Military golf courses come under fire
Soon after arriving in Hawaii on Saturday, President Obama kicked off his Christmas vacation with a round of golf at Kaneohe Klipper, an 18-hole championship golf course on the Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe Bay, according to The Hill newspaper, which noted that Obama has played there before on past Christmas vacations.
Kaneohe Klipper is just one of 234 golf courses that the U.S. Armed Forces operate around the world, a fact that seems to be annoying some critics. The online magazine Salon, for one, expressed its disapproval by noting that military courses are among the "luxuries that are out of reach for the ordinary American." Also out of reach for the ordinary American, I would point out, is getting shot at in combat zones.
The overall cost of operating these courses is unknown, said Salon, which singled out the Arizona Golf Resort in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for its displeasure. "The U.S. Army paid $71,614 [for the Arizona Resort in 2004]," it said. "The resort actually boasts an entire entertainment complex, complete with a water-slide-enhanced megapool, gym, bowling alley, horse stables, roller hockey rink, arcade, amphitheater, restaurant, and even a cappuccino bar — not to mention the golf course and a driving range."
In a stab at fairness, Salon pointed out that the military also maintains a ski resort in the Bavarian Alps, which opened in 2004 and cost $80 million, and that the DoD also spends $500 million annually on marching bands.
Another critic is Christopher Ryan, who writes on the PolicyMic website that "agreeing to stop supporting the military's golf courses should be an easy first spending cut" for President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner in their ongoing budget debate.
PolicyMic uses some data from the USGA and golf consulting firm GolfMAK, Inc. to try to put a cost figure to the DoD's golf course operations. It concludes that the average course costs between $384,000 and $1 million per year to maintain, for a total of more than $140 million every year out of Pentagon coffers.
Ryan notes, however, that the courses do generate revenue through green fees, food and beverage income, and so on. But he says the revenue stream is blunted by the fact that the courses routinely charge below-market rates while buying supplies and equipment at "full price."
I know from experience that some military courses do charge rates below what their local markets could bear – but, of course, their primary purpose isn't to maximize revenue. It's to provide military personnel access to good golf at a reasonable price. And while these critics also complain that about the cost of keeping these facilities secure, that security also makes them a perfect place for military members – and presidents – to get in some recreation.
One other point that Ryan touches on but doesn't emphasize: The courses that the military owns sit on land that could be leased or sold for millions of dollars. There's a big difference between an expense and an investment, and I'd bet that many of the courses are excellent investments based on the difference between the price paid when the government built or acquired them and what they're worth now.
Fort Belvoir's two 18-hole courses and Andrews Air Force Base's three 18-hole courses are both located in highly populated Washington, D.C., suburbs, an area that's home to some of the highest land values in the country, writes Ryan. He also notes that the military's valuable golf course properties even extend overseas — the army has three courses in Germany worth a combined total of $36.4 million, and another in South Korea worth $26 million.
That sounds good to me, not bad. Besides, every golfing president since Dwight Eisenhower has played at Andrews AFB, and it's the only course I know of where you have as good a chance of spotting Air Force One as you do of making an eagle.
If these critics want to contend that every single government expense ought to be up for review during these trying financial times, I can't argue with that. But the amount of money saved from dumping all these courses would amount to no more than a rounding error in the military budget – much less the overall federal budget – and the benefit they provide our servicemen and women is worth an awful lot. And as we see on a consistent basis these days, golf is an increasingly popular component in helping wounded warriors get their lives back together.
Are golf courses at the very top of the military "must have" list? Of course not. But if we're putting together a list of government expenses that have to go, I'd certainly argue that these courses belong far down the page.