Fat Guy's Recession Buddy Trip Money Savers

8/09-  It's a tough time to be thinking about upscale golf trips, or even budget golf trips, with many family budgets in peril from inflation, frozen annual increases, mutual fund crashes, lack of job security, or worse yet, being laid off, downsized, or whatever the current corporate buzzword is for expendable.

Here's some tried and true strategies Fat Guy has found for keeping your buddy golf trip budgets down during these tough times:

-Base your next golf trip out of your buddy's house. Seems like most high school and college buddies end up scattered to the four winds after graduation these days, and golf trips are a great excuse to keep in touch. Nothing cuts cost out of a golf trip like not having to pay for a hotel room every night. So maybe Raleigh NC wasn't the first place that leaped to mind when I was thinking golf buddy trip.  But after my high school friend who now lives in Raleigh told me he was only a little over a half hour from my favorite U.S. public Tobacco Road down towards Pinehurst, I was all in.  My previous budget golf weekend earlier this past summer was based out of my buddy's in-law's lake cottage, with 2 cheap-but-fun back country tracks within 15 minutes and a pontoon boat at our disposal.  Almost every major city and even most minor ones have two or four fun area courses that rate somewhere between "Must Play" and "Great Value", or even "not bad for a drunken scramble."  It's worth sleeping on an air mattress or a couch for a night or three and playing a course or two you've never heard of if you can shave 40% off the cost of your annual buddy get-together.

-Book your buddy trip for early/mid-week. Bite the bullet and talk your crew into taking off a Sun-Tues or Mon-Wed stint instead of the traditional Fri-Sun weekend.  Yeah, it's an extra day or two of vacation time, but let's face it, you can't afford a second family vacation this year anyway, so what else are you gonna do with those vacation days... honey-do lists?  Come on.  Booking early-week will save you upwards of 40%-plus on room rates at most resort desinations (the possible exception being staying downtown in a major city), plus you'll save 20-25% on green fees .  You'll still have plenty of time to get the grass mowed on Saturday before you leave early Sunday and arrive at your desination ready to hit the links.  You'll also likely find an easier time with pace of play, traffic, and restaurant table waits.  The caveat:  Partiers will suffer from the lack of nightlife, particularly in less touristy/smaller destinations, and particularly on Monday nights (when many bars and restaurants close down).

-Do a Fall trip rather than your traditional Spring fling. There's no doubt that Sring buddy trips are exceedingly satisfying for an early scratch of that winter-long golf itch (epsecially after they start showing the Tour on TV again in January).  But if you're heading to any warmer weather destinations typically known for spring golf (i.e. Myrtle, Pinehurst, FL, RTJ Trail, or even OCMD), you'll be paying high season greens fees and hotel rates.  If your buddies trip is as much about seeing old friends and some guy time away from the kids as it is about golf, Fall is generally a cheaper season that Spring (I typically see Fall greens fees discounted as much as 40%).  In many Southern destinations, locals have often told me that October brings the best combo of light jacket golfing weather and muted crowds.  To really shave some dough in warm weather destinations, consider braving the summer heat for severely discounted greens fees in places like Phoenix, Florida, or the Carolinas (the exceptions being beach towns that will be overrun with family vacationers), but stick to dew sweeper or twilight tee times.

-If you're flying, try to fly SouthWest or JetBlue. Some airlines, in their infinite wisdom, have made it prohibitively expensive to bring your clubs along.  Southwest and JetBlue don't charge for your first 2 bags, including golf clubs. Or, Continental's baggage fee is only $25 for a second bag under 62 inches.  Tip:  After you jam your golf travel bag full of shoes, jackets, and whatever else you can cram in there, throw it on the scale in the bathroom to make sure it's still under 50 pounds, so you'll avoid the inflated "oversized" luggage fees on most airlines.

If you get stuck in a situation where the baggage fees are so high that it may outstrip your trip budget, consider shipping your clubs ahead of time via one of the companies who now specialize in this type of thing, and you'll not only save a little cash ( I recently saved ~$120 on a 3-day golf trip ), but you'll also avoid having to lug your sticks through the airport and shuttle buses, and if you pack light you can also skip baggage claim.  I had a good experience with www.sportsexpress.com -- they sent all the pre-printed shipping labels I'd need, good customer service (from people who spoke English as a first language), active shipment tracking, and tracking emails sent direct to my Crackberry.  They even handled a last-minute shipping point change with ease after I forgot to take my clubs out of my trunk at home for pickup and realized after I arrived at the office that I still had them with me.  Or try any of these others: www.golfbagshipping.com , www.luggageconcierge.com , or .  It may also be worth a call directly to the major package shippers (UPS, Fed Ex, DHL) just for comparison pricing, since your bags will likely end up on their truck through one of the services above anyway.  Be sure to give yourself a few days lead time when booking to ensure you can take advantage of the lower 2-day or Ground rates.  And finally, have your clubs arrive a day or even two ahead to avoid any delivery timing issues the day of your arrival, and it'll also give you a half-or-full day's buffer in case your bag is delayed in transit.  Just make sure your hotel knows your clubs are coming and has a safe place to store them until their arrival.

