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Conventional wisdom dictates that you need a tee time before you hit the links. Soon, however, you may need to click a few links before you can get a tee time.

A proliferation of Internet-based tee-time reservation systems and e-mail marketing campaigns by golf courses over the last five years is changing the way golfers get on courses, as well as reducing the green fees they pay.

E-times have also revolutionized the way course operators fill dead spots on their tee sheets and enable them to market directly to the people they want to target: Golfers who have played their course.

It's a win-win situation for the consumer and the industry, some say, and the industry is growing so fast that the days of calling pro shops to make tee times could be numbered.

"I envision the future as a one-site, one-source tee-time stop," said Mike Carran, director of sales for click4teetimes.com, whose 5-year-old site has more than 60,000 registered users. "I envision that we'll be offering tee times at all courses, at all rates and more in advance."

E-time websites are granted access to times by participating courses. They get the times only two or three days in advance and are limited to selling only tee times that golf courses make available to them. But the advantage is that the sites are allowed to sell the times at discounted rates.

For example, a recent search on Golfnow.com offered a Friday morning tee time at Robinson Ranch in Santa Clarita for $87, down from the regular rate of $117. Click4teetimes offered a Thursday morning spot at Black Gold Golf Club in Yorba Linda for $67, down from the rack rate of $87.

But as the industry grows, so does the number of available tee times, and peak times — discount included — are beginning to surface on many sites. For example, a Saturday morning 9:33 time was available at Eagle Glen Golf Club in Corona through Ezlinks.com for $73.59, down from the regular rate of $115.

"It's a misconception that all you can get is poor tee times in the middle of the afternoon on weekdays," Carran said. "The reality is that times are available all day every day. It might not be the course closest to your house, but there is probably something available."

And these sites offer spots at courses and prices to fit most any golfers ability and budget. Beginning golfers can find times at executive or par-three courses. Budget-minded golfers can find times at many municipal courses throughout the Southland.

Still, golfers might not find what they are looking for on a website. That's when they can search their inboxes for special offers from courses that not only offer discounted rates, but also include free merchandise such as shirts, hats, a sleeve of balls or food.

"The hot dog promotion seems to be really popular," said Matthew Donovan of Donovan Bros. Golf, which operates 12 courses in Southern California. "We've given away shoes and a putter, but for some reason, the hot dog promotion goes gangbusters."

Donovan said his company has collected about 30,000 e-mail addresses and the list is available to the managers at each course. When they anticipate a slow period, he said, they send out an e-mail with a special offer.

It's been so successful that Donovan's company set up a website, Donovandaily.com, so that golfers could sign up to receive the offers without going to a course.

"The golfers love it," Donovan said. "And so do we. It helps us spook golfers to our courses."

Beyond that, most courses now have websites of their own and occasionally offer discounted tee times on those sites. Many also have e-mail clubs that offer breaks to players who sign up for them and e-mail players with special deals.

While there are no membership fees to get on e-mail lists or to get times through most golf E-time websites, premier memberships clubs have also grown in popularity at many courses and websites.

These clubs, which can cost anywhere from $75 to $500 annually, allow players benefits such as discounted tee times, the ability to make reservations in advance of the general public, lessons and range balls.

Roger Dunn Golf Shops recently unveiled the Birdie Savings Card. Golfers pay $24.99 up front for a card that gives them a 40% discount off green fees at more than 30 Southern California courses, plus $20 off in store merchandise.

"Golfers love to be able to save money," said David Cochrane, who oversees the Birdie Savings Card program for Worldwide Golf. "And this is a good way for us to get those kinds of benefits to people who seem to want them as well as build our customer database."

The benefits of pay memberships continue to expand too. Some offer an official Southern California Golf Assn. handicap, access to member-only tournaments and additional discounts such as two-for-one golf.

But discounted tee times and special offers are the lifeblood of this business, which survives by charging golfers a small convenience fee or by taking a percentage of the tee times they sell.

Carran said if the industry is to continue to grow, it will need access to more times at more courses, which would require cooperation from more course operators. But heavily played municipal courses have yet to sign on. Also, some courses see a stigma attached to offering discount rates and won't grant access to times.

"A municipal that does 250 players a day really has no reason to offer discounts," Carran said. "And there are others who look at it as prestige to not offer discounts. They don't want to be associated with discounting."

But Bryon Smith, director of golf at Eagle Glen, said those courses are missing out on some business they might not otherwise get. He said he's seen a dramatic increase in the number of Asian golfers in the two years his course has been offering tee times to discount sites.

"It allows them to book tee times without the difficulty of the language barrier getting in the way," Smith said.

Online tee time services take the payment at the time of reservation, so all golfers need to do is check in at the pro shop, show their receipt and head off to the driving range.

"You don't have a lot of lollygagging in the pro shop with people trying to figure out who's paying and running four different credit cards," Smith said. "It takes five seconds and boom, you're on the course."

And while the courses lose money by selling times at a discount, they can recoup those losses in labor costs.

"We don't have to have as many people in the pro shop helping customers because it goes so quick," Smith said. "We don't have to have anyone manning the phones taking tee times. I think you're going to see a lot more courses go this route because in the end, it saves money."

And that, after all, is something everyone loves to do.

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peter.yoon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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