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Budget golf? Budget Golf!

The sport of swells doesn't have to be. A top golf specialist reveals how you, too, can tee off at acceptable costs, and yet at famous clubs and courses
Image: Genoa Lakes
There are about a dozen good courses in the immediate Reno vicinityRod Hana / AP
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

In Scotland, the birthplace of golf, the sport is still infused with the character of its humble origins, a game invented by working class shepherds, played first with sticks and rocks, later balls and clubs. Modern day residents and students in St. Andrews, the town synonymous with the game, can play the legendary courses of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club for an entire season for what Americans pay for a single round at Pebble Beach. But golf in this country has strayed from its egalitarian beginnings and for more than a hundred years has been perceived as a sport for the idle rich. If the golf media, with its "best of" and "must play" lists were to be believed, no round under $100 would be satisfactory, and a week-long golf vacation would be the sole province of Fortune 500 executives.

T'aint So

Nothing could be further from the truth. America is awash in first-rate, bargain-priced golf, and you can actually play and stay for a week for less than what one round on the nation's most expensive layouts would cost. Not only is cheap golf out there, but there is great cheap golf. So whether you want a week of warm-weather golf, a long weekend away from home, or a chance to hone your skills at a golf school, we'll be naming the very best deals.

First, a summary: there are several reasons golf can be cheap. One is competition in areas where so many courses are found that prices have to be low. Nowhere is this more the case than in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a budget golf mecca. Off-season weather also brings cheap golf, and summer heat wilts prices in Florida, Arizona, and desert regions. Next, "municipal courses," a loosely used term for government-subsidized facilities, can also be great bargains whether they are affiliated with a municipality or not. While many are individual courses not worth traveling to, others, like the excellent string of facilities throughout Alabama, are destinations in their own right.

More reasons: Golf courses are increasingly being built to encourage summer traffic at winter destinations such as ski resorts, and some, like those we've found in Canada, offer off-season deals in prime golf season. Throw in the strong exchange rate of the U.S. dollar vs. Canada's, and these are some of the best deals going. Finally, there are courses in areas subsidized by casino gambling, where greens fees, like meals and entertainment, are kept artificially low to lure bettors. In this case, Las Vegas is the exception, as a shortage of courses keeps prices high, but areas like Reno, Nevada, and the gulf coast of Alabama offer great golf bargains. Here are some of the best of the best:

Reno, Nevada

Reno features many of the same big-name hotel/casino operators found in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, plus access to numerous golf courses in the Reno/Sparks area, as well as those in nearby Lake Tahoe and Carson City. Throw in plentiful cheap dining and entertainment, as well as great weather, and these gambling-subsidized golf packages are great buys.

There are about a dozen good courses in the immediate Reno vicinity. Most hotel packages include the same courses, so price, hotel choice, and included features are the main distinctions. Circus Circus winter golf packages in 2003 included lodging (deluxe room), breakfast buffet, and golf starting at $46 per person per day (midweek) with golf at Sierra Sage, and climbing to $95 for the Lake Ridge course, with several price points in between (800/648-5010, ). Atlantis Casino Resort currently offers a "Play 18 by day, 21 by night" package for $89 per person, consisting of two nights' lodging, two breakfasts, and one round of golf at the better courses (800/723-6500). Harrah's Sweet Tee package includes two night's lodging, a round of golf at one of the better courses, and show tickets, for $115 per person midweek, $175 weekends (800/HARRAHS).

The Reno airport is an inexpensive destination served by both major airlines and low-cost carriers, notably Southwest. Details of golf packages from 14 casino hotels are available at

John Jacobs Golf Schools

If you think golf is normally expensive, you should see golf schools. At many brand-name academies, golfers are willing to pay seemingly any price to improve their game. Fortunately, at the John Jacobs chain, they don't have to.

The company has been in business for 30 years and presents its courses at 40 school sites nationwide. Rates vary by location, and not all are cheap, but it is clearly the best-priced major golf school in the country. Programs are nearly all-inclusive, with most meals provided, and often cost as little as $800 per person for a full week of lodgings, most meals, and considerable golf instruction on course play. From a teaching perspective, Jacobs' programs are no slouch, either: three instructors were last year named among the country's top 100 teachers by Golf Magazine.

Prices vary markedly among destinations, which include prohibitively expensive luxury resorts like the Marriott Marco Island in Florida (an exception to Jacobs' low average rates). Each destination is individually priced (with seasonal price variations), with two-, three-, four-, five-, or six-day schools (not all available at each location). The best published deals for 2004 are in Arizona. A seven-day stay at Phoenix's Legacy Golf Resort runs from $795 (Oct 1-De 17) to $995, including five days' instruction and greens fees, carts, five breakfasts and lunches, four dinners and cocktail parties, and seven nights' lodging at Holiday Inn Express. The very best deal is in the summer, for those who don't mind hot weather, when a six-day school is offered, including seven nights' lodging, six breakfasts and lunches, two cocktail parties, and seven dinners for just $795 (June 4-August 31).

