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Just a rich man's hobby

When last did you tally up the total expenditure involved in a day’s golf? I did on Saturday, and the outcome was even more heartbreaking than my horrendous display with clubs in hand.

It started with petrol. That certainly isn’t an expense to be ignored anymore. But it wasn’t until I stopped at the ATM on the way to draw money for my “outing” that I took stock of how indulgent I was being. I was playing at my home course, where subscriptions for adult members amounts to roughly R10 000 per year. Yet I still had to pay greenfees of nearly R100 (including competition fee) to play.

I had no golf balls, so I managed to get three goons for an apparent “special” of R100. I lost all three and borrowed from a mate for the final two holes. Then came my food at the halfway house. Even with a member’s discount, it certainly wasn’t cheap. Easily another R50 there.

Finally, a dismal performance with my 20-year-old clubs ultimately cost me the bets, and a couple of rounds of drinks later I’d parted ways with another buffalo which had Mandela’s face beside it. By the time I’d bought tickets to a raffle and entered the whisky draw, I was out more than R400.

This after a day’s golf at my home course – a venue where I pay almost R1 000 per month just to be a member. Averaging just three rounds a month, I’m essentially paying another R300 per round through membership fees. And I played rubbish anyway.

Perhaps some new clubs to sharpen the game? A brief look online shows that it’s not easy to get a decent set of irons for much less than R10 000, and a new driver doesn’t go for anything less than R4 000. While playing a round of golf with the owner of one of South Africa’s major golfing retail stores, I learned that profit margins on golf equipment have never been lower - often as feeble as 20 percent.

A depreciating rand has made life difficult for retailers, with equipment and clothing largely imported. But it then begs the question… who is making the money here?

In a time of global recession, it’s extraordinary that a “hobby” can still be so extortionately expensive. And the ripple effects are felt by everyone. So many clubs in Cape Town are now on their knees with debt, and almost every estate course is relying on rich owners to bail them out. People simply can’t afford to play the game anymore, so why are prices not coming down?

On average, you’d pay between R1 000 and R2 000 to join a club to play squash, tennis, cricket or rugby. And you’d be in for considerably less than that if bowls is your sport of choice. Importantly, your subscription expense is largely all inclusive, often including meals if you play league, an occasional braai and perhaps, ironically, a golf day.

Golf has sadly fallen behind on this front, and other than the occasional winter special, there are precious few signs that it is going to become more affordable in the near future. People will play less and less, and as a result play worse and worse. After all, there aren’t many sports where practice is more essential. And the worse you play, the less fun it will be.

Such negative sentiments come at a time when South African golf has never been stronger. The standard of golf on the Sunshine Tour is beginning to rival that of the more established global circuits, and South Africa has an astonishing number of players in the world’s top 50. No fewer than seven South Africans will be competing at next week’s Masters – an extraordinary feat.

But seeing the expensive cars in the parking lot at events on the Sunshine Tour, it becomes clear that very few of these fine players got to where they are today without considerable financial backing.

It thus leaves me to conclude that in such challenging economic times, golf is not a dying sport – but merely one which now caters exclusively to the rich.

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