If you listen to the powers that be, golf is in a bit of a crisis these days. Players are leaving the game, courses are closing and sales for manufacturers are not as high as they would like.
The conclusion is that golf must do something drastic to remain relevant to younger players. For the millenials, we are told, the game is too long, too expensive, not exciting enough, too hard and too confusing. Golf is not a game for the generation with the attention span and dedication of a goldfish. Thus, ideas have been bandied about to make the game faster and less demanding, such as fifteen inch holes and opening courses to soccer players.
For my part, I am not convinced that golf is in the middle of a crisis. At worse, I think that what we are seeing is a return to more natural levels after an unnatural euphoria generated by the Tiger Woods era—a return to equilibrium of supply and demand, if you will. In anticipation of a golf explosion, developers built too many courses; manufacturers expanded, bought out competitors and grew into multinational conglomerates; television bid hundreds of millions for broadcasts. The explosion never materialized.
Tiger Woods, it turns out, was no Arnold Palmer in his ability to popularize the game.
Further, among those who did take up the game in a fit of Tiger-driven inspiration, many quit when they discovered that golf is not nearly as easy as the pros make it appear. Golf is fiendishly difficult and can never be mastered (which is part of the reason I like it). For a couple of generations brought up on the notion of accolade entitlement, who received trophies even if they were on the losing team, and who have been told that they were “special” (read: superior) from day one, this is a hard truth to swallow. I know many who tried the game but soon quit because it was “too hard.” (If they were good at it, I don’t think “takes too long” or “too expensive” would be an issue. They spend hours playing relatively expensive video games that have been carefully designed to produce just enough immediate rewards to keep players coming back).
However, loss of the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot does not a crisis make. Those who stand by the game for the most part continue to play their regular games at their usual munis and public access courses.
It is telling that the loudest voices in the golf salvation chorus are those of the manufacturers. In fact, Hack Golf, the latest effort to “save” the game, was launched by none other than TaylorMade.
The lack of growth (or even retrenchment) cited by manufacturers, developers and other high profile stakeholders may in fact be more self-serving than real. Corporations are under incredible pressure from stockholders for strong growth. Thus, if the number of golfers is not continuously and rapidly growing, manufacturers can’t meet the quarterly earnings expectations. Case in point: TaylorMade’s 2013 earnings press conference announced 6% growth in shareholder income and then basically apologized and came up with excuses for not doing better. In the first quarter of 2014, Callaway announced 22% increase in sales and a 30% increase in earnings. This week, the USGA announced a record number of applicants—10,127—for the 2014 US Open. Growth of any sort in my mind does not constitute a crisis.
Without a multiplicity of new players, the only way to maintain the upward spiral is to continually release new “gotta have it” clubs with “ten more yards” to channel current players into a permanent cycle of upgrades. The stalwarts with their ten-year-old clubs and discount balls are not helping the bottom line.
Organizations such as the USGA and the PGA TOUR also are under expansionary pressures. It was the promise of growth that led FOX to offer the USGA a big contract. The promise of growth keeps sponsors happy with the PGA TOUR. Actual growth will be required to keep the money spigot turned full on. The USGA and PGA also are likely under pressure from manufacturers to help create sales and growth.
Growth has additional meaning to the PGA of America. More players equals a greater need for PGA Professionals. Increased demand means higher wages. Together this increases the organization’s own coffers and power.
I believe that investor demand for growth ultimately will ruin the game as it has ruined more than one otherwise steady, but unspectacular company. Clown ideas such as the fifteen inch hole and foot golf may not attract enough new players to offset the loss of the faithful. I for one refuse to share a course with people kicking a soccer ball around. If courses are going to add a fifteen inch hole to make the game easier, they may as well also get rid of sand traps, water hazards and rough and allow players to drop the ball anywhere they want anywhere on the course. That would make it easier, too. It also would remove the elements that make the game so tantalizingly addictive.
All that said, I’ve got some ideas for non-disruptive changes that I’ll outline in forthcoming articles