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Defense Department Operates 234 Golf Courses in the World, Draining Millions From the U.S. Budget

With President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner trying to find a middle ground that minimizes the damage the Fiscal Cliff would do to the economy, cuts to military spending must be on the table. 

Though parts of the Department of Defense’s budget are clearly essential to national security, many other defense expenditures are far from necessary — including the reported 234 golf courses that the Department of Defense maintains around the world. Agreeing to stop supporting the military’s golf courses should be an easy first spending cut for Obama and Boehner.

Unfortunately, as a recent article at Salon notes, the exact cost of running the golf courses remains “undisclosed” by the Pentagon. Yet with a little research, we can get a general idea for how much the government spends on maintaining golf courses that are in some cases closed to the taxpayers who fund them. According to the United States Golf Association (USGA), the average cost of maintaining a golf course totaled between $384,000 and $686,000 in 1998, the most recent year that the USGA had figures available. In a 2008 article, golf consulting firm GolfMAK, Inc. estimated annual golf course maintenance expenditures at between $500,000 and $1 million, a figure that did not include a laundry list of other expenditures, including food and drink, building maintenance, and staff and management fees. In sum, a reasonable, very conservative estimate is that the government spends about $600,000 per year managing each military golf course, for a total of over $140 million every year.

Of course, it would be dishonest to ignore that the courses generate revenue through greens fees, but that revenue stream is itself blunted by the fact that the courses routinely charge below-market rates. Virginia’s Fort Belvoir Golf Club, for instance, charges as little as $37 for a round of golf with a cart, despite the fact that the course’s general manager admits that the local market dictates a fee of at least $60. With below-market revenue coming in, and outlays for maintenance equipment, personnel, and supplies coming at full market cost, it is difficult to imagine the courses turning much of a profit, if any, leaving USGA’s wishy-washy claim that the military’s golf courses receive “little to no federal funding,” in serious doubt. Of course, the entire $140 million in maintenance expenses could easily qualify as “little” federal funding - since the federal government spends about $6.85 million per minute, that would cover the entire $140 million in less than 21 minutes.

Even if the courses are breaking even, or apparently turning a profit, that’s hardly the whole financial story. Many of the courses sit on acres of valuable land that the government could sell or lease for a profit rather than maintain to charge below-market greens fees. 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. 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. Moreover, by being located on military bases, there are security costs to consider, as well as the cost of maintaining the electrical lines, water service, and roads, all of which former Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini expressed concern about in the mid-1990s when Andrews spent $5.1 million to build its third course.

Obama and Boehner’s June 2011 golf meeting to discuss a number of issues, including cutting spending, was itself a caricature of the federal government’s thoughtless spending habit. The venue they chose for their discussion — one of Andrews’s golf courses — was part of a problem they were supposedly trying to solve. Yet neither apparently paused to wonder, “Do we really need this golf course?”

Golf may be an effective way of building morale for those in the military by offering a way to unwind. But with fiscal disaster at America’s doorstep, continuing to spend a single dollar supporting the military’s golf courses is indefensible. Our servicemen and women can surely unwind in some other way. Instead of continuing to support the military’s golf courses, the government should focus on things the military actually needs to carry out their mission of making the world safe for America.

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