I love golf and have for nearly fifty-five years. For awhile, it even served as a primary identity as I was termed the “All-Time World’s Biggest Golf Nut” a dozen years ago. While my golf readership has grown very nicely, like others in the golf industry it has shrunk as a percentage of the population. Golf is losing the relevance battle. The industry is fighting or better termed, has fought the good fight to remain relevant and is now retreating into again being no more than a niche sport. Sure, there are pockets and periods of success, but the overall outlook is glum. For a short window in time with Tiger Woods, golf approached front page status, but now many in sports don’t know the difference between a Henrick Stenson, Jason Day, Inbee Park Park and a hockey player or bridge contestant. And this is all against a backdrop of more than fifteen years of aggressive “Grow The Game” initiatives. Even the mighty PGA of America employs individuals earning hundreds of thousand of dollars annually whose main responsibilities are to grow the game, but despite their noble efforts they’ve been failures. Sadly the golf industry is a badly splintered, barely functional cottage one in which those holding jobs are more focused upon retaining them than anything else. I should know, I was neck-deep in it for almost a decade. With all of this, more people continue to give up the game than are entering it. Imagine where the industry would be without “growing the game!”
Have you ever witnessed a golf tournament of any significance including the Olympics in which the organizers didn’t do a public self-congratulatory celebration afterwards? I haven’t, not once. It’s happening right now. So be it. The Olympic golf organizers should be sighing in relief. Golf seemed to acquit itself admirably despite its major stars avoiding the competition. Fortunately, the golf course was far from the disaster that some had worried. Better yet, among the golf community we appreciate that all six medal winners were and are worthy champions and fine upstanding individuals – a credit to the game. And what a credit that all the professional golfers competed for pride and country, and not prize money. That said, the golfers could parade around Olympic village in their caddy bibs with their names plastered on and non-golfers wouldn’t have a clue who they were. Golf no longer has its Tiger Woods and that was an usually nice splash in time for the sport. And any of those other athletes who have ever played golf has an almost godly respect for the talents of the elite golfers, but the truth is that most people in this world don’t play golf, don’t know or follow it, and could care less. It our little world of golf, “golf things” do indeed matter, but for most it doesn’t even move the needle. Golf needs the Olympics far more than the Olympics need golf.
One event won’t change golf’s fifteen year decline and the Olympic competition is just a finger in the proverbial dike. After all, the golf executives had to create something new of interest didn’t they? It is perplexing that the PGA TOUR even scheduled an event generating FedEx Points against the Rio competition given its many years of notice. Regardless, it already has so many “world championships” and “Majors” that another competition with such a limited, weak field as the Olympics doesn’t really matter that much. The LPGA calls five other events “Majors” so will they try to promote the Olympic as a sixth? That said, once the players got to Rio they got caught up in the moment and it must have been the experience of a lifetime for them to both represent their country as well as mix with the other athletes in such fanfare. And if a winner for golf did emerge, it was the Olympic golf course architect (anyone even know the name of the golf course?), Gil Hanse. When the future of golf course design is akin to the prospects of horseshoe design in the early 1900’s, Hanse nonetheless produced and should gather enough credibility to hopefully sustain him the rest of his career. Anyway, I predict that the golfing powers will do all they can to improve the circumstances and it will be a much bigger deal in Tokyo four years from now and that can’t hurt.
I will repeat: “I love the game,” but let’s face it, Golf is an elitist endeavor much in the fashion of equestrian and sailing endeavors and I am not finding any significant post-Olympic chatter from the non-golf community discussing why the Olympics needed golf – it’s more the other way around. True golfers will still love the game and watch Olympic golf; the rest won’t. Even with years of media hype, how many non-golfers subscribe to and watch The Golf Channel? As a curiosity first-time event, viewership among loyal golfers was bound to spike. Yes, people continue to leave the sport faster than they are entering it despite more than 15 consecutive years of aggressive growing the game initiatives. Last month I attended a golf business conference in Southeast Asia and the keynote speaker spoke for forty-five minutes about the malaise affecting his region as well as the oversupply of golf courses in Thailand of all places. That’s is scary when even Asia is lamenting its pending golf challenges.
