Into the Rough: Is golf in retreat?

Like a golfer facing a 200-yard shot over water, the ruling potentates of the game are feeling a palpable sense of desperation these days. The numbers just don’t look good for golf, and organizations like the U.S. Golf Association and the Professional Golfers Association of America, heretofore known for adding extra starch to their undershorts, are now saying the grand old game might well use a touch of Goofy Golf. If that’s what will bring folks back to the course, let’s get silly.

Is it that bad? When the National Golf Foundation reports that Americans played 463 million rounds last year, it sounds like an impressive number of divots. But that figure is down from 518 million in 2000. And while the portion considered “regular players” is a robust 25 million, it still represents a loss of 5 million golfers in the past decade.

The evidence is everywhere. At Myrtle Beach, S.C., once considered a golf mecca, courses have folded like beach tents. Lavish retirement villages that once charged $60,000 for a membership for multiple courses now plead for a third of that. In the Northeast, power clubs that once boasted seven-year waiting lists are now available for, uh, immediate occupancy.

Where did the golfers go? Like sailing, golf is a classic sport that came up against modern demands and was found wanting. It could also be argued that what happened to golf is what happened to America—the middle class is disappearing. No one actually “retires” anymore. Buyouts, yes, retirement no.

Gary McCord, TV analyst and senior-tour player, spoke for all mournful baby boomers recently when he told Golf Magazine, “We supported all these clubs, and now there’s nobody to tap us on the shoulder and take over our memberships because the game is too expensive, takes too long, and is too hard. People can’t invest so much energy into something that’s not giving them much in return. So how do you fill these clubs that are being depleted? That’s a problem.”

It takes too long. The indictment is thrown down all the time, along with suggestions that today’s “soccer dad” is not going to throw away six hours on a Saturday walking around in a blue cloud of jokes and cigar smoke. It’s a different country now. After 9/11, everyone retired to the family room with the big screen. Right? In response, clubs and public courses around the country have found success in expanding into family health clubs. Throw out the cigar bar, add the squash court.

Staring at the declining numbers, golf organizations have come up with “initiatives” to make the game more hospitable to wary newcomers: Golf 20/20, the First Tee Program, Welcome to Golf Month. When the U.S. Golf Association’s president Tom O’Toole Jr. assures the faithful that their “core strategies” will make the game more accessible, a wave of enthusiastic joy must sweep over every rumpus room in the land. Or not.

The latest initiative is called Hack Golf (see hackgolf.org), an idea that attracted participation from equipment giant TaylorMade-Adidas Golf and other sponsors who wonder if, say, increasing the hole diameter to 15 inches will make the game more fun.

The real question is whether the authorities have confronted how American golf got into this sand trap in the first place. It was not entirely the fault of the Great Recession. Since the powers who oversee the game almost all belong to exclusive private clubs, it is possible they can’t see the essential problem: As the game got ritzed up, much of the fun was dialed out. If they don’t grasp this, they won’t understand how to make it fun again.

Golf can be an extraordinarily charming game. It seems intimidating to an outsider, of course, but when introductions are properly made by friends or family, its combination of grace, finesse and spaciousness can be quite enticing, if not addictive. But something happened to that critical process of introductions.

A little history here. From the 1930s up to the ’70s, it was easy to walk onto a public golf course. The neighborhood course was likely a mom-and-pop operation or run by a municipality. The courses were usually just hard enough, and \"\"golfers walked rather than riding carts from hole to hole. Kids could get jobs as caddies and be exposed to the game and lifestyle. Golf, which started the century as the province of bluebloods, had become broadly democratic.

In the 1980s, a notable expansion began, fueled by two groups. The World War II generation cashed in its pensions and retirement programs, sold its paid-off houses and trooped off to golf villages all across the Sun Belt. Meanwhile, a huge wave of baby boomers hit 40 and decided their knees couldn’t take tennis and basketball anymore. Hello, golf.

With this crush of new players, municipal courses in the heavily urban areas were suddenly overwhelmed. What had once been a leisurely four-hour round became a tiresome six-hour exercise. But Americans were indeed playing and the modern golf industry grew to an extraordinary size. With golf equipment intensely modernized (essentially allowing aging duffers to hit the ball farther than ever), club sales soared. Joe Beditz, president of the National Golf Foundation, asserted that the nation needed to add a new golf course every day to keep up with the demand.

And so the land was rolling in hot new courses. In fact, 4,500 courses were added between 1986 and 2005. But these new venues were not modest, friendly places. What emerged was the snazzy resort course or the high-end daily-fee intended to provide “the country club experience.”

It appeared that the nation’s golf developers had fallen under the spell of its two most famous kingdoms, Augusta National and Pebble Beach. The excruciating beauty of Augusta, seen every spring during the Masters Tournament, became the template for all the exclusive clubs, whose caliphs sought to duplicate the artful design work and pristine fairways framed by gleaming banks of sand.

The first time I walked over Augusta National, I was struck by the perfection of the turf. There was not one sprig of crabgrass. Just exquisitely flawless greens. I wondered if the club employed armies of turf cosmetologists to tweeze out any miscreant shoots. However it was accomplished, every big-shot guest could see the perfection and want it for his own.