-I don't recommend rolling the dice on fringe season weather to try to save a few bucks. I've been snowed out of Mid-Atlantic buddy trip rounds by taking a chance on the weekend right before the high spring season rates kick in. Nothing takes the wind out of a boy's weekend faster than sitting around a grill room that isn't serving alcohol yet for 2 or 3 hours to see if it's going to stop raining/snowing/frosting (well, other than maybe somebody's wife showing up). A frost delay is long enough for guys to start thinking about the honey-do projects they could be doing at home and then start to think about leaving early. Plus, chances are you're more than a couple hours from home, and if you booked your golf package in advance, you've already paid for a round you'll likely never get to play, even on a rain check. And there's nothing worse than taking a bunch of grief on the homefront for a golf weekend and then not maxing out the golf. In contrast, Golf Digest loves the idea as a cost-cutting measure ( www.golfdigest.com/golf-courses/golf-travel/buddies/2010-02/buddies_lets_make_a_deal AND www.golfdigest.com/golf-courses/2009-05/frugalgolfer ).

-Greens Fee Discounts: Sure it's a no-brainer, but I've had pretty good success checking many-a- course-website for discount coupons or monthly specials (you may have to sign up for their email distribution list for a month or so, deal with the spam, and cancel at a later date).  Also, in most beach or resort towns you can usually find discount golf coupons in the local weekly rag or area guides like , particularly during the off-season or shoulder-seasons.  Regional golf packagers are always an option, and are usually good for about a 5-10% discount, particularly if there's a breakfast buffet included with your lodging. Golf Magazine recently came out with a new website ( www.golf.com/teetimes ) featuring online discount greens fee certificates (some restrictions--like weekday tee times--may apply), and they come with a free one-year subscription to the magazine.  In the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region (OH to SC), Tee Time Golf Pass ( www.teetimegolfpass.com ) has become the juggernaut annual golf coupon booklet for the region, with the ultimate in cheap-skate endorsements; retirees swear by it.  From what I've heard, you usually break even on the $60 price tag after using only 2-3 coupons inside. Discount tee time websites like www.golfnow.com or www.lastminutegolfer.com may net you a cheap round if you're a single or a foursome playing one or two rounds during a family vacation (if you don't mind rolling the dice a little on where and when you'll play during your travels), but probably won't work for larger groups.

Or plan something touristy to fill out the morning, and play on an afternoon or twilight rate .  Buddy trips are more about time with friends (and boozing and wagering) than your score, so unless it's a trophy course, who really cares if you end up having a late dinner or don't finish the last couple holes before dark?  If saving $30-$50 per round on greens fees enables you to go ahead with a trip vs. having to postpone it to next year, what difference does a few holes make?  Plus you can stay out later the night before and sleep through at least part of your hangover. The only danger here is starting to drink too early while waiting around to play, which may result in a vague impression that you hit a few golf balls and generally had a good time. Which is not always a bad thing.

-If you happen to find some spare cash in the budget this year, now is actually a great time to splurge on that pricey, upscale golf trip you've been dreaming about. Popular destinations like Vegas have discounted room rates and downscaled menu choices in these tough economic times. Many upscale courses slashed greens fees by upwards of 15-20% for the '09 season to try to generate revenue in these tough times, and high-demand spots like Pebble Beach may even have some walk-up tee times available (which was completely unheard-of during the golf boom of the '90's).

-Skip this year's annual buddy trip and host a "Neighborhood" Golf Tournament: Fat Guy was recently invited to my buddy's Bob's McMansion for what he called a "neighborhood golf tournament".  As he outlined the particulars to me on the phone beforehand, and it almost sounded too fun to be true:  Golf holes had been designated throughout the yards and surrounding fields of their upscale neighborhood, each house hosts a tee box/hole, and each house/hole has a designated drink served by the hole host.  Not a new idea I'm sure, but this was my first time actually playing in one.

I know exactly what you're thinking right now:  broken windows and insurance claims.  But here's the key: AlmostGolf soft practice balls ( www.almostgolf.com ) by short-game guru Dave Pelz.  My buddy's group tested several balls and found the AlmostGolf balls to be the best combo of lightweight softness to avoid house damage and vaguely realistic distance (they fly about 1/3 the distance of a normal ball- I could hit a 7-iron about 75 yards max if I shut it down and hammered it with a draw- normally my 150 club).  They also produce realistic spin, so your normal shot shapes will be there (if slightly exagerated), although the wind does play a little havoc with their light weight in flight.

So don your amateur golf-course-architect-wanna-be hat, put some thought into ensuring tee shots are hit in the opposite direction of any houses, keeping every 2nd or 3rd tee box next to hole-host homes for ease of serving drinks, while ensuring some semblance of a hole-to-hole flow.  Be sure to keep hole lengths to manageable distances, designate all streets and driveways as water hazards, keep the rough down to a reasonable height to avoid losing too many balls, limit everyone to 3 clubs, post your pins, then paint a 3-foot circle around each pin... inside the circle means you've holed out. Create short par-4's with layups around doglegs (with corners created by vegitation, pools, gardens, swing sets, or maybe a shed, but not houses).

