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Golfers sue city of L.A., calling out failure to stop black market in tee times

LOS ANGELES, CA-MARCH 19, 2020: Mario Kim plays a round at the Wilson & Harding Golf Course in Griffith Park on March 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. He wanted to play with his friend and said that the private course he belongs to is only allowing family members to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo By Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
A golfer plays at Griffith Park. This week, five golfers sued the city of Los Angeles over its failure to stop brokers from selling tee times on public courses. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Five golfers filed a class-action lawsuit this week against the city of Los Angeles, alleging that officials failed to rein in a bustling black market in tee times at municipal golf courses.

In October, some of the golfers, who are members of an Asian American golfing group, shared evidence with L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks officials of brokers selling tee times on public courses, according to the lawsuit.

"To date, however, nothing has been done to prevent the illegal tee time bookings at LA City Golf Courses," said the lawsuit, filed Thursday in L.A. Superior Court. "Nothing has been done to ensure the booking process is fair to all golfers who wish to play."

Read more: Brokers are buying up precious tee times at L.A. city golf courses. Golfers are desperate and outraged

The city Department of Recreation and Parks operates 12 golf courses of varying sizes, including seven 18-hole golf courses. Golf has surged in popularity in recent years, and L.A.'s courses — convenient and affordable — draw players who can't (or won't) pay the five- and six-figure initiation fees to gain entry to tony private country clubs.

But in recent years, a network of brokers, primarily in the Korean community, has managed to consistently grab desirable morning and afternoon tee times at the most sought-after municipal courses, like Rancho Park and Griffith Park.

The lawsuit accuses the city of L.A., which is the sole defendant, of a breach of implied contract and breach of public trust. It points to a membership program offered by the city known as the Player Card, which generates more than $600,000 in annual revenue for the golf program.

Hands hold a cellphone displaying a screenshot of a golf course broker's booking page.
Dave Fink, a golf influencer, holds his phone with a screenshot of a tee time broker's booking page. (Carlin Stiehl / For The Times)

Members of the public can book tee times only seven days in advance. For about $25 a year, holders of the Player Card are allowed to book nine days ahead. Those over 60 are eligible for a senior Player Card, which confers a lower price for golf slots.

At city golf courses, a tee time typically costs around $35 per person, higher on weekends and holidays. The brokers reportedly charge up to $40 as a booking fee.

Read more: 'I am angry': Golfers demand that L.A. officials stop booming black market in tee times

The golfers in the class-action suit allege that because of the prevalence of brokers, they have been unable to enjoy the privileges of Player Card membership. The golfers are asking for "the full refund" of Player Cards purchased during the relevant statute of limitations.

"As a result of LA City’s failure described herein, Player Cards have no value for the purposes of obtaining affordable tee times at LA City Golf Courses," the lawsuit said.

A representative for the Department of Recreation and Parks did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the City Attorney's office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit is Joseph Lee, president of SoCal Dream Golf Club, which draws members mostly from the Korean American community. Lee, who is Korean, has railed against the existence of brokers, and at a public meeting this week, he vowed to expose those behind the brokering system.

Joseph Lee at a March 18 meeting of L.A.'s golf advisory committee.
Joseph Lee at a March 18 meeting of L.A.'s golf advisory committee. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

"I don't want you to misunderstand us Koreans. Not all Koreans are doing this s—. We’re chasing them ’til the end, and we’ll keep you updated," Lee said to cheers at the meeting.

Lee told The Times that in his view, the brokers "violated the right to 'equal opportunity'" and that tee times on city courses should be available to all.

"However, brokers have been using abusive methods to snatch up prime tee times," Lee said. "Let's use this opportunity to put these brokers out of business."

Read more: Editorial: L.A.'s golf reservation system allows people to hog tee times. That's wrong

Lee and members of his golf club have repeatedly raised the issue of brokers with Rick Reinschmidt, head of the city's golf division, and some of their emails were excerpted in the lawsuit.

"I would like to report some brokers that are reselling the tee times for $30 or $40," one of the golf club members emailed on Oct. 12, explaining how brokers book "multiple tee times at the same time and [sell] it to people that were unable to book through la-city golf websites."

Lee's golf club provided Reinschmidt with contact information for three brokers.

A group of men stands talking outside L.A. City Golf Division Headquarters.
Dave Fink, third from left, speaks with fellow players outside a meeting of the L.A. golf advisory committee. At the meeting, many expressed their frustration about tee time brokers. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

"This is extremely helpful," Reinschmidt replied. "I have already informed our tee time vendor and we've already started addressing all these accounts used in booking these original tee times."

Lee and other golfers in the suit allege that nothing was done to address the issue.

"In 2021, 2022 and most recently in 2023, we have repeatedly asked L.A. city golf to address this issue, but nothing has changed, the situation has gotten worse, and as a L.A. city golf membership holder, I am frustrated that I couldn't get a tee time on the weekends," Lee told The Times.

The role of tee time brokers has been an open secret for years in Southern California, gaining heightened attention this month when Dave Fink, an influencer and golf teaching pro in Glendale, told his 200,000 Instagram followers about the black market in tee times.

"This is an issue that affects everybody who pays taxes in the city, and anybody who plays golf as well," Fink said in an interview. "People have been really angry about this for a long time."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.