Paying $200 To Be Miserable

Thanks to reader Jeff for the latest John Paul Newport column in the weekend WSJ.

Course developers are well aware of golfers' masochistic tendencies, and they spend bounteously to concoct (and maintain) the many cruel features -- bunkers, ponds, linoleum-speed greens that hump and heave -- necessary to crush our spirits. For this reason the most difficult courses are often the most expensive. A rule of thumb for resort and daily-fee properties is that the operators must collect $10 in green fees to recoup every $1 million in outlays for land acquisition, design and construction. Thus a $20 million course charges $200 to play -- a beautiful thing for those who like their humiliation served in double doses.

The mania for building tough courses is also fueled by the need of developers to get their projects onto a top 100 or a best-new-courses list in the golf magazines. Securing a prominent spot can be a make-or-break proposition for hugely expensive projects, especially those whose business models depend on attracting play from traveling golfers. In the notoriously subjective pseudo-science of list making, difficulty is one of the few objective criteria available for consideration. Most courses carry both a Slope rating (a measure of difficulty for average golfers) and a course rating (which measures difficulty for experts), determined by disinterested panels dispatched by the state or local golf associations. Difficulty does often correlate with quality, design inventiveness and the resources brought to bear on a course. But it can also be a red herring.

For players, the lure of difficulty is largely about bragging rights. Like birdwatchers who maintain life lists of all the species they have viewed in the wild, many golfers keep life lists of the top courses they have played -- the tougher, the better. When returning from a trip, it's far more impressive to regale jealous friends with tales of being eaten alive by courses with macho names like the Teeth of the Dog (in the Dominican Republic) or the Blue Monster (in Miami) than it is to boast about playing at a pretty little mountain course, even if playing the pretty little course would have been a lot more fun.

Another goad to taking on the most punishing layouts in the world is the all-but-irresistible urge to play where the tour pros play. On a course seen annually on TV, even a round of overwhelming frustration can be redeemed by a few magic moments. Players hit an astounding 120,000 balls a year (an average of three per player) into the water surrounding the island green on the 17th hole at Florida's Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass. But when Joe Everyman safely drops one on the surface, even if it's his third try, it's a memory of a lifetime -- and entitles him to casually observe to his buddies while watching the next year's Players Championship that he hit his tee shot on 17 exactly where Freddie Couples did.

Pete Dye, designer of some of the world's most feared courses, including the aforementioned Teeth of the Dog and TPC Sawgrass, told me recently he doesn't understand why golfers are so keen to suffer, but added that he's happy to keep building the courses for them as long as he keeps getting paid. One thing I've noticed over the years is that the more skilled and experienced golfers become, the more apt they are to play courses, or from tees, that don't abuse their souls. They know which level of challenge truly tests their game, and which level obliterates it.