A matter of choice

Get in a car and drive on any street or freeway in Orange County and, often, within 15 minutes a golf course will come into view.

Newport-Mesa features seven 18-hole courses at six golf facilities (Costa Mesa Golf & Country Club has two 18-hole layouts).

Golfers have a platter of places to choose from.

But they haven't always come out in droves, especially last year.

The National Golf Foundation last month released the results of an online survey of U.S. golf facilities to collect data on rounds played in 2003 compared to 2002. About 1,900 facilities responded.

Researchers found that golfers played 495 million total rounds last year compared to 502 million in 2002, a decline of 1.5%.

Eight golf facilities in Orange County provided data for rounds played in the last two years.

Five of the eight saw declines in rounds, with four of the five citing the economy as the No. 1 culprit.

Two facilities noted competition — too many courses to choose from — as the main reason for the reduction.

The NGF's study revealed standard-fee courses showed the most decline in rounds (2.7%) compared to premium (0.3%) and value (0.3%) courses. Private clubs reported a reduction in rounds by 3% compared to 1% for public-access venues.

In the Southwest region, which encompasses California, Nevada, and parts of Arizona and New Mexico, 198 facilities provided data that revealed rounds decreased by 2.3%

Disposable income — the remaining money consumers have after paying bills and taxes — has a lot to do with the reduction in rounds, Santa Ana Country Club head golf professional Mike Reehl said.

"The economy is pricing golf out," Reehl said. "People don't have the extra money to play."

Golfers tallied 42,828 rounds at Santa Ana Country Club in 2002 and that figure stayed roughly the same in 2003, Director of Golf Mike Reehl said.

He added that the club's membership is composed of many retired patrons who have the money and time set aside to devote to golf.

Newport Beach Country Club saw rounds decrease by 5,000 last year, but head professional Paul Hahn, who played in last month's Toshiba Senior Classic on a sponsor's exemption, believes the game is going strong despite the decline.

"The game is just as strong as it used to be," Hahn, the head pro at NBCC since 1995, said. "There is an oversupply of golf courses. The cost to build a golf course … they are pricing themselves out of the game. They are charging too much for green fees. People either don't play or go to the cheap municipal [course] down the street. Or, instead of playing three times a week, they cut down to once a week."

Golf Digest magazine, in its May edition, listed Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Coast as one of the country's most expensive courses, but gave it 4.5 out of a possible five-star rating.

Fees range from $175 during peak times Monday through Thursday to $250 Friday through Sunday.

The fees haven't changed in the past three years, but play during 2003 increased by 10% from 2002, Pelican Hill general manager Hansjoerg Maissen said.

"Yes, golf is expensive, but you could say the same thing with skiing," Maissen said. "They don't always provide decent ski lifts or maintain the slopes. If they don't, skiers won't come back. My point is always value for money. Do you get something in return?"

Three years ago Pelican Hill introduced its "Players Club," where golfers purchase a card and receive discounts on subsequent green fees.

Maissen said the program has been responsible for generating repeat business.

"We felt that with the softer economy, the harder we have to work to produce quality value for the [golfer's] money," Maissen said.

Advertising/marketing and increased membership were the top two reasons why three of the Orange County facilities that responded to the NGF's survey experienced increases in rounds last year.

Even private courses are feeling the need to spread the word about what they offer.

"We are at the point where most private clubs have to start marketing themselves, where in the past it hasn't been that way," Hahn said.

Tom Sargent, head pro at Mesa Verde Country Club who earned PGA National Golf Professional of the Year honors in 1997, said Sept. 11 has also affected play.

"People are spending more time with their family," said Sargent, who directs 3,500 PGA members (teaching pro) and apprentices in a three-region area that includes California and Hawaii.

"Golf takes four or five hours, so if someone wants to spend time with family, that is tough."

There are those who are interested in golf, but luring them to the course is quite another task.

The PGA of America, the PGA and LPGA Tours and the United States Golf Association have identified 17 million people who are interested in golf and who watch the sport, but don't play it, Sargent said.

To pull people to the course, the PGA of America is launching a campaign titled Play Golf America, designed to provide players of all ages and skill levels opportunities to play more often with family, friends and co-workers. Teaching activities tailored for those new to the game are also offered.

The campaign's web site,, offers more information about the program.

Tiger Woods' turning pro in 1996 at the age of 20 revolutionized the sport and more youth began learning the game at driving ranges and courses throughout the country.

The goal was to make the game more accessible to more people and it rode the coattails of Woods, winner of seven major championships and one of the world's most recognizable celebrities.

Today, questions about affordability remain just as visible as ever.

Newer courses, needing to recoup building costs, often charge proportionately higher rates, turning away some golfers.

Competition, though, is as strong as ever between the several courses in the county to lure golfers, Sargent said.

"Pretty soon, you start eating your own flesh," Sargent said. "Where do the golfers come from? One golf course takes from the market share of another. The increased rounds at one course may reduce the rounds at another course."

It's all part of the business, Maissen said.

"It is tough in this economy to compete, but it just makes you work harder to get a bigger part of the cake."