Note: I wrote this article fourteen years ago. It still applies, however the growth of indoor and other derivative forms of golf have had a wonderfully positive effect on golf’s growth. While the number of North American golfers–defined by golfers who play on golf courses–has slightly declined over the last fourteen years, in the same period the number of golfers who participate in derivative forms of golf have increased sixfold. Sixfold! This includes 12 million participants that never play on a golf course. Pretty cool.
When my grandmother was succumbing to cancer, my uncle made a series of calls to my father to come pay a final visit. Over time the requests for my father’s visit became more urgent. I accompanied him on the ultimate visit. We were both shocked at the degree of my grandmother’s physical decline. Yet her mind and soul had sustained the same amazing luster and positive energy she had had in her prime.
The business of golf in America is ill. A casual observer might not notice, as would have been the case with my grandmother before her body began to fail. But the symptoms are present. Golf can be healed, but not without change. It’s been said that golf has lost its relevance in American culture. I am willing to stipulate that this is the effect. But the causes are many.
If you could give golf a stress test, a colonoscopy, and a full body MRI, you’d understand what the doctors already know.
Signs of Illness:
- The annual number of rounds played and the total number of golf course facilities in the U.S. has remained stagnant for more than a decade. Both have slipped in numbers over the last three years. Courses are being plowed under. In spite of the fact that millions of players take up the game each year, an equal or greater number give it up. The business of golf is doing a poor job at keeping its customers.
- In many areas of the U.S. the traditional country club is falling from grace. In my market the signs are widespread. One private club was sold to creditors who changed it to a low-priced public access course, and are now contemplating subdividing it for housing. One club that has had a waiting list for 50 years is now struggling with a member shortage. One club, the site of more than half a dozen majors, recently admitted everyone on a waiting list of more than 80 would-be applicants after a mass exodus by existing members, under loss-leader terms reminiscent of the used car business. For a club that a generation ago wouldn’t even let you put your name on a waiting list unless you were a relative blue-blood, this was golf’s equivalent of the Mariel Boatlift.
- It is getting increasingly difficult to find major sponsors for professional events. Companies that embraced golf just a few years ago have started to turn their back on golf. The auto industry, for years the backbone of golf sponsorship, has fallen on hard times and is making a rapid retreat. Cadillac, once a major Champions Tour sponsor, has withdrawn from golf completely. Chrysler and Buick, two of the PGA TOUR’s largest sponsors, have cut back significantly on golf spending.
- The OEMs are running out of ways to advance club technology, and therefore ways to compel golfers to purchase new equipment. For many, their stock is at or near a long term low. And they struggle to earn meaningful profits. Barney Adams, in his book The WOW Factor, listed over 100 golf OEMs present in 1990 which are now either defunct or of greatly diminished significance.
- While the youth of America don’t think golf is lame, as was the case a generation ago, they nonetheless are not embracing it. If golf can’t get the attention of today’s youth, there will be negative consequences a generation from now. Today’s youth require instant feedback and fast action. They get trophies for participation. They play video games with interactive action that moves faster than Retief Goosen in a thunderstorm. But the typical round of golf takes longer than ever. Golf broadcasts are slow and boring, with little or no interaction. Golf represents, in many ways, the antithesis of American youth culture.
The Howling B.E.A.S.T.S.
A while back I tried to write a clever article about slaying the BEASTS. “BEASTS” is my acronym for the things in golf that affect its overall relevance. We can heal golf if we focus on improving these fundamental elements.
B = Barriers: The game today places barriers for many participants. We must strive to welcome with open arms all players, regardless of ability, age, sex, race, or style. We must think of golf as the business it is and golfers as the customers they are. Instead of bombarding our customers with rules and negativity when they come to the course, we should strive to make every moment they spend an extremely positive experience.
E = Equipment: Most golfers have equipment that is ill-fitting to their swing and physical capabilities. We must strive to deliver to golfers clubs that fit their games. We also need to make this equipment affordable, or to welcome new players without equipment by supplying it at the course–with a selection and reasonable cost comparable to how bowling centers accommodate casual participants.
A = Access: Many golfers perceive impediments to regular play. We must strive to overcome factors that mitigate access including price, availability, pace of play, weather, and location. One partial solution involves the growth of indoor golf. While hard to comprehend for golf traditionalists, indoor golf has the ability to overcome virtually all of the access problems golf faces. It also is consistent with a cultural trend to move outdoor sports and activities inside. Consider that over 80 new indoor water parks are expected to open in the U.S. in the next year. One indoor golf simulator purveyor claims that 2 million rounds per year are played on its simulators alone. GolfTec, an indoor golf instruction business, claims to give 10% of all the golf lessons in the U.S.
S = Social: The vast majority of golfers play to relax and have fun in a social environment. Women especially are oriented to the social aspects of play. We must strive to get compatible golfers together in a way that creates an enjoyable social experience. There are many ways for golf facilities to create a more social environment for players to meet and play together. But the biggest impact can be made, very easily, by simply getting club pros out from behind their desks and pro shop counters out onto the course to get folks together, play holes with the patrons, and act as the course’s social director.
T = Time: The most diabolical disease in golf today is slow play. We absolutely must take measures immediately to enforce a reasonable pace of play, and to educate golfers on how to speed up play and why it is essential to the health of golf. It dawned on me while playing the other day, waiting on every shot the entire round, that most players really have no idea how to get around the course efficiently. Instead of having marshals patrolling the course pretending to keep things moving, send out friendly instructors to help players learn good habits in efficient play.
S = Satisfaction: In golf, as it is with anything in life, if one doesn’t find their performance satisfying they’ll be less encouraged to do it more. We must strive to improve our methods and systems for teaching the game, we must help golfers realize and find pleasure in meeting realistic expectations, and we must provide courses and play from tees that fit our games. We must strive with all our power to guarantee that our customers have a very predictable, positive experience every time they come to the course.
If we place serious focus on these fundamental elements, we can not only heal the business of golf, but we can help the game of golf sustain its amazing luster and positive energy.