Brokers Snatch Coveted Tee Times at Los Angeles Municipal Golf Courses

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Brokers Snatch Coveted Tee Times at Los Angeles Municipal Golf Courses

Golf enthusiasts at municipal courses in Los Angeles have long struggled to secure tee times, fueling suspicions that there’s more at play than just high demand and limited availability.

These suspicions gained substance when Dave Fink, a 35-year-old golf instructor from L.A., revealed to his 200,000 Instagram followers a thriving underground market, where brokers demand up to $40 for booking a slot.

This revelation sparked the #FreetheTee movement.

A local of L.A. and a regular at city courses himself, Fink shared that a friend, driven by frustration, conducted an informal survey at Griffith Park, asking Saturday morning golfers about how they managed to book their tee times.

“Finally, somebody told him the truth: ‘Hey there’s this guy, and the only way you can get in touch with him is through this Korean messaging app called Kakao,’” Fink recounted.

Fink presented to his audience a list of the broker’s available tee times, detailing options by golf course, which included four times at Balboa Golf Course, one at Harding, and three at Hansen Dam.

“This is what he’s charging per tee time, per person. OK? $30 for non-peak hours. $40 per tee time,” he said. “This is literally crazy and it’s” very unfair.

“When the weekend comes around, and we want to f—g go and play golf and we can’t because the earliest tee time available is 4:30 in the afternoon, now you know why,” he stormed. “Apparently everybody knows about it. Everybody knows about it!”

The validation of long-standing doubts has stirred unrest in the L.A. golf community, leading to urgent calls for city intervention. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many of the key brokers, predominantly Koreans, are catering mainly to their own community. This dynamic, unfolding on courses meant for all residents of Los Angeles, adds layers of racial and socioeconomic complexity to the issue.

Golf is often perceived as a sport for the affluent, typically played at exclusive country clubs. For those unable to afford the hefty initiation fees of private memberships, city golf courses have been an essential, more accessible alternative.

“This is a public good,” said Patrick MacFarlane, 35, who grew up playing on L.A. municipal courses and serves on the city’s golf advisory committee. “It’d be like if someone took over a public swimming pool and said there would be surge pricing.”

Brokers are selling tee times at various courses throughout Southern California, but the issue seems most pressing in Los Angeles. City courses like Griffith Park, Rancho Park, and Hansen Dam are highly sought after for their convenience and affordability, with prices around $35 per person, and slightly more on weekends and holidays. This rate applies to both residents and nonresidents.

Tee times become available at 6 a.m. for golfing nine days in advance. However, spots at these popular city courses vanish almost instantly each morning on the city’s online reservation system, GolfNow. Golfers report that without a broker’s help, they mostly secure tee times through last-minute cancellations or by joining a waitlist, which requires physical presence and can involve waiting from a few minutes to several hours, with no guarantee of getting a slot.

Following the attention garnered by Fink’s online videos, the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks has initiated an investigation, involving the city attorney’s office and the staff at GolfNow, a subsidiary of NBC Sports Next.

“I know people are frustrated,” said Rose Watson, spokesperson for the recreation and parks department. “At the end of the day, it’s not right, it’s not fair.” Watson said “the city is on top of it” but asked for “a little more patience.”

Watson has stated that the results of the investigation will be disclosed publicly and presented to the Board of Recreation and Parks. This board, comprised of five commissioners responsible for overseeing the city’s golf program, is appointed by Mayor Karen Bass.

The exact extent of tee time acquisitions by brokers, particularly Korean ones, and their impact on the scarcity of golf slots remains unclear.

However, within the Korean golfing community, there’s a widespread belief that brokers are exploiting senior memberships to secure and resell morning and early afternoon tee times for profit. This is based on several interviews conducted by The Times.

James Lee, 57, mentioned, “All the Koreans know them, especially the older ones.”

Recently, Lee displayed on his phone a contact named “Golf tee time” in Korean while on the practice green at Griffith Park. He accessed this contact through KakaoTalk, a well-known Korean messaging app also mentioned by Fink. Pointing to the contact, Lee remarked disparagingly, yet denied using the broker’s services. He claimed to have acquired his tee time through a canceled reservation.

