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Do golfers need a tax break from Uncle Sam?

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Golfers may be getting help from an unexpected source -- the U.S. Congress -- and that worries the Tax Policy Center (TPC), a think tank.

Under a pending bill called the Personal Health Investment Today Act (PHIT), the tax code's definition of "medical care" would be expanded to include "athletic pursuits," including golf, and would enable people to use tax-deferred medical savings plans to buy golf clubs and other equipment.

Golf, which Mark Twain famously described as "a good walk spoiled," doesn't need a helping hand from Uncle Sam, according to the TPC's Renu Zaretsky, who says she likes the sport, although she admits she's "terrible" at it.

For one thing, she noted in a recent post on the organization's website that golfers have average household incomes of $95,000, well above the U.S. average, which is about $54,000. Nearly 80 percent of duffers have a a net worth topping $100,000. Advanced players can spend as much as $5,000 annually on equipment.

"Do relatively well-off golfers really need a tax incentive to reward their already undying love of and commitment to the game?" she wrote. "No, they really, truly, don't."

The golf business, however, has struggled in recent years. According to the National Golf Federation, 24.1 million people played at least one round of golf in 2015, a slight drop from 24.7 million in the two previous years. The U.S. currently has about 15,372 golf courses, down from a peak of 16,052.

"I totally understand the perception of golf as a wealthy sport," said Bill Sells, a spokesman for PHIT America, which lobbied for the legislation, adding that most golf rounds are played on public courses at an average per round cost of $37. "Tell me, is that wealthy man's sport?"

Support for PHIT, which was first proposed in 2006, is growing in Congress, where it currently has more than 80 co-sponsors among both Democrats and Republicans. The bill would also benefit other sports such as bowling and could be applied to fees that parents pay for their children to participate in athletics.

The benefit couldn't be used to subsidize dues at private organizations such as country clubs or for clothing like golf shirts or yoga pants. It also would be capped at $250 per item.

According to the TPC's Zaretsky, it isn't clear how many golfers and other sports enthusiasts would reap the benefits that PHIT would offer because only about four in 10 workers have access to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which tend to benefit wealthier workers more than those with lower wages. She also noted that many people who buy athletic equipment and gym memberships wind up not using them.

She argues that there are better ways to encourage Americans to lead healthier lifestyles such as making sure that physical education programs in schools are adequately funded. Changing the tax code will only add to its complexity, she said, adding, "It will give people with more resources the opportunity to game the system more than they need to be able to game it."

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