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On the upswing: Utah green fees have more than tripled over past 15 years

From 1943 until 1958, the price of golf in Salt Lake City didn't change. You could play nine holes of golf for 35 cents, the same amount it takes to make a pay phone call these days.

Then the city made golf really expensive, increasing the price to -- can you believe this? -- 50 cents for nine and 90 cents for 18!Ah, those were the days, weren't they?

Nowadays it seems like golf fees jump up on almost an annual basis, far outstripping the cost of living. Look at the past 15 years when golf fees have been raised a half dozen times and more than tripled overall. Meanwhile, it still costs about the same to fill up your gas tank to drive to the golf course.

As green fees constantly inch up, some folks worry that golf is becoming a rich man's sport and will keep youngsters from taking up the game because of the expense. Others point out that golf, in Utah, anyway, is still pretty darn cheap compared to the rest of the world and no worse than other recreational activities.

It may be a matter of perspective, but the fact remains -- golf green fees have increased tremendously during the past 25 years, jumping from $2 in the early 1970s to $6 in the early 1980s to around $20 today. Some upscale courses such as Thanksgiving Point and South Mountain charge upwards of $50, including a cart.

Bonneville pro Dick Kramer, who has seen it all during his 50-plus years at the Salt Lake City course blames several things for the steady increases.

"It's just like everything else, you've got to keep ahead," he says. "I think it's been pretty fair, but the costs of upkeep, machinery and labor keeps going up."

Despite the increases, most courses around the state get few complaints.

'I remember when they raised the price from 75 cents to a dollar (for nine holes) and everyone went crazy," said Mountain Dell pro Tom Sorensen, recalling a price increase at his course in the early 1960s. "Now out of state golfers are always amazed when they see the prices. They'll say, 'Do you folks realize how lucky you are to have the quality of golf for the price you have?"'

Wingpointe head pro Lynn Landgren remembers playing all summer on a $50 pass as a teenager in the early 1970s. But for every complaint he gets these days about the prices, he gets about 50 comments about the great value of his course.

After barely moving for about 30 years, golf fees started increasing about 20 years ago. When the golfing boom hit, demand caught up with supply and golfers often had trouble finding a tee time. Courses could afford to raise rates because of the high demand.

But now with several new courses built in recent years in Utah and with the golf craze leveling out, golf is reaching the saturation point in the state. Most golf courses, even in the Salt Lake valley, have open times on weekdays and as a result prices are starting to stabilize.

"I think they've maintained a pretty fair balance," said Joe Watts, the longtime director of the Utah Golf Association. "I'm not alarmed by anything."

But even though Watts feels good about golf courses in Utah right now, he has serious concerns about the future.

"I think we're at the zenith," he said. "We won't be able to hold on for the long term. As the population grows, land will be gone and there won't be any left to build new golf courses. The law of supply and demand will take over and down the road and only the rich people will be able to afford to play golf."

Some hackers would say that's already the case with $20 rounds the norm along the Wasatch Front. And that doesn't include $12 to $15 for a cart, which is often a requirement at some courses which aren't designed for walking. Tack on lunch, drinks, golf balls and a day on the course can easily exceed 50 bucks.

But go across the border to Nevada or Arizona and you'll spend over $100 before you even get your golf shoes tied.

Watts forsees a time when Utah courses might be charging similar rates because there won't be any land left to build golf courses.

"It might seem foolish to some, but the solution is to buy land now," he says. "I don't think we can keep pace with the population. The cards are stacked against us."

Watts understands there are no easy answers and that governments, already strapped for cash, aren't looking 20 years ahead to a time when more golf courses will be needed.

"They need to buy land, but they don't have the vision or the capital," he said. "They whole key (for golf) is having enough facilities."

Landgren, who doubles as Salt Lake City's Golf Operations Manager, sees green fees leveling out, although he doesn't rule out future increases.

"We're not going to raise green fees this year," he said. 'It's been Salt Lake City's mission statement 'to provide quality golf at affordable prices.' As long as we can keep services at the same level, we won't raise the fees."

According to Landgren, the city had a very aggressive 10-year bond that was due early in the next century, but recently the city extended the bond until 2008. That freed up money for capital improvements and kept green fees from being raised.

Landgren says the city doesn't want to necessarily price itself with the market -- in other words, it won't raise prices just because everyone else is.

Salt Lake County, whose prices have generally kept pace with Salt Lake City's, are actually higher in some instances. The Old Mill Course, which opened last year, costs $24, while Riverbend is $22 for 18 holes. With South Mountain joining the county stable of courses later this year, it will become the most expensive course but will be considerably lower than the $45 and $55 fees being charged now, according to director of golf Devin Dehlin.

According to Dehlin, the county prices will increase during the next several years, nine percent every two years until 2005.

"It's the way we have figured out our cash flow and we feel comfortable with it," he said. 'Golf (in the county) is self-subsidizing and we have our own separate fund. Each year we earmark different projects. Everything stays in our system."

Whether the other courses will match the county's increases in the coming years, remains to be seen. But you can bet that while they may slow down a bit, golf prices will continue to spiral upward in the next century.