A Decline In Golf?

The New York Times has an article detailing the stagnation (perhaps even decline) in the number of people playing golf.

The total number of people who play has declined or remained flat each year since 2000, dropping to about 26 million from 30 million, according to the National Golf Foundation and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. More troubling to golf boosters, the number of people who play 25 times a year or more fell to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000, a loss of about a third. The industry now counts its core players as those who golf eight or more times a year. That number, too, has fallen, but more slowly: to 15 million in 2006 from 17.7 million in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The report from the golf foundation seems to dovetail with the findings of GolfBlogger’s friends at Pellucid Corp, a group which studies the golf industry. In their recent report, they found:

• Facility rounds velocity (rounds per 18-hole equivalent) stabilized behind flat rounds and another year of “net zero” supply growth
• The facility Utilization Rate (actual rounds/capacity rounds) also stabilized behind flat demand, flat supply and statistically-similar weather compared to ‘06
• Play Rate (rounds per capita) moderated driven by a slight decline in participation and a larger drop in frequency
• Involvement continued to erode as an increasing percentage of golfers reported playing at “casual” level (1-9 rds/yr)
• Increasing diversity driving population growth is retarding participation growth
• The Baby Boomer rounds dividend is being offset by lower participation levels by Gen X and Gen Y contributing to rounds stagnation
• Affordability continues to be a factor in golf’s ability to grow and the deteriorating macro economy could make this an increasing factor in ‘08

The Times article implies that the problem is four- and five-hour rounds of golf. Today’s golfers often just can’t take that kind of time away from work and family.

“Years ago, men thought nothing of spending the whole day playing golf — maybe Saturday and Sunday both,” said Mr. Rocchio, the public relations consultant, who is also the New York regional director of the National Golf Course Owners Association. “Today, he is driving his kids to their soccer games. Maybe he’s playing a round early in the morning. But he has to get back home in time for lunch.”

If that’s the case—and I think it may be—then golf course owners and designers have only themselves to blame.

Many courses simply are too long, too difficult, and too inaccessible for the vast majority of the playing public. Since few venues ever will host a national championship or Tour event, there’s no need to build 7,500 yard monsters. There’s also no need to build courses with a 140 slope, and that consistently require shots that most players don’t have.

Instead, most courses should be built and maintained with an eye to the 15+ handicapper. Designers and owners should always remember that the average golfer’s score for 18 holes is 100. Design courses that an average player can enjoy in three and a half hours, and you’ll never have an empty tee time. Courses might risk losing the single digit handicapper, but there are frankly not that many of them. For every legitimate single digit player I’m acquainted with, I know ten who struggle to get to the low 90s.

That’s not to say that courses should be reduced to pitch-and-putts. Golfers always want a challenging experience. But for so many designers, it seems that the solution is simply to lengthen the course, or to trick it up. I think there’s another approach: to offer a strategic challenge. Like Bobby Jones’ original plan for Augusta, each hole should offer a variety of scoring opportunities and require a variety of shots (note that many believe that the elegance and challenge of the course largely has been ruined by its’ Tiger Proofing).

One of my favorite local courses is not particularly long, but requires use every club in the bag. The challenge—and the fun—is in choosing the correct club on every hole. Playing driver-iron on every hole there will result in a score that’s more appropriate to bowling than golf.

Courses also can help themselves by more aggressive policing of play times. Rangers need to speak to players—and even yank them from the course—when they fall behind. In doing so, courses risk angering those players; but in tolerating five hour rounds, they absolutely will anger the dozens waiting behind the slowpokes. There are at least six clubs in my area that I will never again visit because of slow play.

Another thing management can do is to rethink the tees. The fact of the matter is that most “weekend” players start from the wrong distances. It’s a problem of machismo; few will admit that their game is not up to the rear tees. But it’s these same players that slow things down. From those rear locations, high handicappers must play driver on every hole, and more often than not end up wasting time looking for their balls in the rough. And even when they find the fairway, they’re far short of a reasonable second shot.

Instead of the traditional colors and designations, tees could be identified by a player’s 150 club. If your 150 club is a nine iron, play from the rear tees; an eight, play from the next in, and so on. Another approach might be to identify tees with the approximate yardage to the 150 mark. High handicappers might think twice about playing from the blacks when they see that the 150 mark on the opening par 4 is 325 yards away. In either case, the numbers could be stamped right on the markers.

Or, thinking out of the box, play could be expedited if the rear tees were moved up—or pulled altogether—during peak play times. The rear tees could be used during specified, less crowded times. Players who want to play the course from the tips can make a tee time according to the schedule.

By the same token, courses should pick the easiest hole locations at the busiest times. I’ve seen some insane hole locations on Saturday mornings—positions where even a very good player has a hard time getting down in two. Its no fun standing in the fairway watching the guys on the green six putt.

More—and more clearly visible—yardage markers also would help. An awful lot of time is wasted by players wandering about looking for markers. It doesn’t take much to sink some additional Kirby markers into the ground.

The USGA needs to help by suspending the distance penalty on lost and out-of-bounds balls. Instead, players should agree on the point at which the ball was last seen, add a penalty stroke, and go on from there.  This rules change is not unprecedented: Both the USGA and R&A have experimented with eliminating the distance penalty throughout the years. Forcing a player to return to the point of his last shot—especially on a crowded course—not only penalizes the player with the lost ball, it penalizes the rest of the foursome and every foursome behind.

If the USGA still wanted to use the rule for tournaments, that would be fine.

Stroke-and-distance is an especially wrongheaded penalty on less-well maintained courses. Every public links golfer has seen his ball roll to a spot, only to find it missing on arrival. You know the ball is there; course conditions just prevent it from being found. Tour players rarely have this problem. No matter where they send their balls, there are marshalls and hundreds of spectators to identify the location.

A final thought: we all need to help with the slow play by realizing that golf is not life-and-death. There’s no need to take six practice swings and spend four minute studying every angle for a putt. Just step up, hit the ball and move along.

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3 thoughts on “A Decline In Golf?”

  1. A couple of things to note.  I see a lot of this population dieing off also.  I know I lost my father-in-law last year and due to health reasons my father only plaid a couple of rounds last year.
    I plaid over 50 times last year, but it will be different this year. I’m a 50 year old with 2 in college in the fall so to pay much more than $50 a round is way out of the question for me. I’ll stick to my local munis for about $20 per round.  Some may say I’m cheap but, I do have a family to think of.
    Also on slow play just kills it for me.  I hate taking more than 4 hours to play a round.  I do not have that kind of time.  I’ll walk off a course if it’s taking to long.  The group I play with can usually be done in three if we don’t run into slow play.  kirkf

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