Granted, you'll need a neighborhood with some room. Newer developments tend to work better because they have yet to be overgrown with trees and fencing. My buddy's 5-year-old hillside McMansion two cul-de-sac 'hood was perfect.  These guys took it pretty seriously before tee-off... a full 18 fairways and greens were cut into grown-out lawns by a fleet of neighborhood tractors mowing in formation according to the master routing which they'd first outlined on Google maps then walked out as a committee... they even had scorecards printed up and a big trophy.  But once the drinks started flowing and golf balls started flying around the neighborhood, the fun prevailed pretty quickly.  Afterwards, the house with the coolest bar/pool table basement hosted the 19th hole and awards ceremony.

Total cost for this deal?  Figure about $3 bucks a player for the balls, a few bucks in gas for your tractor, probably $50 at Home Depot to put 18 make-shift golf pins and flags together, $4 for a can of spray paint, and $50 for a decent trophy, plus the cost of whatever beer your crowd can drink and a few hotdogs at the turn.  Divide all that over a neighborhood of say, 20 players, and figure you could probably pull it off for well under $20 per man, food & booze included. Note that much of that $20/man are first-year up front costs for the trophy and pin set-ups... second year fees should be less than half of that, assuming your champion doesn't smash the trophy in a drunken stupor, and somebody can still find the pins in their garage next year.

This is a blast if you can pull it off, and would easily be worth inviting a few out-of-town buddies for a "golf weekend" if they're within reasonable travel distance.

Fat Guy Note :  Thanks to OOBGolf.com for featuring my neighborhood golf article on their site ( ).


Golf & Finance

On The Road Again

By Peter Finch, Golf Digest , 7/11

Golf-industry stats have made for some grim reading lately, but one positive note I often hear is that golfers still love their annual buddies trips -- and Is this true? An online survey of Golf Digest readers suggests the answer is yes. Sixty-five percent of the more than 2,600 respondents said they take an annual buddies trip. Of that group, 44 percent said they'd still go if their household income dropped by 25 percent. One in 10 said they would go even if their income fell by half.

The big draw: camaraderie, cited by 59 percent of respondents as the thing they love most about their buddies trips. ("Playing a ton of golf" was most important to 33 percent, in case you're wondering.) Says Dave Czech, a Florida sales executive whose group recently visited Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail for the 12th consecutive year: "Guys are willing to do without other things so they can make this trip."

This is not surprising to Oleg Urminsky, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and an expert on spending. "There's been a lot of research on 'mental accounting,' which suggests that most people don't treat their spending as one big pot," he says. "Rather, it's a bunch of smaller buckets. That golf-trip money is in one of those buckets." When people focus on cutting costs, they mainly look to cut their variable spending, things that change daily or monthly. Says Urminsky: "The golf trip money is spoken for -- it's like it is already spent."

That's not to say these outings are immune to downturns. A little more than half of our survey respondents say the economy has affected their buddies outings. They're going on fewer trips (77 percent), finding cheaper lodging (52 percent), staying fewer nights (42 percent), driving instead of flying (31 percent) and playing fewer rounds (30 percent).

This year Dick Pregno, a retired Lucent Systems district manager, cut his group's annual Jekyll Island, Ga., trip back to four nights, from its usual five. This didn't save them a fortune -- it amounted to about $150 apiece, or about 20 percent of last year's total for golf, lodging and food -- but it had an important psychological effect on the guys who were worried about the expense.

Gennar Gillead, an Atlanta computer consultant, is part of a crew that has traveled to Las Vegas, Charlotte, Biloxi, Miss., Orlando and Jacksonville over the past decade. This year they picked Myrtle Beach, partly because they liked its prices and partly because everyone is within driving distance, so nobody had to fly. The trip cost $326 a man for three nights at a hotel and three rounds of golf -- about $100 less than the "awesome deal" they got two years ago for four nights and three rounds in Biloxi.

Many buddies trips have gotten smaller in recent years, with a core group of eight to 12 golfers making the trip instead of twice that many or more before. They're also waiting later to book their trips. "I think this might be an effect of all the uncertainty," says Kevin Drum, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Golf Association. "It used to be you'd book a year in advance. Now it's sometimes as little as 30 days, which is extremely short for a group of four to eight guys."

Whenever they book, groups are finding better deals by playing one destination off the others. "The resorts have gotten a lot more competitive," says Chris Marquard, a Michigan golf retailer who leads a trip to the northern part of his state each spring. "Even in season, you can go to pretty much any major resort in Michigan and get a stay-and-play package for $100 a night. It used to be $100 just to play golf." Many resorts are throwing in "unlimited" golf each day. "On our first day at Treetops this year, we'll play the Rick Smith course once and the par-3 course four times," Marquard says.

Those sorts of experiences are what buddies trips are all about -- and, in Urminsky's opinion, suggest an intelligent way of thinking about spending. "People need to have savings goals, but they shouldn't be shortsighted about it, cutting things that they really get a lot of enjoyment from," he says. "Be farsighted: Ten years from now, will you regret canceling this trip and not having those memories? Then you should go on the trip and find some other spending to cut."