NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Golf can be pretty unforgiving for players with handicaps in the double digits, but some of the sport's tournaments smile on hackers whose best wood in their bag is the one they use to write down their ugly scores.
There's no questioning golf is a top-heavy sport. Avid golfers make up only 7.5 million (or 28%) of the 27.1 million golfers in America, but play 77% of all rounds and pony up 71% of all the money spent on the sport. Golf's core audience, meaning those playing eight or more rounds a year, is 57% of all golfers but account for 94% of the rounds played and of the $26.3 billion spent on golf a year.
That still leaves 43% of all golfers in the country who play one to seven rounds a year, spend a combined $1.6 billion on the game and occasionally spend more time cutting the rough than the course groundskeeper. They play sporadically, they play ugly, but they also play more during economic downturns than their colleagues on the other side of the country club gates.
Rounds of golf played in the U.S. dropped 2.3% between 2009 and last year, with private clubs taking the biggest hit -- a 3.2% slump in business. That means the folks in the office who may be occasional club guests or really get around their local municipal course actually stand a chance of being in better practice than some of their club chums who are cutting back.
Fortunately for all the unfortunate golfers involved, being a little rusty or being considered only a "scratch" golfer because of all the sand scuffing on your clubs doesn't automatically disqualify you from tournaments or tournament-related travel. All it takes is money to head out with a buddy to a favorite resort and play a few rounds on a weekend, but competition even among other amateurs on some of the nation's great courses offers a more diverse experience than middling golfers usually get at their level.
With some help from Pete Wlodkowski, founder and chief executive of amateur golf website, database and tournament planner AmateurGolf.com, we came up with five ways for average to below-average amateurs to take their clubs on the road and play in tournaments like the pros. Some are great ways to get a group together, others are best for going it alone, but all provide a tournament atmosphere you just can't get chipping yourself out of embarrassment during the annual company golf outing:
11th Annual Two Man Links Championship
April 28-May 2
On any other day, a less-than-scratch golfer would have no business playing in a tournament at Bandon Dunes.
Tucked away just outside Bandon, Ore., the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort hosted the 2006 Curtis Cup women's amateur tournament, the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur Golf Championship and the U.S. Public Links Championship men's and women's tournaments earlier this month. It's still a bit too remote for the PGA, and its majors and the weather's still a bit finicky even if the big boys do come calling. But it's still a dream destination for a low-level amateur.
have ranked the course either just behind or ahead of Pebble Beach among U.S. resort courses. It's part of the reason Wlodkowski started the tournament, and a big reason why next year's tournament is already expecting more than 100 players.
"There are only a few resorts in the country -- Pinehurst, Pebble -- that are on golfers' bucket lists," Wlodkowski says. "Bandon's one of them, and it should be."
The tournament has two divisions for scratch golfers but also a net division that applies 80% of a golfer's handicap. The entry fee starts at $2,000 per player for rounds, meals and lodging and goes up to $3,000 depending on the accommodations. A two-man best ball event is fairly competitive, but playing with a partner takes a bit of the edge off for players who aren't used to going out and playing every day.
The partners and giant scoreboards that go up each day give the event a tournament atmosphere, but it also gets downright businesslike on the links. Friendships struck on the course may not lead to business deals, but Wlodkowski says they have led to invitations for amateurs to play at some of the finest clubs in the country, including the highly selective club of congressmen and military leaders at Burning Tree in Bethesda, Md.
"I like the fact that we have a good mix of some public-course guys, some private-course players and each year we get at least three or four teams that fly in on their own private jets," Wlodkowski says. "It gives you a feel for the kind of people that gravitate towards the same thing: pure golf."
Stocker Cup Invitational
The lockers in the Preserve Golf Club's clubhouse looks like a roster sheet of Fortune 500 chief executives. The club itself is revered not because of its illustrious membership ranks, but because it prizes its privacy and shields those members from the public eye.
If an average to near-terrible player manages to get one of the 56 "B" player invitations to this event, it should be treated as a precious commodity. The tournament, founded by friends of late San Francisco real estate developer Peter Stocker, pairs low-level amateurs with "A" golfers culled from the country's best amateur and mid-amateur players.
If a player is one of the lucky few, a $1,500 entry fee includes tournament round caddies at $35 per day, carts, unlimited practice balls and meals and beverages during tournament play. Contestants and their guests are also invited to a welcome reception before the tournament, a gala banquet before the final round and a post-tournament luncheon buffet where awards and prizes will be presented.
"It's a very, very prestigious invitation, even to get in there as a B player," Wlodkowski says.
Players who lack connections can always just request an invitation on the event's
. It's a chip shot, but one worth taking, especially considering the tournament's maximum handicap of 18.
The Bear Invitational
This tournament has most golfers at "Austin in October."
The opportunity to play the Jack Nicklaus-designed course at Cimmaron Hills Golf & Country Club doesn't hurt. This 54-hole, four-ball tournament seeks out the scratch golfers but has a net division for those players for whom proximity to good burritos, barbecue and Shiner Bock trumps a decent score on the back nine. Those with heftier handicaps are grouped accordingly and everyone manages to stay out of each other's way.
The good news is the highly competitive $800-per-team entry fee covers a practice round and three tournament rounds, carts, unlimited practice balls, trophies and prizes, Thursday night dinner and breakfast and lunch each day of the tournament. Better news is that it also includes beer for all lunches and beer and wine for dinner.
The bad news is that it's a tough ticket, even for the less talented.
"Who wouldn't want to spend four days in Austin, Texas, playing a Jack Nicklaus private course in a two-man best-ball format in October, when the weather is at its best?" Wlodkowski says. "The thing is, you need to be in the know to get into an event like this."
Various locations in Oregon
Aug. 29-Sept. 2
It's a massive tournament with as many as 675 golfers playing at nine courses around Bend and Sunriver, Ore., but it has a little something for everyone.
This 54-hole, net, stroke play tournament consists of four men's age divisions, an all-inclusive women's division and an 18-hole playoff at the Jack Nicklaus-designed course at the Pronghorn Club in Bend. The $585 entry fee doesn't cover lodging or meals, but it does get players with maximum handicaps of 36 for men and 40 for women out on various courses each day and into hosted parties. It requires a lot of legwork, but it's a decent excuse to tool around the Cascades.
"Weather is perfect, and there is tons of nongolf stuff to do," Wlodkowski says. "This event is for the more adventurous player who wants to see some of the area while playing as opposed to just playing one course or resort for the week."
The perks aren't bad, either. The event's gift bags are stuffed with TaylorMade-Adidas gift cards, sweaters, polo shirts, caps, balls and golf magazine subscriptions.
If a player is willing to break the bank for a chance to play with a PGA pro, pro-ams are the way to go.
Just about every event on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour has a pro-am tournament. Depending on the event, an individual can shell out $4,000 to $10,000 for a spot.
The problem is that even the most well-heeled golfers aren't necessarily guaranteed a spot. The Heritage at Hilton Head's Harbour Town in South Carolina, for example, isn't played until April and usually sells out by February. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Open's pro-am at TPC Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Ariz., was called off last year because of frost.
Before amateurs get visions of Augusta dancing through their heads, they should realize that the PGA Tour has some noteworthy exceptions when it comes to tournament pro-ams. The U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and Masters don't have pro-am events, nor do the Players and Tour Championships.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.