As an employee, I once privately criticized the PGA of America for focusing too much on developing elite players and encouraged them to instead devote more energy to developing more average golfers who would actually pay and support the business over a lifetime. They didn’t to that during my tenure. My point was not sexy enough to shift any tides of thought as everyone wanted to brag about the local hotshot champion they were coaching with only a comparative few taking more pride in the size of the number of golfers they were attracting and retaining. Now many of these same people have either left the business, are struggling, or simply hoping to make it to retirement.
Like politics in America, golf has become too secularized and politically correct. On the face, it is a congenial business, but that’s only on the surface. Visit a golf course architect’s meeting, a PGA gathering, the USGA folks, or a Merchandise Show and you will observe a day spent in friendly, cordial glad-handing following by an evening of vicious backstabbing. That’s not due to bad people, but rather the environment. For example, PGA of America members compete with one another for score on the course, customers in their shops, lessons, and a limited number of jobs. Architects compete with each other for jobs and that was never as heated as it was for the competition to design the Rio de Janeiro Olympic layout. Behind closed doors there is a supreme contempt between the USGA and the PGA of America on both a organizational and personal level – the elites versus the uncouth working stiffs. I have several dear friends who are very capable staffers for the USGA, but I scratch my head at their leadership. Far too insulated and secular, in my opinion they have not served the game from the big picture perspective and instead have taken their delicate mission to an extreme. And the PGA TOUR is like the 800 pound gorilla who says all the right things to look good, but at the end of the day is only concerned with TV ratings and the size of purses for their elite playing constituency. And forget about the manufacturers or golf facility folks, they’re at war with one another for a continually shrinking market. Meanwhile the LPGA is battling to attract a sustainable audience for what has been a ever-welcoming, entertaining product. It would appear that the Golf Course Superintendent’s Association functions the most normally with everyone simply consumed with growing a decent golf course in harmony with the environment. It’s no different as I travel abroad. I wish the landscape was brighter, but this scenario is what I’ve seen repeated over and over during the last half century and is not sustainable.
So what about the Olympics? I suppose that there is a little youngster today in India or Russia who was somehow inspired by their fellow countryman’s unusual one-day successes in the recent games who might turn out to be a famous champion one day and that would be nice. Golf has evolved over the past three decades to become an international sport with champions apt to emerge from anywhere. Perhaps that is all we can now expect – to grow a few heart-warming championship stories. Most who cannot live off the game will retreat from it. On a broader socio-political front, land use and the resources to support golf – water, taxes, maintenance costs, insurance, regulations, alternative land uses, and the like along with sociological tides of instant gratification spell a long term contraction of the game. Never mind that the game takes longer to play than ever, is too expensive for most and difficult to play well, and suffers in broad terms from hideous customer service. I’m sorry, for this bad news, but for more than a decade it has looked bleak for me and the resulting numbers fall squarely in line with that.
Forgive me for appearing as a curmudgeon and I am far from bitter. As a golfer, I can be grateful that I lived through what will someday be termed Golf’s Golden Years – 1991-2001. And I can even be more grateful that the game remains one of the best ways to meet and really get to know other people while also enjoying the outdoors. I rejoice that for a good part of my life, golf was a walking game and I remain enthused with the vitality that infused in me. I get immense joy from traveling and visiting other courses and meeting fellow golfers. Whether coaching golfers or writing about this wonderful game, I am blessed, love it, and hope to continue, but dark clouds threaten. Perhaps in a hundred years, we’ll be hitting balls with sticks in advanced simulators with some reminiscing about their grandparents who actually played golf outdoors on expansive green lawns, in irrigated deserts, between houses, or in pristine forests and meadows.
When I count most of my oldest and dearest friends, the common thread has invariably been golf. Like many of you fellow golfers reading this, the game has taught me so many valuable life lessons. I’m also so grateful too for the many opportunities both in and outside of golf the game has bestowed on me. Check any statistics and golf is and remains an old white man’s sport. Luckily for me, I happen to be one of those and golf still has enough momentum to last my lifetime in its present form, but when we baby boomers die off, the prospects are becoming dimmer and dimmer by the moment, and that saddens me. In the meantime, a few minutes of Olympic golf highlights every four years will suffice should circumstances permit!