March is here and Deep Freeze ’15 persists. Not in Florida, where the Tour is now. Not in California and Arizona and Hawaii, where it was. But all through the Northeast and the Midwest. The PGA Tour broadcasts, along with all the other TV shows depicting life in professional golf, have been a public service this winter to shut-ins far and wide. Turn up the volume and, what the hell, the thermostat, too. Let yourself be transported. The driveway can wait. Where would you go anyhow?
Golf on TV gets you in the mood. No, that is not a veiled reference to the many ED spots, with the spouting garden hoses and the let’s-celebrate-the-ace-I-made-today looks. In the mood to buy a car or a driver or an insurance policy. In the mood to play.
It’s interesting, when you look at the Tour schedule, at how many of the courses are open to the public. More than you might realize -- about 80% of them, actually. PGA National, site of the just-completed Honda Classic, is a resort course. So is Trump Blue Monster, site of this week’s WGC event. Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, Innisbrook, Hilton Head -- they’re all open to the public. As are most of the TPC courses and three of the venues for the majors this year: Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open, St. Andrews for the British Open and Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship.
But just as TV adds 10 pounds to a person’s person, putting golf courses on TV, as played by your Phil Mickelsons and your Ian Poulters and your Bubba Watsons, inflates green fees too. That is not a coincidence. When resort courses appear on TV, it is not some magnanimous act on the part of the resort operators. Just the opposite. It’s a chance for the operators -- Donald Trump this week, the not-for-profit PGA of America last, the for-profit Pebble Beach Company last month -- to collect monster green fees.
The Pebble Beach website shows a round of golf there to be $495. This year, your correspondent tried to book a tee time at PGA National a couple days after the Honda. The rate, given over the phone, was $394 -- and only if you stay as a guest at the resort. The listed price for a round at the Blue Monster is $395.
And none of these prices include golf balls. That matters because the chance of a 90-shooter playing Pebble or PGA National or the Blue Monster with a single ball is close to zero. There are too many water hazards, and the rough is too thick. Moreover, no 90-shooter is going to shoot 90 on these courses. If Phil Mickelson is using his putter from 20 feet off the green, as he did at Honda, what chance do the rest of us have? But the power of TV to persuade has never been more impressive, this winter especially. We see those Tour greens, we imagine ourselves on them, now more than ever. Supply (limited) and demand (high). Ergo, the $495 green fee, and surely going up. It exists because there are golfers in our midst willing to pay it.
It does not have to be this way, and this winter of our discontent need not weaken your resolve. Last week, I arrived in Florida from the frozen tundra. (Philadelphia, in my case.) That West Coast swing, witnessed on TV, had me in the mood. I boarded the bus to the rental cars at FLL with a suitcase in one hand and a golf bag on the other, and I was not alone.
This will not shock my bosses: Rory McIlroy wasn’t the only person playing stateside golf for the first time in 2015 last week. The world No. 1 managed only two competitive rounds at the Honda. During the week of the Honda, I managed three: the excellent town course in North Palm Beach (green fee: $105); the ocean-front Palm Beach par-3 course, another public track ($48); and the West Palm Beach city course ($21 after 2 p.m.).
The clubhouse at West Palm Beach was recently razed, so the pro shop for now is in a trailer. The course is hard by I-95, and it’s noisy. But in my opinion it is a better course by every other measure than the Blue Monster or the championship course at PGA National. Not for them, but for us. TV can make you forget: Our needs and their needs are not at all the same.
West Palm Beach is easy to walk, and you can carry your bag at any time. The rough is playable. The greens are classic, sensible push-up models with open entrances out of the Donald Ross/Old Scots tradition (designed by Dick Wilson and renovated by Mark McCumber). The holes have shape. They all make sense. The bunker sand is gritty. The bunkers are playable. The green speed is sensible. The fairways are firm. There’s not a single water hazard on it. (It was TV that caused water-hazard madness.) A 90-shooter can shoot 88 on it.
Arnold Palmer won the West Palm Beach Open, then a Tour stop, at the West Palm Beach golf course in 1959, by the way. Yes, you can play -- for 21 bucks -- where Arnold won, and it’s really good. How cool is that?
Thank you, golf-on-TV, for showing us fantasyland greener pastures during this Siberian winter. Thank you, City of West Palm Beach public golf course, for keeping it real.
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