WHY GOLF REALLY FAILS TO GROW

During over 20 years within the golf industry I have read scores of articles analyzing golfs lack of growth. I have also witnessed countless programs designed solely to recruit new players of every age and demographic. The one constant is that all of the effort and money is being expended by those who have a vested interested in the game; primarily a financial interest. It’s certainly not hard to understand why equipment makers, golf retailers and course owners have been the driving force and why they might be puzzled by how little their efforts seem to be paying off. One culprit may well be our insistence upon viewing the issue from top down. While the keepers and merchants of the game debate what might be wrong, how they should address the problems and what results they expect; no one is making an in depth effort to find out how prospective and current players really see golf.

I would argue that for the average person considering the game, golf has an exclusionary, stodgy and elitist aura about it. We in the industry and especially those who consider themselves to be the caretakers of golfs legacy, have to try and look at this through the eyes of a newcomer. The pool of potential young players we could draw from are accustomed to activities that provide immediate gratification, sports that feature raucous crowd involvement (like the par 3 out in Phoenix or any NFL, NBA or NHL game) and an inclusive vibe. In general golf is really none of these and I would offer the recently concluded Masters as a case in point. The quiet traditional reverence that pervades one of golf’s biggest showcases sits well with purists and most current players but could easily come across as elitist and intimidating to others. Consider the Masters recently modified ban on female members and of course the fact that golfs oldest ruling body, the Royal & Ancient Club, has never had a female member. The defense is always that they are private organizations and have a right to decide who they want as members. This may be technically correct but from an image standpoint it reinforces the notion that golf is exclusionary by design and a fraternity not open to all.

Imagine how a non-golfer would view the discussion of the anchored club rule. Most of the commentary tends to be long winded, technical and delivered with the passion of your average PowerPoint presentation. The idea of having a comment period while never intending to seriously consider dissenting views (even from other ruling bodies) shows the inflexibility the game is famous for. I can’t remember any other major sport handling a proposed rule change in this fashion and I would never expect any sport but golf to use a term like bifurcation (when two sets of rules would do) to add to the atmosphere of self-importance.  Mind you there is no need to “Happy Gilmore” the game in an attempt to widen its appeal but we should at least ask if golf is making a serious effort at inclusion or just taking itself too seriously.

I live in southeast Michigan, home to an original six NHL hockey team; the Detroit Red Wings. A constant topic in hockey is the health of the game and expansion … sound familiar? One thing that always comes out is that many hockey fans, especially those who live in cities featuring one of the leagues storied charter teams, have no desire whatsoever to see the sport grow or expand. This brings me to my final and most important point; do current golfers (those who do nothing but play golf) really want more players? How many times have I walked to the tee box with a group and someone said, look there’s a bunch of beginners on the fairway in front of us, isn’t that great, they’re the future of this game? I can easily tell you how many times because it would be zero. The most common reactions include; a collective groan, a call to the club house to have marshals shadow the potential slow pokes or a request to tee off on another nine. The average golf course is not a welcoming place for the new golfer and we all know it takes time on the course to get better and have a passion for the game take root. If we are really committed to developing new players, we must start by understanding that a majority of the current golfers really don’t want any new golfers … where is the upside as far as they are concerned. That may well be the result of the games design as no other sport makes it possible for developing participants to directly affect the enjoyment and play of other players to such a degree. Blocks of time could be set aside (and not just the most undesirable ones) where beginners are encouraged to venture out and marshals are dispatched to calmly emphasize that playing poorly is not something to be ashamed of but playing slowly is. If the initial emphasis is on pure enjoyment and pace of play as opposed to rigid rules and the final score, beginners may actually be able to progress comfortably without obstructing others. Learning in a well-planned graduated fashion until the skills to play the game are honed; without contributing to a five hour plus round, should be the primary goal.  Current players, many of whom are guilty of excessive practice swings, looking for balls like they’re a lost pet and ritualizing every putt, should also be encouraged to examine their own contributions to golfs epidemic of slow play.

If we seek to add large numbers of beginners to our courses we can expect the damage that may result. Many experienced players are guilty of not replacing divots, failing to rake sand traps and having a total disregard for their responsibility to repair ball marks. Asking new players (and most amateurs) to hit balls out of divots or sand trap foot prints while attempting to hole a putt through mini-chuckholes, is a bit much. Most high handicappers have trouble hitting a ball solidly off a clean lie, they shouldn’t be denied the joy of a well struck shot because of someone else’s carelessness. To aid learning and assure a proper pace of play, a simple set of uniform recreational golf rules should be established.  For example; amateur friendly changes could allow for movement out of a fairway divot or a rake and drop in a poorly maintained sand trap … all with the knowledge of the playing partners. This can be defined simply and it doesn’t need to be a free for all or a total abandonment of the current rules. Roll out of a divot just far enough to clear it, not to avoid an obstruction in your path and not closer to the hole. Amateurs are not equipped to deal with rule situations like Tiger Woods faced at the 2013 Masters, with its multiple choice list of remedies and numerous subsets of qualifiers. From the amount of controversy that resulted it would appear that the experts weren’t even up to the task.  Wouldn’t it be better if a set of simplified casual rules would give a new player time to acquire the skills and confidence needed to handle the game as it was intended to be played? These same rules might also be a good option for any group of amateurs, league players or outing participants seeking both pace and clarity? This approach would speed play, provide structure  (especially for those who play with no rules at all) and ratchet down the anxiety level of players who watch too much “play it as it lies” (pause the DVR and watch for micro-movements) television golf.

As long as we keep inviting new players to try the game without acknowledging that it is difficult to learn, gives off an exclusionary air and that deep down most current players really don’t want to share the course with you; we will continue introducing the game but not adding permanent players. I am not afraid to admit that as someone in the industry I am all for more paying customers but as a player I cringe at the prospect of playing behind an unsupervised group of newbies. There is no need to abandon tradition to accommodate the next generation of players in creative ways. Sometimes you can become so infatuated with tradition, history and rule based minutia that you fail to see how you appear to those outside your tightly drawn circle. For those golfers who are neither royal nor ancient, the rules of golf with their endless web of subsections tend to produce more confusion than guidance. Consider how odd it looks that golfs guardians would be so concerned with the perceived advantage of an anchored putter while over the past twenty years ignoring advances in ball technology that allow pros to hit a driver and second shot iron into most par fives; rendering the traditional fairway metal and most shorter courses virtually obsolete. Based on playing conditions and pure talent alone it’s obvious that the pros do not play the same game as the rest of us, so who is really taking into account what is in the best interest of amateur golfers?

A little soul searching may be in order as we have met the enemy and the enemy may well be us. We need to go beyond recruiting and demonstrating and start focusing on what happens when the demo is over. What can be done to make the transition from a scorned beginner to well-paced accomplished regular an easier one for all involved? To grow, golf needs to be more welcoming, feel more inclusive and adapt some of its rules to prevent a lack of acceptance from driving people away. Or … we cater to those within the circle, embrace our exclusiveness in open and subtle ways, celebrate our reluctance to change and act surprised when golf fails to grow.

 

James Krause has been the owner of LongShot Golf Inc. for over 20 years. Mr. Krause developed and patented the LongShot Impact Recording label, the most widely used teaching, training and club fitting aid in the game. LongShot currently produces custom versions of these labels for major club maker fitting systems, retail/web distribution and teaching facilities.