This exalted look became the ideal at resorts, and daily fees and prices rose accordingly. In the late ’80s, Pebble Beach was charging a jaw-dropping $225 a round—and getting it. So resorts recruited high-profile architects like Tom Fazio, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus to create marvelous, sweeping confections so grand that, say, a $150 fee wasn’t asking too much.

In the new world of posh golf, riding in carts became mandatory, which drastically affected the texture of the game. Certainly carts did not speed up play and Americans just got used to rounds dragging out for more than five hours.

For contrast and inspiration, Yanks can visit any neighborhood course in the United Kingdom (one that has not been totally Americanized, anyway) and watch in amazement as Brits breeze through a round in less than three hours.

“It takes too long to play” has become a mantra in the industry. The USGA took note and commenced a campaign called “While We’re Young” that appears on PGA Tour broadcasts. While giving slow golfers the much-needed needle, the ads also serve up constant reminders that the average American golfer—or at least the guy front of you—plays at the speed of a three-toed sloth. Where did this on-course somnambulism come from? Probably from watching PGA Tour players who all now play with the diligence of surgeons.

With American courses saturated in “amenities,” casual fun became harder to find. Dozens and dozens of spectacular and picturesque courses were built, some loaded with more heartstopping special effects than a Michael Bay movie. Golfers with a bit of skill (or at least those who carried many extra sleeves of balls) were wildly entertained.

One group was left out of the fun: the newcomers. You know, the people who are not lining up to play courses today.

“The golf industry has really changed since the ’80s and ’90s,” says David Preisler of Houston, owner of a consultancy and management services firm called OnCourse Strategies. He’s trying to reverse the maximum-lux paradigm and get people playing again. “Golf owners and managers got comfortable in a zone with the golfers they had. They were not developing golfers for the new core. And that’s what you have right now.”

“The men and woman involved in golf, we only have ourselves to blame,” says Ron Whitten, golf architect and historian. For years, he managed the ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses for Golf Digest magazine and thus bore witness to the anxious clambering for prestige and beauty that infiltrated all ranks. “No one works the lower end of the market anymore, because there’s no money in it.”

Whitten notes that even the old beloved and careworn “muny” courses have been endangered. As city governments were taken over by politicians who wanted to run things like a business, golf courses were “privatized” and put into the hands of for-profit agents. Result: higher rates, fewer customers. “The courses are so service-oriented,” Whitten says with a laugh, “that the old golf experience of putting on your sneakers in the parking lot and slipping out to play golf has been replaced by something akin to going to a restaurant where you have a maître d’ and ‘servers.’ ”

The shift was somewhat similar to recent changes in the movie business. A certain audience was targeted (in Hollywood’s case, teenagers) and all the energy was fixated on that one market, abandoning the rest.

Whitten saw it happen to a course he designed with Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. “We were trying to do the best $50 green-fee course in America,” he recalls of Erin Hills, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee. The naturalistic course was such a hit, it was named the venue for the 2017 U.S. Open. Then everything changed. “The owner got U.S. Open fever, and now they charge over 200 bucks.”

If you go just down the road, though, to Whistling Straits, now famous as a P.G.A. Championship venue, you have to pay $400. Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, where this year’s U.S. Open takes place, charges the same. And Pebble Beach is $495. The surest way to make a newcomer hate golf forever is to take him or her to one of these exclusive resort courses for a taste of “the good life.” The introduction backfires when the novice realizes: “I made Joe Titanium real mad with my miserable game and now he wants to kill me.”

Golf needs more entry points, says Preisler, who argues that the lower-price market is an underserved and overlooked opportunity. “If you’re in the high-end public course, you’re not doing too good. If you’re in the midrange, you’re doing \"\"O.K. And if you’re in the lower range—what I call the Bubba golfer—you’re doing great.” By making his courses affordable, Preisler is crushing it.

It’s critical, he says, for course owners to open their links to junior golfers and women, and to sponsor every player-development program going. For the after-work crowd, he offers a $12 twilight rate. “Bubba golfers got to have a place to play, too,” he says. “The six-pack probably costs more than the round.” “You gotta make it fun for them, whether it’s an individual, a couple or a family. Once they get  serious, they can move to the next level and play  18 holes.”

Which brings us to the major golf organizations. Are the initiatives and strategies going to fire up a new generation of golfers? If they really want newcomers, they should figure out ways to help establish the most obvious starting point, the par-3 course. These humble courses occupy but small parcels of land, but they are places where kids and newcomers can learn the game in comfort, among pals, contemporaries or with ol’ Uncle Charlie.

The U.S.G.A., for instance, just signed a stunning 12-year deal with Fox that will pay nearly $100 million a year for television rights to the U.S. Open. The U.S.G.A. could work with the P.G.A. of America and any other golf group that wants a future and provide resources (turfgrass, designs, irrigation, business infrastructure) to investors or cities who want to build a par-3 course.

Even if you have to hit off a mat, even if errant balls whiz by your head, you’re still having a lark. For the time it takes to go on lunch break, you are deeply involved in a game that has enthralled millions. It’s not disc golf or Hack whatever. It’s real golf. The grandees of golf, safe at their private clubs, are far removed from the modest realm of entry-level play. But that is the world where people start swinging, and that’s where the golf aristocrats should put their unblinkered attention. 

Authors

  • Chris Hodenfield

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute