Attracting Golden State retirees becoming a fixation in the golf industry

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LA JOLLA, Calif. - William Georgeson finds himself in a most coveted golf demographic. He's 62, nearing retirement and mulling a move from California to a more reasonably priced place to take the swings of his golden years

"You mention at one open house or seminar that you're a Californian looking to settle down somewhere where you can play a lot of golf and the brochures never stop arriving in the mail," Georgeson said. "I haven't seen anything like it since my kids were in high school and they'd get a hundred letters from the military and all these colleges they'd never heard of.

"Hell, I got golf retirement literature from some little town in North Dakota the other day."

It's all part of the great California golfer grab. Many golf destinations are not just trying to attract golfers for a long weekend. They're trying to lure them for the rest of a lifetime. Transplanted retiree golfers represent a big business these days, and no one produces a more desirable quantity of them than California.

The first reason this is such a sought-after demographic is obvious. With a population around 34 million, the biggest in the country, California has more baby boomers nearing retirement age than anywhere else. But maybe even more important to the city planners trying to get California golfers to settle down is the relative wealth and influence of this graying hacker pack.

"A guy who lives a middle-class lifestyle in California can come here and live like a king for that same amount of money," said Trey Newton, the head professional at Prescott Lakes Golf Club. "And that money makes a big difference in the local economy."

Prescott, Ariz., is just one of the dozens of destinations putting the sales pitch on California retiree golfers. About an hour and a half from Phoenix and a mile above sea level, Prescott entices with its temperate un-Arizona-like summer temperatures, a collection of good, low-priced courses and a charming downtown steeped in Old Wild West history. It's the type of place where you can play Stone Ridge, a course that stretches up and down with a ton of wild forced carries, for a $55 greens fee.

Some locals consider that high. Transplanted Californians simply chuckle and put down their fifties, used to having to pay $100-plus easy back home in their working lives.

"It's to the point where it doesn't seem like you meet anyone who isn't from California or Chicago golfing out here," local golfer Howard Butler said, laughing. "You see more and more people moving in all the time."

And yet, Prescott is only getting started in its golfer drive. It's only one town in a sea of towns attempting to hook some of these Golden State migrators with serious hook slices.

St. George, Utah, touts magazine clips declaring it one of the best places to retire in America the way drug companies tout clinical studies. This town of mountain air and stunning red rock scenery about two hours from Las Vegas advertises heavily in California. Part of the belief being that if you can get golfers to try out courses like Entrada and Coral Canyon, they'll remember when they're deciding where to spend that goose egg.

"People come here from other areas and are just stunned by the fresh air and quality of life," said Roxie Sherwin, the marketing director for the St. George Visitors and Convention Bureau. "St. George has a way of selling itself, once you get people here."

All these competing claims and counterclaims are enough to send the head spinning of a golfer pondering a retirement relocation. When you're wanted everywhere, and every place seems to be more grandiose than the next in those brochures, it's no easy decision to even cut down the list for potential scouting trips.

"It gets a little confusing," Georgeson said. "Every magazine seems to have 100 best places to retire, and they are usually not the same 100 places from magazine to magazine. It was a lot easier to decide to move to San Diego for work than it is to think about picking from these small golfing towns for retirement."

One of the things that make California golfers like Georgeson such a pursued target is their general willingness to move.

As Cary Fisher, a leader in the development of the Kootenay region of British Columbia explains, "A lot of our visitors come from California. It seems like they're more comfortable with traveling in general."

In other words, there's little use in targeting Nebraska retiree golfers if they hardly ever left Nebraska in the first place.

It turns out that a California zip code makes those golf destinations assume you're a little more adventurous than many duffers, that their time chasing after you can be rewarded. It's why you see so many golf destinations and would-be golf destinations fixating on the California market.

Places as far away as Charlottesville, Va., and as weather incompatible as Madison, Wis., have waged campaigns for California retirees.

Of course, in the face of this increased competition for Golden State golfer retirees, California itself might be getting left out.

"We used to see a lot more people retiring to the area from other parts of California," said Craig Freeman, the head professional at Mountain Course in the La Quinta-Palm Springs corridor. "Now, you don't see the native Californians here so much. Things are definitely changing."

It's a whole new world. Have sticks and a pension, will travel? If you're a Californian with a golf jones, many assume that's a distinct possibility.

"A $500,000 house in California is just an ordinary house," Newton said back at Prescott Lakes. "For $500,000 in Prescott, you can get a king's palace."

Newton smiled. He wasn't even trying to sell. Sometimes going after California hackers just comes natural if you're in the golf business.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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