Paying to Play

Not a creature is stirring and not a golf course is watering. So why isn’t golf less expensive in Colorado’s offseason?

by Susan Fornoff

Rates haven’t dropped at any but the most high-end Colorado golf courses, even though we can’t post scores and fairways are fast hardening to dirt. Superintendents have turned off their irrigation systems until spring. And it’s darned cold out there.

Shouldn’t Colorado golfers get a break of some kind? Shouldn’t ghost-town golf courses be begging us to play? How about a winter rate?

Oh, no. Colorado’s golf leaders say we’re lucky not to have to pay MORE in winter.

“A lot of times in the winter golfers say, ‘I should pay a reduced green fee because I’m not getting in-season conditions,’ ” says CGA Executive Director Ed Mate. “My answer is: ‘No, you should pay twice the green fee because you’re doing 10 times the damage when you’re out there.’ ”

“It should get more expensive,” agrees Doug Jones, superintendent of Grand Junction’s golf courses. “There’s so much more wear and tear on the turf, it has no chance to recover. Lots of times the greens are frozen, so by the end of winter the greens are just covered in ball marks. Tees get beat up, and cart traffic is harder on everything. So, it seems like it should cost more.”

Throughout the Western Slope, Front Range and Pueblo, most courses open every day (except maybe Thanksgiving and Christmas) as long as there’s not snow on the ground. None of them hike their green fees in winter, yet, but few drop them. Here’s why:

Municipal golf courses in Colorado tend to share a mission of providing communities affordably priced recreation year-round. This is not so true in vacation destinations such as Palm Springs and Scottsdale, where residents without a private club wait for the snowbirds to go home before paying summer rates to play public courses.

“Colorado green fees are already reasonably low,” says Colorado golf Hall of Famer Dennis Lyon, who managed the Aurora public courses for many years. “If 18-hole green fees were $20-$50 higher during the golf season, it might make sense to decrease winter fees. In my opinion, the winter price for green fees is probably about right but fees during the golf season could be higher. Not my recommendation, but likely an unpopular reality.”

That is the reality only at upscale places like Green Valley Ranch, the Ridge at Castle Pines and Fossil Trace, which reduce fees once shoulder season arrives. But in summer they’re charging rates at least twice as high as municipal courses.

Linking green fees to course conditions opens a can of worms, and not the kind that’s good for grass. Says Patty Jewett superintendent Jeff Wichman, president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, “What would dictate timing the rate changes? November 15? It’s cold in November, but it’s still green. Would we discount after aerification? When the leaves are falling and it’s hard to find your ball? We choose not to do that here because we feel we’re still affordable.”

Superintendents would be perfectly happy to close all Colorado courses for a few months. We golfers are used to seeing fully staffed maintenance crews out mowing fairways and rolling greens all summer. But the skeleton crews left in the offseason have their hands full.

“In winter, the course is like a patient in a hospital without an IV drip on,” says Mate. “It’s like watching the patient die slowly as the strong winds come up, because your IV, your irrigation system, has been winterized. It’s panic time. I guarantee you, if there was a ballot initiative among superintendents to close courses in November, December, January every year, oh, it would be 100 percent.”

“Oh, I agree,” says Wichman. “I would love that. With the wear and tear on the course, it would be so big for me. Now, I can almost set it up: If I don’t get any moisture or any snow in December, I can tell that I’m going to struggle the next spring with losing turf, carts all over the place, people walking on it. It just so helps me out if it has a little break.”

Golfers still want to play. But here’s where that law of supply and demand gets a little bit fuzzy. We want to play. The golf courses want to give us the opportunity to play. They just don’t want a whole lot of us to play, especially if we ride. So there’s no need to offer us deals. Englewood’s Broken Tee, for instance, has discontinued its anniversary pass, which allowed golfers anteing up $299 to play unlimited golf for three winters. Denver’s City Park has disincentivized players by sidelining carts until spring, and other courses are going to follow suit if the winter remains dry.

The bottom line: Colorado golfers can still find a tee time in the winter, and that’s not to be taken for granted.

Veteran journalist Susan Fornoff has written about golf for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, ColoradoBiz magazine and her own She became a CGA member when she moved from Oakland, CA, to Littleton in 2016, and ghost-writes as “Molly McMulligan,” the CGA’s on-course consultant on golf for fun.