In the Wall Street Journal, there’s an interesting article on the golf industry’s attempt to reinvent itself. You know the background basics: the industry took Tiger Woods and retiring boomers as a sign from the Golf Gods and began an unprecedented period of expansion. But the millions of players did not materialize (at least not for the long term). Now during the Great Recession, courses and manufacturers are worried about their futures. In “The Battle for the Soul of the Game,” author John Paul writes:
Golf’s leadership is responding to the situation with more urgency than ever. At golf’s big annual merchandise show in Orlando, Fla., last month, I sat through several state-of-the-industry hand-wringing sessions. Nobody in golf is complacent. The PGA of America is pushing a new, all-points initiative called Golf 2.0, whose goal is to make the game “more relevant” to lapsed golfers and others, especially women and minorities, it has identified as underserved. At last weekend’s annual meeting of the U.S. Golf Association in Houston, the incoming president, Glen Nager, sounded downright radical (by USGA standards) in urging golf to make itself more accessible.
From all this verbiage, one phrase from Nager’s speech stood out for me as best representing the predicament for golf’s traditionalists. At the end of a list of worthy goals—making golf more enjoyable to play, more affordable and more welcoming—he added that this must be done “without fundamentally changing the game itself.” The game itself, of course, is different than the business practices that support the game, many of which (like poor customer tracking and feckless rangers) are indeed hidebound and need to be revamped. But Nager also stressed that the USGA’s top priority is to protect golf’s core values—to preserve, as he put it, “the true spirit of the game as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions.” But it’s unclear if that spirit is still viable for an industry that hopes to expand its customer base, as per the Golf 2.0 vision, to 40 million players by 2020 from 26 million players now? Never mind gaining those customers, especially young ones, in an ever more time-squeezed, electronically addicted culture.
Paul wonders if it’s possible to appeal to the modern masses while without losing the traditional game. Some of the ideas floated by “reformers” are larger holes, different sets of rules and non-conforming equipment. Those, he rightly points out, terrify traditionalists..
There are, however, two solutions that don’t involve a golf schism. First, PGA Professionals, course owners, rangers, etc. all need to work together to make sure people play the proper tees. I believe that playing from the wrong tees is the number one reason for long rounds, high scores and unhappy players.
Second, the powers that be should encourage people to try match play. It makes the game more social, and ends the time consuming spectacle of guys plumb bobbing for their eighth stroke.