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THE ELBERT FILES: Wine trails, bike trails and golf trails?


Bill Dickens of the Iowa Golf Association (IGA) has an idea that needs to be pursued.

Golf in Iowa is cheap and easy compared with the rest of the country. In fact, you can play 18 holes on weekdays in the Des Moines area for less than $1 a hole, and it’s not difficult at most local courses to get weekend tee times.

Compare that with resort areas, where greens fees run between $100 and $250 and prime tee times are often reserved weeks in advance.

So, why doesn’t Iowa do a better job promoting golf, asks Dickens, who is executive director of the IGA.

It’s a fair question. I’ve wondered the same thing many times since I took up golf two decades ago.

Thirty years ago, I had a similar question about biking in Iowa. It took us a long time to recognize the tourism value of bike trails, but we finally did.

When it comes to golf, though, we still don’t get it.

We should.

Golf is a $750 million-a-year industry in Iowa, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the Iowa Golf Alliance. That’s roughly as much as the state’s hotels and motels took in at that time. That is also the value of all the tractors that Iowa manufacturers exported in 2010.

The study reported that in 2006, the Iowa golf industry employed about 10,400 people and generated roughly $230 million in wages.

Iowa has always fared well in national per-capita golf rankings. In 2010, only three states – North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont – had more golf holes per capita than Iowa, according to a 2011 study by the National Golf Foundation.

Iowa has more than 400 golf courses, which helped win us the designation as the “golfiest state in America” at last year’s Golf Business Symposium in Chicago.

A big factor in that determination was the number of nine-hole courses in Iowa.

Like most states, when you plot Iowa’s 18-hole courses on a map, you’ll find clusters around our major population centers.

But when you mark Iowa’s nine-hole courses on a map with red dots, the state looks as if it has come down with a bad case of chickenpox. Even distribution of courses, low green fees and high player interest makes Iowa a golfy state.

But here’s the problem: Iowa does not do a good job promoting golf as either a tourism activity or in business recruiting.

I can’t count the number of executive transplants whom I’ve played with over the years who remarked that one of our best-kept secrets is how easy it is to play golf here compared with places they’ve lived in the past, including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

To play in those cities, you must either belong to an expensive country club or be prepared to drive a long way or wait a long time, or both, to tee off.

But not here. There are 20 courses in Polk County and another 20 within a 40-mile radius of Des Moines. The variety of courses within a 30-minute drive of my home astounds even me.

The IGA’s Dickens has an idea that’s worth exploring.

“We should have a partnership with the wine and beer people,” he suggests, “because it’s the same demographic.”

Iowa already has several wine trails, Dickens notes, adding: “I’ve taken their maps and matched them up with golf courses. It makes a pretty good overlay.”

Other states have golf trails. Why not Iowa?

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