Free Golf Priceless

By Mercer BaggsJune 30, 2009, 4:00 pm
 Golf in America
 
It’s April 29. It’s a shade over 50 degrees, winds are blowing steadily at 10-15 mph, and the ground is muddied from previous days’ rain.
 
It’s the cusp of the golfing season in Michigan and this is about as good as it’s going to get for now.
 
Mark Mayes isn’t complaining. After nine years as a transport truck driver for Chrysler he was laid off three weeks ago. Not only is he playing golf; he’s doing so for free.
 
“Hey, free stuff – I like free stuff,” he says.
 
Mayes is at Wesburn Golf Course in South Rockwood, Mich., about 30 minutes south of Detroit. The course is offering complimentary golf on this day to all those in the state who are currently unemployed.
 
Over 500,000 people, literally, could have taken advantage of the offer. Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth, had an unemployment rate of 12.9% in April, the highest in the nation (in May, according to the department statistics, that number rose to 14.1 percent).
 
Wesburn employees were expecting about 75 people to show up. Instead, they got 184.
 
“I’m not even sure how some of them found out about it,” says course owner Richard Dalley. “We had people all the way from St. Clair Shores and Jackson. That surprised me.”
 
People were willing to drive more than an hour to play a 6,100-yard public course because, as more than one person told Dalley, “It’s free golf!”
 
Ron Parsons was there. Wesburn is his home course. But the 40-year-old estimates he has cut his rounds played per year from 120 to 40.
 
“You have to pick and choose when you want to play,” he says, “when the pocketbook permits.”
 
Parsons, a former steel mill worker in Detroit, hasn’t had a job in 18 months.
 
“It’s brutal. I have a degree but there’s just nothing out there,” he says.
 
Parsons, like so many others, plans on going back to school under Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s “No Worker Left Behind” program.
 
Under the plan, any person over the age of 18 who is currently unemployed, has received notice of termination or layoff from employment, or who is employed but has a family income of $40,000 or less per year, can receive up to two years worth of free tuition at any community college, university or other approved training provider in Michigan.
 
The idea is to give people a chance to gain new credentials and skills, to find careers in “high-demand occupations, emerging industries, or to start a business.”
 
Parsons is eyeing the medical field or possibly Information Technologies.
 
Mayes, 43, said he is going to take advantage of this educational opportunity. So, too, is 38-year-old Tom Klimek.
 
Klimek plays regularly with Parsons, and today he’s “kicking his a**.” At least according to Kilmek.
 
Klimek, a welder, says he was let go last October from his job when he had to undergo colon surgery for diverticulosis. He’s been through four more surgeries since then – the state helps pay his medical expenses – but has yet to find another job.
 
He used to play golf two or three times a week. But physical and financial impositions have served to considerably scale back that number.
 
“Trying to get my swing back,” Klimek says on this day. “This is the start of the golf season.”
 
Dalley says golf in Michigan starts to bloom along with the azaleas at Augusta, which was when this concept began to materalize.
 
“On the first day of the Masters we had a beautiful day out here and I heard so many people saying they were having a great time but they didn’t know when they would be able to come back,” Dalley recalls.
 
'We wanted to come up with a way to change that.'
 
Course manager Jerry Ward asked Dalley what he thought about a discounted day of golf, maybe even a free one. It was a risk, to be sure, as individuals aren’t the only ones hurting in this economy; businesses – golf courses – are as well.
 
“It’s scary,” says Dalley. “Since 9-11 we’ve seen a downward trend in income. How much can you give away? In the end, though, it was a good business decision.”
 
Dalley has been running the course since 1998, when his father-in-law, who purchased the layout 40 years earlier, passed away. As he stated, the venture worked out well for his course – it received some publicity from local TV stations and newspapers, and has seen an increase in attendance since that day.
 
In addition to the free round, Dalley and company decided to give all of those who showed up – and produced an unemployment check stub – a senior discount rate for the remainder of the year. That allows those 184 people the chance to play from the hours of 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. for $20 (compared to the normal fee of $32).
 
“That (time frame) is normally a dead time. Since this has happened we’ve picked up at least 20 extra people (a day),” says Steve Stover, who has worked in the pro shop at Wesburn for five years. “It’s been a win-win for everybody.”
 
Dally agrees.
 
“It’s helped the course and we think we’ve helped out some people, too,” he says. “In situations like these you just hope you’re doing something good.”
 
Those who got a chance to play this Wednesday in April had nothing but good things to say. They enjoyed the course, said the staff was friendly, and didn’t seem to mind the cold, the wind or the squishy ground.
 
“Oh, heck yeah it’s worth it,” responds Mayes when asked whether or not he is glad he came out on this day.
 
“You betcha,” replies Klimek, even more succinctly, when asked the same thing.
 
This was a day for Klimek, Mayes, and the 182 others on hand, to cast their troubles aside for a few hours. It was a chance to share and compare their personal experiences with one another. And, quite simply, it was a chance to play golf again – something once experienced regularly for a feasible sum, but now considered a luxury.
 
“You don’t know until you’ve been there,” says Parsons, “what 30 bucks can really mean.”
 
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