“James waited over two hours yesterday for a tee time and ended up just having to go home,” a worker called out from the pro shop’s front desk as Lee checked in for his 9:45 a.m. spot.

Fink has emerged as a key figure in the push for transparency and reform amid these challenges.

He asserts that this issue impacts all tax-paying citizens in the city, not just the golfing community, which compelled him to speak up. Fink recently organized a gathering at Rancho Park Golf Course, drawing a significant number of golfers. Many showed their support, with some even honking their horns and shouting “Free the tee” upon seeing Fink. Brandon Wu, his videographer and editor, captured much of the event.

Golfers shared their morning routines at the meet-up: logging in at 5:56 a.m. and waiting anxiously to book a tee time. Charlie, preferring to remain partially anonymous due to often booking during work hours, described the intense competition where hours’ worth of tee times vanish within seconds.

Supporting Fink in his endeavors are other golfers, frustrated by the commercialization of a public sport. Among them is Joseph Lee, who leads the SoCal Dream Golf Club, a community of over 100 Korean and Asian golfers.

Lee is well-acquainted with the brokers, having used their services a few times. He provided Fink with screenshots that have since highlighted the severity of the issue. He recalled that in 2021, brokers charged $20 per tee time, a cost typically split by a foursome. The fee has since nearly doubled. Golfers usually contact brokers via text on KakaoTalk, with transactions often conducted in Korean.

Initially, Lee didn’t see a problem, considering it a fair trade-off for convenience. However, he soon recognized the detrimental impact brokers were having, monopolizing tee times even on weekdays and weekends.

Lee had raised his concerns with the Department of Parks and Recreation long before the current outcry.

Another key figure in this situation is Ted Kim, a broker known for securing large numbers of tee times. Lee mentioned that Kim’s operations have been expanding and worsening, causing widespread frustration among golfers in the metro L.A. area.

In an interview with The Times, Kim claimed he uses up to five devices and the help of friends to book tee times, insisting he doesn’t employ bots or illegal methods. He explained his process: golfers contact him through KakaoTalk with their preferred dates and times, and he books tee times for them nine days ahead.

Kim acknowledged earning a few thousand dollars a month from this service. Initially, he viewed his business as somewhat altruistic, but his actions have stirred significant controversy within the golfing community.

“I’m just helping Korean seniors, because they have a right to play golf, because all the Koreans play golf, right? Without my help, they actually struggle,” he said.

When pressed, Kim admitted he also reserves tee times for middle-aged men, but he maintained that he books under each player’s name without transferring them to others.

The methods brokers use to secure and sell tee times remain somewhat unclear.

Many golfers allege that brokers exploit a supposed 10-day advanced booking privilege for seniors, compared to the 9-day window for others. The city, however, denies the existence of a 10-day booking window, though several golfers claim to have witnessed it.

Some, like Lee, believe that reservations made nine days in advance are sometimes canceled and immediately rebooked under a different customer’s name. Watson, representing the city’s recreation department, said this type of practice hasn’t been definitively proven yet but promised a thorough examination of the data.

There’s also speculation that scalpers use bots to quickly grab available tee times. Rick Reinschmidt, overseeing the city’s golf operations, mentioned that the booking system’s anti-bot technology has flagged thousands of accounts for unusual activity, as recorded in the minutes of the city’s golf advisory committee.

In recent weeks, the city has suspended 23 users from its booking system, adding to the 133 suspensions over the past year, Watson revealed.

A broker, a woman in her 40s, spoke to The Times, explaining that she used to book for 10 Korean senior golfers using her phone and computer. She recently ceased her activities due to the growing controversy and wished to remain anonymous. She started this service at the request of a senior from her church and did not charge a set fee, typically receiving $20 to $40 as a tip, earning less than $1,000 a month.

Watson assured that there’s no involvement of city employees in the tee time brokering, but any accusations of corruption would be thoroughly investigated.

Amidst this, Fink has launched #FreetheTee merchandise and is rallying his followers to attend an upcoming meeting of the city’s golf advisory committee, promising to bring a new level of engagement to typically calm proceedings.

“We’re gonna get some answers,” Fink declared, calling on those passionate about golf and its accessibility to join him in seeking change.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.