Almost identical prices are available at the San Ignacio Golf Club in Green Valley near Tucson, using a Best Western Motel. Though we've focused on two Arizona locations, their rates are typical of what John Jacobs charges elsewhere, and you'll want to write or phone for the complete nationwide literature.

John Jacobs also has an in-house travel department offering complete packages with airfare, foreign programs, and, for larger groups or families, condos at many locations in lieu of hotel rooms. A 10 percent discount is available to seniors much of the year. (800/511-1639 or )

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

High or low season, it's hard to beat Myrtle Beach for value. There are so many golf courses (more than 100), and so many budget motels on the strip known as the Grand Strand that bargain packages can be found easily any time of year. Because Myrtle Beach is a package-deal town, however, make sure you read the fine print. Almost all participating hotels and motels offer two or more tiers of packages. The basic level might include golf at 20-40 courses, the least desirable in town. A higher-priced package might add another 10-20 better courses, while gold, platinum, or VIP packages might include play on the town's best. Almost all are good values, but some are better than others.

If you don't care which courses you play, picking a golf package in Myrtle Beach is a no-brainer: it's hard to go wrong. If you want to play particular courses, compare just packages that include these. If you have one or two "must-play" courses in mind, remember that cheaper packages almost always allow you to upgrade for a daily surcharge, which is still cheaper than a top-of-the-line-package. But remember, as in anything else, the most heavily touted or most expensive courses are not always the best. True Blue is one of the most desirable tee times in the area, yet I've found it deeply disappointing. Middle-of-the-road local favorites like Man O'War, Aberdeen, and The Wizard are far more enjoyable, and cheaper.

Myrtle Beach Golf Holidays is a non-profit trade association that represents 98 properties and most local courses in an objective manner. It is the type of organization every region should have to encourage tourism. They publish a detailed annual guide describing the courses, lodging, and packages, as well as entertainment and transportation options. The publication is free, at 800/845-4653, or from www.golfholiday.com.

Examples of what Myrtle Beach Golf Holidays offers? Consider, first, the 48th Avenue Hampton Inn, a very nice, well-run property with an elaborate free continental breakfast included, in the heart of the strip. The value package, with daily greens fees on a limited group of courses and lodging, runs from $28 per person, per night, double occupancy in low season (November 29-January 26) to a high of $75 (March 17-April 30). The top-of-the-line premier package waives surcharges, includes cart and greens fees at the vast majority (nearly 90) of the region's courses, and ranges in cost from $78-$125. Like most Myrtle Beach packages, there are nearly a dozen different seasons, but in general, spring is the highest season, followed by early March, summer, then fall, and prices really drop in late fall and winter. With the occasional exception of a hurricane, you can usually play year-round.

Another option, the Broadway at the Beach Hampton Inn, is middle-of-the-road, and there are other legitimate off-season Myrtle Beach packages beginning at an unbelievable $16.50 a night including golf (Atlantic Paradise Inn). The typical range for a decent package is between $40 in low season and $80 in high season. It is virtually impossible to spend more than about $120 a day on lodging, breakfast, and golf, and it is easy to spend well under $80 even in high season. Thus, at the Bahama Sands Motel, six-day/six-night golf, room, and breakfast packages run $156-$456, or $26-$76 a night, high to low season. Bear in mind that Myrtle Beach has a lot of cheap restaurants, including those in the category favored by locals, known generically as "calabash," referring to all-you-can-eat southern cooking and fried seafood establishments.

You'll need a rental car in Myrtle Beach, but as in much of the South, prices are low, and some packages include them. Myrtle Beach Golf Holidays teams with Avis for additional discounts; inquire when making reservations. Myrtle Beach is also accessible by air on several carriers, but low-cost Spirit Airlines (800/772-7117) runs great deals, as low as $64.50 each way from New York's LaGuardia. Other carriers into Myrtle Beach include Delta (800/221-1212), US Airways (800/428-4322), and Vanguard (800-826-4827). The vacation arms of these carriers also offer golf packages.

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail - Municipal Golf at its Best:

Ten years ago, the state of Alabama looked at various options to increase both tourism and the state's status as a retirement destination. Studies concluded the solution was golf, golf, and more golf, all of it bargain priced. In perhaps the most ambitious golf infrastructure project of all time, Alabama commissioned acclaimed golf course designer Robert Trent Jones, Sr., who planned seven different facilities with a total of 324 holes, spread throughout the state. That is equal to eighteen 18-hole courses.

