On the ball: an Asheville golf manifesto

BY BILL BRANYON

It’s hard to feel sympathy for wealthy white golfers, but the game ain’t what it used to be. Golf Digest, one of the sport’s premier magazines, has run several articles about the joys of playing while high on marijuana. Zimbabwe, Vietnam and even Bangladesh now boast pro tournaments. And according to a recent USA Today article, China has an estimated 600 to 700 courses, meaning there could be tens of thousands of communist golfers.

Reflecting these changing times, the Asheville Municipal Golf Course lets anyone play, has no dress code, and its $23 in-season greens fee amounts to little more than the cost of a movie and refreshments. Meanwhile, nine holes at Asheville’s other public course, the Crowne Plaza, can cost as little as $12. Not surprisingly, these courses often attract exuberant cross-cultural blends of races, sexes and income groups. Recently, the Muni even allowed dogs to accompany players during a Brother Wolf fundraiser.

But the other Asheville course that tolerates the hoi polloi is the Omni Grove Park Inn, whose in-season cost averages $111. And the two remaining city courses are the proudly private Country Club of Asheville and the Biltmore Forest Country Club (technically not in Asheville but virtually surrounded by it). That means three of the 4-1/2 Asheville courses are off limits to the economically challenged, unless you’ve been recommended by someone who’s attained the hifalutin status of Member.

The club dues blues

Raleigh multimillionaire John McConnell recently bought the Country Club of Asheville, making it his ninth private club in the Carolinas. At a time when many private courses are opening to the public, McConnell told Golf Digest, “I’m convinced that the more access you give people, the less interested they are in buying memberships.” Yet Country Club of Asheville spokesperson Deborah Ponder says, “We do not discriminate on any level.”

To join the Country Club of Asheville you must complete a detailed application, get references from one member and two nonmembers, and pay $436 a month. If you play once a week, that figures out to $109 per round, or about $1.25 per shot for the average bogey golfer. The club has maintained that price despite a significant net loss of members in recent years, according to an Asheville Citizen-Times article.

In an email, Trish Shand, director of membership at the Biltmore Forest Country Club, wrote, “I am not permitted to disclose the initiation fees or dues, but you can obtain that information from a member.” I couldn’t find a member who was willing to talk. But a former member who insisted on anonymity said the initiation and membership fees are “fiercely expensive,” there’s at least one black member, and the golf course is “extremely underutilized.”

A communist Asheville?

It’s different in China. “The Communist Party banned golf and ripped up courses in the 1950s, but players teed off again in the 1980s as China opened its economy to capitalist ways,” says USA Today. Still, the leadership views the game as “an elitist pursuit enjoyed by a very, very small percentage of the population, so it faces renewed pressure under President Xi’s vigorous anti-corruption campaign. No government officials should be able to afford to play the game with their salaries.”

This year, China has closed almost 70 courses and frozen development, the article notes. A widely ignored 2004 ban on new courses was “aimed at protecting arable land, saving water and reducing pollution from fertilizer and pesticides. Developers got around restrictions on golf courses by calling them “landscape parks” or “sports parks.”

Meanwhile, according to its website, the Moscow Country Club lets nonmembers play Monday through Friday.

Stoned hole picnic

Back in capitalist America, however, Asheville doesn’t have a whole lot of undeveloped space on which to build more courses. Maybe the two local country clubs could open theirs to the riffraff once a week, or the Grove Park Inn could run a Tuesday Plebeian Special. And the often empty local courses could open as general-use parks now and then to benefit nongolfers.

In our cannabis-crazy culture, if the Country Club of Asheville encouraged toking while golf stroking, its membership woes might be over. A Golf Digest article claims reefer helps you “relax and focus without becoming upset or frustrated and without impairing dexterity or motor skills.” Another one recommends the “Green Crack” pot strain to begin your round, “Lemon Haze” for the nine-hole turn, and any indica strain for the last three holes. Or perhaps the club’s troubles would grow as the pace of play stalled to a blissed-out crawl amid awed imbibing of natural splendor.

Or maybe I’m missing the real golf trends. After all, China’s first private country club opened recently, a Jack Nicklaus-designed beauty near Beijing called Pine Valley. “Currently, 47 percent of our members are world’s top 500 enterprises,” its website boasts.

Fine, but among our local courses, Asheville’s Muni still boasts the best views. And the Crowne Plaza may be the only course in the world on which you can slice a drive, land on a moving train and be lying 1 in Knoxville.

But hey, if any of you country clubbers need a ringer fourth, shoot me an email.

Bill Branyon’s newest book, Freethinking’s Outlawed Extremes, is available for purchase as an e-book. His email is billbranyon@yahoo.com

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