Are players finally pushing back on rising green fees? This California golf mecca might be an indicator

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The pandemic-spurred surge in golf over the last three years is bound to end at some point, but Ben Rodny believes it won’t end this coming golf season in the Coachella Valley.

“We’ve built our budget for this year and we are planning our business plan for next year on the expectations that things are going to continue to grow,” said Rodny, the director of sales and marketing at the Indian Wells Golf Resort.

From rounds played across the country to the number of golfers to the group sales business that resorts like the Indian Wells Golf Resort is seeing, golf has been a major beneficiary of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down numerous activities including other sports.

The pandemic sparked a turnaround in golf, which had seen rounds played and the number of golfers dwindle for more than a decade. But the pandemic seemed to drive people outside to an activity that was allowed in most areas of the country. Twenty percent increases of rounds played were reported in 2020 and 2021, with smaller gains in 2022.

So far in 2023, the National Golf Foundation reports a 3.8 percent increase in rounds played through the end of September. But in the Palm Springs area, year-to-date rounds for 2023 are down 2.9 percent, a result of lost rounds because of weather such as August’s Tropical Storm Hilary, which shut down some courses for weeks with flood damage. In September, though, the NGF reported a 6.4 percent increase in Palm Springs area golf over the same month in 2022.

For many in the golf industry in the Coachella Valley, there are some signs that the surge, while not reversing, might be at least slowing down.

“We are planning for it to level,” said Kurt Burmeister, general manager of La Quinta Country Club. “We are seeing growth, but it’s not as aggressive growth as we have seen the last three years. But the signs for the season are similar to what we have seen the last three years.”

Even at the 36-hole Indian Wells Golf Resort, where rounds played were well over 400 a day in the 2022-23 season, Rodny says he is starting to see a few signs of a throttling back of the game’s growth.

“What I am noticing, particularly on the group side of the business, golf tournaments, smaller outings, is that there is some pushback on rates that is starting to happen that we did not see last year,” Rodny said. “Last year we could have quoted a million dollars and they just said please send me the contract. Now there is a bit of pushback and we are hearing it from our clients who are trying to organize a high-level event, either with us or with one of the other top players in the Coachella Valley.”

A winding golf cart at Indian Wells Golf Resort (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Prices still going up?

Like many courses around the desert, the Indian Wells Golf Resort uses dynamic pricing during the season, which means green fees drop during periods of lower demand but rise during peak demand like Fridays and Saturdays in January and February. In the 2022-23 season the top fee was $299 per round, and Rodny sees that going higher in the coming months.

“Our base price is set between $249 and $259. So I actually do anticipate us breaking the $300 price this season in January and February. By how much I can’t tell you,” Rodny said.

Golfers congregate on the putting green before heading out for a round at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.
Some golfers say they are having to adjust their plans as prices continue to increase.

“I have friends who come down for a week or 10 days in February, and they are already changing their plans,” said Fred Barnett of Palm Desert. “They may come down for the same number of days but not play golf as much because the prices keep going up. And it’s not just the golf. It’s the hotels, too.”

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Barnett said his friends are willing to pay $150 or so for a round, but that price is getting more difficult to find in the peak season in the desert.

“Four rounds at $150 each is $600, and you can pay for a couple of nights in a hotel by skipping one round of golf,” Barnett said.

“I just can’t afford to play as much these days,” said Barbara Garcia of Indio. “It’s not just that golf is more expensive. Everything is more expensive: gas, food, everything. Something has to get cut back, and for me that is golf.”

“The higher profile courses are at $300 a round, the lower profile courses are at $175 a round,” Rodny said. “But the thing that is really keeping the golf resort in play is the fact that the hotels are incredibly full with group business.”

At La Quinta Country Club, where the amount of membership play is more important than guest fees for the course, Burmeister said the club’s response to increased play and waiting lists for membership has been to eliminate activities that aren’t specifically for members.

“We have become much more member-focused. We’ve done a lot of outside business through the years, (The American Express PGA Tour event) being an example of that,” Burmeister said. “And we are fully committed to that. But we’re doing less wedding business. We have committed to that plan as well. So certainly from an operation standpoint, we have become more member-focused, which in essence may increase dues over time, but it is more about member services right now.”

Burmeister also said increased revenue from the increase in play in the last three years has allowed La Quinta Country Club to make some long-term plans.

“We have already set our project for next year, which is a new irrigation system,” Burmeister said. “That has already been funded. We already know that.”

While the surge may have slowed in the desert, Rodny knows that the cycle for the game might end. But he also doesn’t know when that will be.

“The wave has to crash eventually,” Rodny said. “And then rise again.”

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