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Public Agencies Made Golf Affordable

May 25, 1997

"Greener Pastures" [May 8] leaves the impression that David Price and American Golf Corp. are chiefly responsible for providing affordable golf to the American public. This impression tortures the history of public golf in this nation.

As the story accurately points out, American Golf made its mark leasing golf courses from municipalities. While municipal golf courses may look, smell and feel the same as privately held golf courses, they are different in one key respect. They are owned by public agencies--cities, counties, states.

In the aftermath of World War II, municipalities embarked upon an ambitious program to build and purchase golf courses for the same reason that municipalities built and purchased other large recreational tracts: so that ordinary working men and women could enjoy the open-space recreational activities that had previously been available only to the rich. With an expanding base of affordable golf courses, the game's popularity soared. The inexpensive municipal golf course became the point of entry for three generations of new golfers. Included among those generations was a steadily increasing number of women and minorities, not necessarily because of outreach programs, but because the circumstance of public-ownership- mandated equal access.

American Golf Corp. and its imitators are mere tenants on these public properties. Their lease agreements allow them to retain a percentage of the gross receipts in exchange for operating the golf courses. However, all of the fees and all of the policies associated with these publicly held courses are determined by mayors, city councils, boards of supervisors, city managers and various other public boards in conjunction with citizen-based parks commissions and golf commissions. Affordable public golf is a direct product of commitments and decisions made in the public sector.

The article did get one thing right. Golf's popularity peaked in 1990 and has been declining steadily since that date. Why? Very simple. Facing budget deficits, municipalities across the nation lost sight of their mission and began to eye their public golf courses as cash cows. In this process they were encouraged by American Golf and other management lessees.

Locally, Los Angeles County raised its basic weekday green fee 90% between 1990 and 1995, and as a result, the county's 16-course system was playing host to 200,000 fewer rounds of golf per year by mid-decade than it was at the beginning of the decade.

Golf's great point of entry, the affordable public course, is no longer attracting the new players necessary to keep the golf industry going at peak levels, and the jury is still out on whether the charisma of one young superstar from Cypress is sufficient to overcome long demographic odds.

Yesterday's "muni" player is today's purchaser of expensive equipment, resort packages and private club memberships. The golf industry must recognize that tomorrow's big golf spenders will be a much smaller group, unless the industry begins to take an active interest in restoring the availability of affordable public golf courses. If David Price and the American Golf Corp. want to join that effort, it would be a pleasant and welcome surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.

CRAIG KESSLER

Public Affairs Chairman

Southern California

Public Links Golf Assn.

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