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Golf Gets Gentler As Price Goes Up

May 26, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Public golf courses, finding that competitors are increasing faster than players, are experimenting with a gentler game _ the most comfortable that money can buy.

The golfer who pays enough can have someone run with the cart and find balls lost in the rough. And the cart will double as a snack machine.

``With the amount of competition in our business, you need to help your facility stand out,″ said Mike Hughes, executive director of the National Golf Course Owners Association. ``The experience is much like being a member of a private club for a day.″

The competition can be traced in large part to a developing golf glut. Private investors, as well as state and local governments, are building new courses. Housing developers are creating golf course communities. By one count, there are more than 17,000 golf courses in the nation.

``We have been opening more than a course a day in this country (over the last 10 years),″ said Ruffin Beckwith, senior vice president of the World Golf Foundation, which organizes development programs for the sport.

The number of players, meanwhile, is steady at about 35 million, including about 10 million ``who may do nothing but go hit balls at a range,″ Beckwith said.

The industry is trying hard to encourage people to try the sport: Programs for children exist on the hope that they will stay with golf for the rest of their lives.

But golf is facing facts: It is a game for grown-ups. So it must get more business from adults, many of whom prefer comfort and instant gratification.

``Our expectations of service have ratcheted up over time,″ Hughes said. ``We expect a higher level of service no matter what we engage in.″

At the higher-cost public courses, with greens fees of $60 and above, the golf cart will include snacks and drinks, like the minibar of a good hotel room.

For even more money _ the $125-and-up greens fee _ some courses will send a forecaddy along with the cart. That job includes retrieving balls that ``go off-line,″ Hughes said.

Some courses have been trying global positioning satellite receivers in the carts to tell players how far they are from the hole.

``The GPS is working really well,″ said Marc Reicher of Winter Park, Fla., looking at the sixth hole of the ChampionsGate course in the Orlando area. ``It’s giving me different points where I can hit to and still be in the fairway. It helps with my club selection. It’s like having a caddy.″

The system even gives Reicher on-screen advice and encouragement: ``Take a deep breath. The second shot is tough, no matter what.″

Even with the location finder, however, the game is still up to the golfer, Reicher said. ``My scores haven’t gone down,″ he said. ``I’m about a 10-handicap, so I shoot in the mid-80s.″

GPS gets a mixed reception among course administrators.

The useful information that a golfer gets from GPS makes the game go faster, said Jeff Parsons, general manager of ChampionsGate. And a faster game is a key issue with time-pressed golfers who don’t want to spend 4 to 5 hours on the links.

The resort can even pop up messages, such as the lunch menu, on the cart’s GPS screen.

``We tried it once. I don’t discount its value, but it’s probably not something we would do again,″ said Charlie Birney, managing partner of Atlantic Golf, a Washington-based company that operates three courses in southern Maryland. ``The core customer didn’t want to pay extra for it.″

The Internet, on the other hand, is paying off. When the forecast looks good, Atlantic Golf alerts golfers via e-mail. And the company lets golfers reserve tee times online.

For those organizing a tournament or a company day on the links, Atlantic offers a concierge service. ``Our marketing department will do all the work for you other than getting your live bodies,″ Birney said. ``They will assign the carts, buy the hole-in-one-insurance, do your whole event.″

Some of the more comfortable aspects, such as the cart-snack bar, are filtering down to moderately priced courses, Hughes said. But not every public course is adding whistles and bells. The national average greens fee is $26 to $27, including the cart, so most golf played in the United States is not driven by the urge to pamper, he said.

``I don’t think there’s going to be an amenities arms race,″ Hughes said.

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On the Net:

National Golf Course Owners Association: http://www.ngcoa.org

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