How Much Can A Public Golf Course Charge and Still Be A Public Course?

Forest Dunes is one of the generally affordable courses on Matt Ginella's Top 50 List.
Forest Dunes is one of the generally affordable courses on Matt Ginella’s Top 50 List.

The recent release of  Matt Ginella’s “Top 50 Public Courses” list on the Golf Channel poses for me an essential question: How much can a public golf course charge and still be considered a public course?

A good many of the golf courses on Ginella’s list are nominally public, but realistically not in the budget for a huge percentage of the golfing public. There’s no need to single out Ginella, who strikes me as a sincere and earnest travel reporter. The same is true of courses listed in other golf publications.

The most recent demographics that I’ve seen indicate that the average golfer’s household income is $90,000 a year. That’s household income, not individual. Golfer’s household incomes are higher than the US median of $53,657, but by no stretch of the imagination is $90,000 wealthy. The median household income for millennials is $31,000 (although that may be lower because so many are unmarried.)

A little math is instructive. If you cut out the 45% in taxes that most Americans pay to federal, state and local governments, that leaves the household with $49,000 to spend. That’s $942 a week. So, a $500 round of golf at Spyglass doesn’t leave you much for food. Nor does a $300 round at Bandon. Add in the costs of transportation and lodging and what you have are golf experiences that most can’t justify.

Top 50 Golf Course Survey
Top 50 Golf Course Survey

So how much can a public golf course charge before it becomes just another exclusive, rich man’s playground?

For me, the word “public” means more than just “if you can afford it, you can play it.” If money is no consideration, then pretty much every course in America (except perhaps Augusta and Pine Valley) is a “public course.” Throw enough money at a member of Shinecock and you can surely get a tee time. Or simply get a membership.

What, then is the cut-off? I think it is $200. And so do Ginella’s twitter followers. At left are the result of a Twitter poll he posted:

Fifty-five percent of golfers think $100 is expensive. Ninety percent think $200 is expensive.

In my household, when the phrase “That pretty expensive” gets thrown out, it means the proposal is off the table.

The argument for including cost-prohibitive courses on the Major Golf Media’s “Best” lists is that they recognize excellence at any price. Other lists are available for the bargain shopper. Fair enough. But to all of those I would suggest that “public” implies a level of accessibility that doesn’t ask the average player to sell their first-born to play a round of golf.

If you believe the zeitgeist, the sport of golf is facing a significant downturn in participation. At the very least, it is a “greying” sport, as younger people turn to activities that are less difficult and less expensive. Lists such as these feed the notion that golf is too expensive. I can imagine a young or beginning player seeing the Top Fifty Public Courses lists from any of the major golf media and thinking that to be a real golfer, you need to spend a lot of money.

It is, of course, an incorrect perception. There are lots of high quality courses that fall below the “expensive” threshold. Ginella correctly points out that two of the courses in his top ten are relatively inexpensive: Forest Dunes, in Michigan, and Bethpage Black. In Michigan, I can think of at least two dozen others that provide top notch golf experiences for under $100.

I wonder how many of the golf writers and editors who put together these best lists actually pay for their trips and rounds out-of-pocket. I have been on enough golf junkets to know how the game is played: A course wants media consideration, so they fly golf writers to the course, wine-and-dine, and bend over backwards to ensure that the round is enjoyable. (Full disclosure: I have played eight courses — of the 150 I’ve reviewed — under those conditions. The rest I paid for out-of-pocket). Would the writers be as enthusiastic about these courses if they had just shelled out $500 from their kids’ college funds? Or if they paid half a week’s income for four hours of fun? From personal experience, I know that I forget about price when on these trips.

I’m going to suggest that beyond the usual categories of “public” and “private” courses, there’s another: the luxury course. These are courses that are not really public in the sense that general public plays there. Rather, these are public courses in that they don’t charge initiation and membership fees. By my definition, any course that charges more than 20% of the weekly median household income is a luxury course. Since median household income in 2015 is $53,657, that’s $206. Which is exactly what ninety percent of golfers think is expensive.

The post How Much Can A Public Golf Course Charge and Still Be A Public Course? was first published Dec. 16, 2015 on GolfBlogger.Com

6 thoughts on “How Much Can A Public Golf Course Charge and Still Be A Public Course?”

  1. All great points! I recently played Kapalua which is on one of my lists but it is right there at the $200 level so that my wallet won’t allow me to play it every day. Is it a public course, absolutely but it should be judged differently based on the accessibility which is along the lines of what I think you are advocating. That being said, it is WELL worth the price.

  2. You raise good points but, frankly, who gives a fig about all these lists? Most of the lists are compiled from “scores” provided by people who haven’t played the course in the past 12 months, IF EVER. Pine Valley is annually named the #1 course. Who played Pine Valley in 2015? Where else did they play this year? How can someone who never played Forest Dunes (or any number of other extremely nice courses) rate Pine Valley as being better?

    These lists are complied by a group of “experts” who perhaps have played half of the listed courses and who are heavily influenced by the fact that certain courses have always been rated as being in the top 10, 50 , or 100. Frankly, a number of these courses have been resident on the top 100 lists for so long, one has to wonder if they really do stand the test of time. When was the last time a tournament was held at Seminole or Pine Valley?

  3. For everday play, $50 is indeed at the high end of things for me. I count a pretty darn good course as my home that charges $20 walking. But I’m willing to pay $125 to play Forest Dunes once a summer, and around $100 a couple of times a summer for some of those spectacular courses in Up North Michigan.

    I’d pay up to $200 for a really special trip. But I’m not paying $400+ for any “public” golf. I just can’t justify that kind of price, even for iconic courses such as Pinehurst and Pebble Beach. Those are exclusive courses as far as I’m concerned — not for the “public.”


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