Golf’s a great game and a perfect way to spend time with friends that involves friendly competition, time outdoors in beautiful settings, some level of exercise (depending on whether you walk or ride) and celebratory beers in the clubhouse after. It can be expensive, especially if you get caught up in the “who’s got the latest clubs and gadgets” web, but here are some commonsense ways to make the game affordable.
1. Volunteer at a local course. Many golf clubs use volunteers as starters, marshals, spotters for tournaments, etc., in exchange for free golf. I volunteered at my club for years, which led to a paid (minimum wage) job as starter every Sunday. For just eight hours of fun “work” I earned a little money and had free golf. Call around to see if you can strike a deal.
2. Buy a club membership. Practice your math with a calculation of how many rounds you play compared to daily fees and yearly membership fees. There are usually various levels of membership, so explore them all, keeping in mind what days and hours you are most likely to play—and decide if you want to play one course exclusively.
3. Join a league. Most clubs have Ladies’ and Men’s leagues — and sometimes Seniors’– that get together once a week for nine or 18 holes at a reduced rate.
4. Join a state or county golf association. Every year I buy the affordable West Virginia/Virginia VIP card, which entitles me to one or two discounted rounds at various courses throughout the two states. It also gives me access to the Ghin system online, where I can enter scores to establish a handicap.
5. Book tee time on online discount sites. There are tons of them — www.golfnow.com, www.teeoff.com, www.golflinks.com, even Groupon. Check to see which ones offer discounted online bookings where you want to play.
6. Play later. Everyone wants to have an early morning tee time, especially on weekends. It’s the busiest time at any club, and play is usually slower—and more expensive. In the afternoon, greens fees usually drop and your round will go faster. In the summer you may tee off while it’s still hot, but it will cool down as the round progresses, giving you more energy for a stellar finish.
7. Take advantage of weekly specials. Most golf clubs have senior and ladies days, when greens fees are almost half off. One even includes a sandwich and drink! I never pay full price. Watch for special discounts at those expensive courses you’d like to play occasionally, but the budget screams “No!”
8. Play nine holes instead of 18. Most of us get into an 18-hole groove. If there’s not time for the whole enchilada, we don’t play. But stopping by the golf course for nine holes after work or when you have a couple of hours to spare can be just as satisfying—and good for your game. (If your energy and attention span don’t last nine holes, golf may not be the sport for you.)
9. Buy inexpensive golf balls. Don’t believe the golf magazines when they tell you a $2 golf ball will make you play better. If you’re a pro, yeah, but unless you’re a scratch golfer, not so much. Wal-Mart sells the Precepts I like at a big discount because they are overruns of logo balls from the manufacturer. You can also buy lightly used balls online or in most golf shops.
10. Take your own snacks, water, soda with you. I rely on Ziplock bags of popcorn and bottled water (refilled from on-course coolers) to get me through a round. Snacks and drinks from the beverage cart or clubhouse are generally expensive. However, most clubs do not allow you to provide your own beer; it’s a legal issue, so spare yourself the embarrassment.
11. Walk, don’t ride. What??? Walk?? Hey, golf began as a walking game, the pros walk during tourneys, and you can say you’re training for a trip across the Pond, where most courses are walking only. Besides, it’s good exercise and can actually improve your game because you have more time to plan your next shot. Most courses have walking rates after prime time. Tip: play walkable courses where it’s not a mile uphill from greens to the next tees, as many mountain courses are. Using a pull cart is easier than carrying your bag, too. You’ll be surprised to discover it doesn’t take much longer for a walking round because each player goes directly to his own ball.
12. Forget the expensive gadgets. Save your money for lessons with a club pro, which will save on lost golf balls, time and frustration. Every course has distance markers on sprinkler heads, which is all you need to know.
13. Starting out? Buy used clubs. You can find them at yard sales, shopper newsletters, at golf courses or on Craigslist, eBay and other online sites. As your game improves you can upgrade to newer models and get a little cash for your old clubs. Most of the major brands, like Callaway and TaylorMade, sell used clubs online. I’ve bought “used” clubs that came wrapped in the original cellophane. Tip: One size does NOT fit all. Especially if you’re very tall or short, spring for a fitting session with the club pro and pay him to size your clubs to fit you. Some discount golf stores offer this service, too—though Dick’s Sporting Goods has apparently discontinued this.