The facilities were designed to be convenient for motorists, so that no complex is far from an interstate highway or more than two hours from another facility. The name "golf trail" is taken seriously, and golfers can combine two, three, or more trail stops in a bargain-priced driving tour. Courses extend from the Gulf Coast to Tennessee, west to Mississippi and east to Georgia. An eighth stop was added last year with three more 18-hole courses. Except for the new site, each stop has either three full-size nine-hole layouts and a nine-hole par-three course (36 holes), or else two full-size eighteens and an eighteen-hole short course (54 holes). Unlike pitch and putt, these consist of true par-three holes like one would encounter on any course, with island greens and holes stretching over 200 yards.

Pricing is confusing, as there are separate greens fees for different complexes, varying by month or season, creating dozens of different prices. However, they are almost all bargains. The maximum rate, at the priciest facility in high season (March, April, May) is $49. The lowest high-season rate is $39. June through September, the rates range from $29-$39. Prices rise again slightly in October ($39-$44), drop to summer levels in November, and hit rock bottom in December ($29-$34). January and February prices are the same as summer costs. Additional rounds on the same day are half price most of the year, but summer (June-August) rates include unlimited play. All the par-three courses cost just $15 for 18 holes, a great option for families with young golfers.

Lodging along the trail is inexpensive, and the courses are surrounded by the likes of La Quinta, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, and many independent properties, whose rural locations and low rates reflect the same seasonality as the golf courses. Most include breakfast, and inexpensive dining abounds.

But like so many other vacations, packages are the way to go here. Two companies, SunBelt Golf (800/949-4444, ), which administers the trail, and Fairways Golf (800/647-2447, ), offer a multitude of packages that are hard to beat. In winter, Fairways offers three-night, three-round packages starting at $177 per person, double occupancy, or less than $60 a day. This is for Magnolia Grove, the 54-hole complex near Mobile, with lodging at the Mobile I-65 Holiday Inn. A similar package playing a round each at Grand National, Birmingham, and Silver Lakes, all within driving distance of each other, with a night each at the Birmingham AmeriSuites, Holiday Inn Express Gadsden, and Auburn's Guest House Inn, is $211. Rates drop slightly in summer and include unlimited green fees daily. The latter package rises to $290 for this time of year.

The quality of the courses is consistently high throughout the state, as is the maintenance and conditioning. Buy.com, formerly known as the Nike Tour, has chosen the trail to host its season-ending Tour Championship the last several years. The greens all have similar speeds and breaks, an amazing accomplishment considering that some courses are hundreds of miles from others, in different terrain. The more expensive complexes are the 54-hole ones: Hampton Cove (Huntsville), Oxmoor Valley (Birmingham), Grand National (Auburn), Capitol Hill (Prattville), and Magnolia Grove (Mobile). The less costly are the 36-hole stops: Silver Lakes (Gadsden), Cambrian Ridge (Greenville), and Highland Oaks (Dothan). All tee times can be made through SunBelt at 800/949-4444, which will also send you a guide to the trail.

The Big Fore Package, Mt. Tremblant/Gray Rocks, Quebec:

Mt. Tremblant, 90 minutes from Montreal, is the premier ski resort in eastern North America, and understandably so. At its base sits Tremblant Village, a carefully planned pedestrian-only hamlet comprised of interconnected plazas and cobblestone streets, lined with cafes, bakeries, shops, and restaurants. In the heart of French Canada, the feel is more French than some parts of France. The village is also home to a luxury hotel (the Chateau Mt. Tremblant, a member of the upscale Canadian Pacific chain), several other hotels, and several condominium complexes. A few miles away sits Gray Rocks, an older, traditional, family mountain resort on a lake. Each of these resorts has two golf courses, and cooperates to promote a package combining all four layouts with numerous lodging choices.

Rates vary annually with exchange rates, which have been very good for Americans lately. This is strictly a late spring, summer, and early fall golf destination, and last year, the lowest-priced packages began at US $275 per person for four nights' lodging and four rounds of golf, including carts, or less than $70 a day. This special is subject to numerous restrictions: it is based on quadruple occupancy, which is not unusual considering that golf is a game of foursomes, and it is based on value season. Still, rates don't climb much the rest of the year. This price is at Gray Rocks, a very fine hotel, but prices are higher in Tremblant Village, which is more of a social hub. There, rates range from $335 at an independent suite hotel to $349 for the Marriott to a high of $420 at the chic Chateau. Each hotel offers a slightly different mix of amenities, but all prices are for double occupancy, and some properties have slight seasonal differences. Still, most packages are under $100 a day, including golf.

The two courses at Tremblant are both new, fully featured resort courses, with included amenities like yardage books, and excellent maintenance throughout. The resort hosted the Skins Game in 1999. At Gray Rocks, La Bete (The Beast) is a new course designed to look like an old one and has a truly exceptional layout that could command greens fees of $175 in many parts of the country. The old course, La Belle (The Beauty), is not so good, but most of the packages allow you to choose any four rounds you want, so playing each Tremblant course and La Bete twice gives you great golf for the money. All the Tremblant Packages can be booked at 800/461-8711, and Gray Rocks at 800/567-6767.