A WSJ article this morning documents the suffering of some golf enthusiasts and investors over the past few years. Having been a semi-serious golfer in my early retirement years, taking some lessons, practicing regularly, playing a couple of times a week at least, and carefully entering my scores in the computer at The Windermere Club at Longcreek Plantation, promising myself a new set of clubs when my handicap dropped into the teens, as I was certain it eventually would, I feel qualified to comment with some authority on this issue.
Here is the bottom line on the game of golf: Unless a person is a natural athlete or plans on bending the rules, he or she should not plan on handicap improving with age or even with experience. The fascinating and habit forming thing about golf is that of the 90 to 100 shots the average amateur makes during an 18 hole round of golf, a dozen or so will have outcomes as good as Tiger Woods would have obtained. There will be that long tee shot up the middle, that approach shot that stops six feet from the pin, and that 20 foot putt that rolls right up to the hole, hesitates briefly, and then drops in. And those few good shots, representing no more than random statistical variation, are enough to convince the poor golfer that the potential for excellence is there. But the gap between 10% of shots having excellent outcomes and 95% having excellent outcomes is like the gap between a Waffle House cook and the finest chefs of the world.
And, of course the thing that enables duffers like me to indulge those fantasies of success is the handicap system that allows us to play with golfers of all levels. We don’t see klutzes on the tennis courts because there is no way to design a handicap system that would work in a one-on-one face off that requires all participants to be able to successfully return serves. But on golf courses, klutzes abound.
The WSJ article focused, not on handicaps and skill levels, but on the financial bottom line, the money side of golf, the widespread failure of private residential golf courses, the money lost by investors in them, and the abundant opportunities created by those problems to get in now and make up for lost time, or to lose more. A big part of the problem stems from the fact that purchase of golf course lots on private and exclusive courses designed by big names commanded top dollar during the dot com and real estate booms, even as golfing popularity was fading, and usually included an ongoing commitment to payment of membership dues. Maybe that kind of slavery is the reason so many had the word “Plantation” included in their names. Now sellers are often willing to accept pennies on the dollar just to escape the ongoing membership fees. Some examples cited are in South Carolina, Belfair Plantation, Colleton River Plantation, and Berkeley Hall near Bluffton and The Cliffs near Spartanburg. Near Bluffton, according to the article, lots that originally sold for $150,000 are now available for $1, and such a sale earns the selling agent a $5,000 bonus. At The Cliffs, where the minimum lot price was $200,000, there was a recent resale at $10,000.
Of course most of the folks who made those risky investments with visions of soaring values and plummeting or at least steady handicaps are wealthy and are able to stand the losses without risking their primary homes or their access to health care or having to apply for Food Stamps. And, not all the developments are failing, and many investors, even in the ones that are failing, are quite happy with beautiful homes and golf courses and a bunch of friends they enjoy playing golf with whether their handicaps improve or not. So we don’t need to shed any tears.
But these stories might make us think twice about how we want to spend that precious discretionary time we have in retirement and how we want to invest and spend the money we have saved. In my case, the handicap got stuck at 20, six or seven years ago, and I never got the new set of clubs which, I am certain, would have resulted in shaving of a few more strokes. Oh well, now I can just imagine, and that will require a very active imagination because I am down to playing maybe two or three times a year and always breaking 100, on the high side that is. Just for the record, my best Windermere score ever, and I still have the scorecard, was 83. In spite of my training in statistics and variation I saw no reason at the time, basking in the glow of that win, that I couldn’t repeat it on a regular basis.
I hasten to say that some of the luckiest retirees in the world are those who have groups of good friends with whom they gather regularly for rounds of golf and just chatting and keeping up with each other. Also lucky are retired couples who enjoy golf together. Golf can be a great social activity, and that, rather than low handicaps, competition, or financial gain, is the secret to golf success for most of us.Tweet Follow @dkw2020