exactly, although Doug Booth, head professional at Tijeras Creek ($60 during the week, $85 on weekends) empathizes with the plight of middle-class duffers.

People often ask Booth where they can find a more reasonably priced place to play. He sends them out of the county, to northern San Diego County and the Inland Empire. "I try to help them," Booth said. "I'm not trying to push them away, but if I weren't working in the business, I'd be doing the same thing. I couldn't afford to play a place like this a couple times a week."

But short of abandoning the county, there are a few other options for the regular golfer who doesn't want to pay the big bucks. Here are a couple:

* Move to San Clemente. San Clemente has one of the nicest municipal courses in the county and residents get a tremendous price break and priority reserving tee times. The resident fee is $14 on weekends, $9 during the week, a savings of $13 and $11, respectively.

If relocating is not possible, consider showing up without a tee time. Unlike most courses, San Clemente holds three of its eight hourly foursomes for walk-up business.

* Buy a phone with redial. Most courses take reservations by phone, usually starting at 6 a.m. a week in advance. Persistence is usually rewarded. "You can get some decent times," said Frank Smolkin, head pro at Mile Square, one of the county's busiest courses, "if you are willing to get on the phone and call."

* Join the club. Most courses have men's--and women's--clubs that get special playing privileges. For a yearly fee, members have the opportunity to play in several tournaments and often get the first shot at prime tee times. For instance at Anaheim Hills, Saturday and Sunday tee times from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. are reserved for men's club members ($250 a year).

* Play hooky. Prime morning tee times, nearly impossible to get on weekends at some local courses, are easier to come by during the week.

* Get out of bed. At first light, demand is lower. Consider playing the back nine at 6 a.m. Monday morning and you can even be at the office by 9. Similarly, afternoon tee times are an easier find, and most courses offer reduced twilight rates.

* Fly solo. Walking on a course as a single player is always faster, and who knows, you might luck into someone who can help you with your slice.

* Find a diamond in the rough. River View Golf Course in Santa Ana is one of the county's best-kept secrets. On a recent Friday afternoon, you could score a 7:22 a.m. Saturday tee time.

Recently reopened with 18 holes over 6,176 yards along and in the bed of the Santa Ana River, it will set you back only $20, $15 on weekdays. Carts are $9 per person.

The course, especially the greens, is in great shape, co-owner Steve Hart said.

"For a public golf course," Hart said, "the greens are the best around." Even better than Pelican Hill, he said.

And after six weekend rounds with a cart at River View, you still haven't paid as much as you would for one at Pelican Hill.

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