Pay less green

The many bay area courses are a bargain compared to tracks around the state and country, even if it doesn't feel like it when you reach for your wallet in the winter.

Published January 27, 2005

So you're paying about 100 percent more for a round of golf now than you did just a few months ago, huh?

And if you're a visitor to the Tampa Bay area, it has occurred to you that being here during the winter season has helped drive the price up.

For everyone, a little perspective is in order.

The truth is, you can't go anywhere else in Florida during the high demand time of Jan. 15 to Easter and get better value than in the Tampa Bay area.

From the Panhandle to Jacksonville to Orlando to South Florida to Naples ... try getting on a quality course for less than $100 right now. Or pick your favorite course here, compare it to one of similar style elsewhere, and see how expensive it could be.

"This is a great market for the golfer," said Clay Thomas, director of golf at Tampa's Westchase Golf Club, which gets a top price of $85. "You have your choice of somewhere near 100 golf courses in a five-county area. And a lot are as high a quality as you'll find anywhere in Florida. And you're certainly not paying the tourist rates that you get in Orlando. You're not paying the rates of real seasonal places like Naples and Fort Myers. I would think if we dropped Westchase in Orlando, we'd get $110 easy, probably more."

That is why Roseanne Stocker books so many golfers into the Tampa Bay market. She owns Tee Times USA, a golf reservations center that caters to all of Florida. Stocker offers packages that include hotels and golf for just about every taste.

"It's the combination of golf course selection, the things you can do off the links when your round is through," Stocker said. "It's a destination that offers something for every type of golfer. There are high-end golf courses, like Innisbrook or TPC or Bardmoor. Or for the more budget-minded, a place like Lansbrook is a terrific value and offers a great rate and a consistent product. Usually when we send people to the St. Pete-Clearwater-Tampa area, they return again."

The local perspective

It might seem unfair to dodge the summer thunder and lightning and sweats in the extreme heat, support the local courses during their down time, then pay so much now. For years that has been the complaint of local Tampa Bay golfers who believe they are gouged during the "season."

"The Tampa Bay area consumer has a misconception that the summer price is the regular price and we jack up the price in the winter," said Dave Stewart, head pro at Fox Hollow in New Port Richey. "Where, actually, we're lucky enough to have an offseason - summer - to play golf. If you lived in Boston in the offseason you don't play golf. You don't get a discount in the winter up there. You don't play because they're shut down."

The other way to look at it is the prime season here lasts only about 10 to 12 weeks, from the middle of January through Easter, which this year is March 27. That is when course operators typically see the winter visitors flee. And that is when rates go down.

Many courses have four to six rate plans that peak now and bottom out from June to September.

"I think people expect (the price to be high now)," said Brady Boyd, general manager of the TPC of Tampa Bay, which charges $152 during prime time, the most of any public-access course in the area. "Rates parallel course conditions and climate. This is when people come to Florida. This is when the demand is there to get those rates. I think people understand that each market has a season, a value season, and it's about supply and demand."

Greg McClimans has a unique perspective. The owner of Tarpon Woods in Palm Harbor, he started in the area as the pro at Clearwater Country Club in 1976.

"It's been the same old story for 30 years in the golf business," McClimans said. "You make it for those months in the winter time and then just hold on in the summer. You have to get something coming in during the summer, but you do 75 percent of your business in six months."

McClimans said he adjusts Tarpon Woods' rates based on business.

"I kind of watch the market and see what it's like," said McClimans, whose top rate is $42. "If we're not busy, I'll stay where I'm at. If I can go up a couple of dollars, to maybe $45, I might. The competition is the main thing we're talking about. I'd rather be real busy and getting those people coming in."

Course operators are sensitive to local residents who are year-long customers. That is why many have taken to offering annual pass programs or loyalty programs.

Fox Hollow offers a discount to golfers with a Florida drivers' license, for example. Westchase has an annual pass program. Crown Golf, which owns Lansbrook, Bardmoor and Northdale, has a free program called CrownClub that has nearly 20,000 members who receive discounts on golf, merchandise and food based on the amount they play. Paradise Golf is a popular membership program that, for a fee, offers discounts at a variety of courses.

The national perspective

Tampa Bay is not considered a golf "destination." Not like Scottsdale, Palm Springs, Myrtle Beach or Las Vegas. Not even like Orlando. That is a perception that Stocker from Tee Times USA (www.teetimesusa.com) tries to change every time somebody calls and wants to book a trip to Arizona.

"Of all the destinations that we deal with in the state, the Tampa Bay golf courses have been the most proactive," said Stocker, whose company, based in Flagler Beach, booked 35,000 rounds in Tampa Bay alone in 2004. "They've really stepped up to the plate to launch this. They've put substantial sums of money into ads. They've seen what this can mean to their bottom line. Golfers are going to go somewhere, why not Tampa?

"Scottsdale is probably the biggest competition. A golf group that has gone to Tampa year after year might one year want to go to Scottsdale. But when they price it out dollar for dollar, they'll see that most of the golf they are playing in Arizona is for more than $120. It's very rare that they hit the $100 mark in the Tampa area."

But touting Tampa Bay is a continuing process.

"It never ceases to amaze me how the Tampa Bay market, from Hudson down to the Skyway Bridge, has escaped the attention of the national golf travelers," said Matt McIntee, vice president of golf development for Crown Golf, which is based in Chicago but owns or operates some 20 courses across the country, including five in Florida.

"We do business in Scottsdale, we've operated and built courses. It's a beautiful place. But it's incredibly expensive. In Palm Springs in the high season, it's the same deal. There are very few golf destinations anymore where the peak seasons aren't relatively expensive. I would put that as a $100 price tag any day of the week.

"To be honest with you, it's pretty hard to find a $100 round of golf in the Tampa area, period. Off the top of my head, maybe TPC. Innisbrook. ... You've got most of the top designers, (Tom) Fazio, Ron Garl, Art Hills ... you've got all the other amenities. You've got beaches, luxury hotels, affordable hotels. One of the best airports. You could come into town and have a four- or five-day golf vacation and not spend that much money."

Because of its national brand, the TPC of Tampa Bay does get a lot of business from other parts of the country. The nationwide TPC network of some 30 courses is an easy selling point. So is the fact that a Champions Tour event, the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, is played there. And the course is open to outside play.

"We do attract a lot of out-of-town visitors, and they find our rates to be a terrific value," Boyd said. "They've played Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach. From their standpoint, that's our competition. On a local level we're quite a bit higher than the typical course down here. We do have local programs, we're part of the Paradise Golf program. We have an annual program here. But I think Tampa Bay is a relatively inexpensive golf market with quite a range of experiences."

We've got it pretty good

There are just three courses in the Tampa Bay area that charge more than $100 per round for their peak rates: TPC of Tampa Bay ($152), Lake Jovita ($123) and World Woods ($120). All of them offer lower rates in the afternoons. (It also costs more than $100 to play the Innisbrook courses, but Innisbrook is a resort that requires golfers to stay on the property.)

"We're in a very competitive market," Westchase's Thomas said.

"You hear all these stories about Bethpage (in New York), where people have to sit in their car at 3 in the morning to get a tee time," Stewart said. "Arizona, where every golf course is $150-plus. Fill in the blank. Here, you can play a decent golf course for $40 and a world-class for $80 or $100.

"It's ultra-competitive. There's almost too many courses here. That's not so good for the operators but great for the consumer."