Tee for Thee
Will Booking a Time Ever Be Easy Again?
When golf courses shut down in March of 2020 as COVID was first spreading, it was a long stretch waiting for them to reopen. When the announcement finally came out in April that golf could once again resume, I immediately hit up my golf crew about getting back on the course. We clearly weren’t the only ones with the idea, though, because by the time we settled on a time we could play, the closest available tee time was at the Golf Club at Rancho California, about 75 miles away. We didn’t think anything of making the drive from Long Beach to Murrieta at the time, as we were just happy to be playing golf somewhere. Little did we know that the grind to find a tee time was about to become the norm.
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
By now, you’re likely aware of the impact of the “COVID boom” on golf. To sum up, nearly seven million more people across the country have played golf in some form since 2019, and just two years after the pandemic started the number of rounds played in the U.S. increased by 20 percent. The big picture is that this is a huge win for a sport that, prior to the boom, many were ready to send the way of Blockbuster and fax machines.
And it’s not just the typical crowd that’s flocking to golf; a game that has traditionally been stereotyped as only being enjoyed by old, white men is more diverse than ever. Of players that have picked up the game since 2019, the largest segments of growth, both by volume and percentage, are kids, people of color and women.
But as always seems to be the case, this good news comes with a bit of a catch. In this instance, it’s that all this golfing is making it hard to golf.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Let me ask a rhetorical question: When was the last time it was easy for you to book a weekend tee time at a popular course?
To take this back to Economics 101, the demand for golf has risen sharply and the supply of golf courses and tee times has struggled to keep up. Unfortunately, in this case there’s not a straightforward answer like “just make more tee times.” While courses spread tee times out to at least every 10 minutes during COVID to promote social distancing, most courses have gone back to eight- or even six-minute intervals to add more tee times and keep up with demand. Shrink those gaps any further and it’s going to make your already five-hour round even longer, which nobody wants.
Another answer would be to build more golf courses, but that’s not as simple as it sounds either. The last time golf saw a spike in participation was the late 1990s through the mid-2000s (aka the Tiger boom) and as a result, new courses started sprouting like the growth would never end.
But the boom ended around 2006, and since that time, there’s been a significant market correction in course supply. In that 17-year span, the number of courses in the U.S. has dropped by 13 percent, a dip that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. The development spike peaked in 2000, when nearly 400 new courses were built across the country; last year saw just 10 new courses open. Meanwhile, more than 10 times more courses closed their doors in 2022.
While this trend made sense during a lull in interest in golf, the sudden influx of new golfers has brought the number of golfers per course back to levels we haven’t seen in two decades. This dilemma is even more pronounced in California, where despite having the second-most courses of any state (only Florida has more), the number of courses open to the public lags behind when compared to the number of public golfers. California averages more than 4,000 golfers per public course, which is the third-most in the country.
THE WAY FORWARD
It might be easy to take all this information as doom and gloom, but let’s remember the big picture: Golf is in a great place. The game needs to continue to grow and evolve to stay healthy, and this is just part of that growth process. Popularity will wax and wane, tee sheets will open up and slam shut, and the industry will innovate to meet demand, but the important thing is that courses stay open so that we can continue to enjoy this sport we all love. In the meantime, while we wait for this surge to mellow out, here are a handful of tips to keep you playing:
▪ RISE AND GRIND
Methods once reserved for Black Friday TV deals and Taylor Swift tickets have made their way into the golf world. By now, you probably know how far in advance tee times become available, so if there’s a coveted tee time you’ve just got to have, set your alarm, have the page bookmarked and have your credit card ready.
▪ GET FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR SCHEDULE
You know what tee time everybody wants? Saturday morning. You know what tee time less people want? Wednesday at 1 p.m. If you just have to get a round in, but work’s getting in the way, take a half day off. Or get out with the dawn patrol and work later. Or take a weekday off and work the weekend. Or squeeze in nine after work.
▪ BE ADVENTUROUS
If you live in one of the major population centers of SoCal (which, let’s be honest, includes most places), consider making a trip to where the competition for tee times is a little less steep. If your favorite course is booked, see if one of the other courses in your area still has times. If all of L.A., Orange County and San Diego are at capacity, head on out to the Inland Empire or Ventura.
▪ LOCALS ONLY
If you haven’t already, check and see if any of the courses in your city have a resident program. Some courses will offer special benefits to residents of the city, including discounted rates and, of particular importance to this topic, the opportunity to book tee times before the general public.
▪ WAIT AND SEE
Almost all courses now offer a policy that tee times can be cancelled up to 24 hours before the scheduled tee time. If you don’t find what you’re looking for when you first search a week or more out, keep checking throughout the week, especially the day before. You may just get lucky and find the time you’re looking for.
▪ JOIN A GOLF CLUB
There are hundreds of golf groups in SoCal that host tournaments at least once a month, meaning all you need to do is show up and play. By the way, you’ll also get to scratch that competitive itch, have the chance to win a little prize cash and make new friends along the way. Alternatively, you could start your own club. Booking individual tee times is limited to a specific window, but if you have a larger group and call up a course to plan a tournament, you have some more flexibility on when you can play.