Imagine renting an apartment, not for a month or a year at a time, but for some other somewhat ambiguous measurement. Two children. A hundred dates. Six hundred dinners. You'll probably eventually reach those milestones, but how long it'll take you to get there isn't obvious.
That's pretty much what you're doing when you pay a green fee to a golf course. You're paying in a unit that isn't a measurement of time: holes. Hundreds of years of golf can lead us to a reasonable guess of just how long it takes to play a round of golf, but that's not part of the financial transaction in playing golf. A few decades ago, a three-and-a-half-hour round seemed normal. Today? Tack on an hour to that. At many courses, especially munis whose tee sheets are stuffed because the value of golf has been pushed down, the norm on weekend is probably five-and-a-half hours. Round up to six, and golfers are essentially paying to spend a quarter of their day walking four miles with 14 clubs on their back or in tow to play a game they'll never get quite right.
If you're going to suck at something, it's gotta be with good company, amid beautiful scenery and not take an obscenely long time. More often than not, golfers can figure out the first two, but the third piece is out of their hands. They need to have faith that the course they're playing and the people they're sharing it with want to get everyone around at a pace that meets their expectations. That's not happening right now, and it's a disaster for golf. Self-policing doesn't work, especially when it takes just one bad group to ruin a course's flow for the entire day. Courses desperate for anyone willing to fork over money deal with problem players, willing to placate their speedier peers when they complain.
You know what will speed up play? Attaching a dollar value to time spent on the course.
Cable and satellite companies create the perception of value by bundling channels into packages. 300 channels for $100! That's 30 cents per channel, right? What a deal. Except you probably watch 10 of them, and many of the rest in the bundle are useless. No one listens to those 50 music channels they throw in unless you're having an awkward, lame party where you need to white noise lest people make small talk -- with or without alcohol as an ice breaker. I defy you to tell me the last time you watched Game Show Network, and I love game shows. Hell, I was on one.
That's what golf does. You're getting 18 holes for $30! Well, if the round takes six hours, then maybe that deal isn't worth it. Maybe a $50 round is worth it if I can knock off two hours and get to something else sooner.
Green fees should charge an hourly rental fee. It can be structured around the quality of the course, time of day you're playing and the expected average time to play the course at that time of day. If the course isn't that great but is jammed in the middle of the afternoon, the rental fee should be very low. If it's a high quality course where you can play at whatever pace you'd like, then the rental fee should be high. It's a pretty simple proposition, really.
There are some stumbling blocks to the approach. One group could still ruin everything by lollygagging their way around the links. That means a price -- and time -- ceiling have to be set. No player should pay more than 6 hours of rent. If it takes longer than 6 hours to play, and you haven't left yet, then you're the slow poke. You deserve to pay.
Groups, however, should be timed by the course using GPS in their carts or some other technology. A clock-in system is fine, too. Whatever. But if you're a slow group, you should get one warning to speed things up. If not, you're kicked off the course and charged for the time you've used so far plus some penalty.
Of course, that could be a problem for beginners who need a place to learn the game, but probably won't do so as quickly as we'd all like. (Hence why they play once and never return: the feeling they're holding everyone up and are hated for it.) But that can be handled just the same as with any slow pokes with dynamic pricing, a strategy that changes price automatically depending on a variety of conditions. Things are slow? Charge less per hour. Smooth sailing? Charge a premium. If we wanted to get crazy, it could even change in-round, giving some incentive to a snail's pace group to get moving.
If golf is measured in time, then it has a more tangible value that not only can be understood and appreciated, but also manipulated to guarantee a more enjoyable experience for everyone.