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November 2017

For Love of the game

forloveofthegame.jpg‭By Trent Bouts

Want to see golf grow in 2018? Maybe all it takes is a little bit of love

For a four-letter word, golf, like love, is a lot more complicated than novices might expect. It’s many things to many people, from kids on a putt-putt course in Myrtle Beach to the green jackets of Augusta National. There are the pros you see playing on TV for seven-figure sums and pros toiling at small town muni courses for weekly checks never exceeding three figures. Manufacturers might make putters, or shoes, or mowers that sell for more than $100,000. There are club presidents who drive Maseratis and others who drive Chevy Silverados.

And, of course, there are all things in between.

So, when someone asks, “How was the year in golf?” the query clearly begs another question, “Which golf?” or even, “Whose golf?”

The United States won the Presidents Cup, the Solheim Cup and the Walker Cup, which was clearly great for the red, white and blue but tough to swallow for golf fans elsewhere in the world. Justin Thomas had a pretty good year. Tiger, well, not so much. Dustin Johnson, world No. 1 at the time, fell down some stairs in Augusta, which may have helped Sergio Garcia win The Masters, his first major in nearly 18 years of trying.

We got our first golf course owner in the White House, which sounds like a good thing. But the PGA Tour switched a WGC event from one of President Trump’s facilities to Mexico City. And after some irate Senators wanted the U.S. Women’s Open moved from another, the President threatened to sue the USGA if they did. He did put the brakes on WOTUS though, effectively shelving a rule that many believe allowed the federal government to wade at will through any water on any golf course in the country, a daunting prospect for a game whose stage is 100 percent water dependent.

Rounds were down, again, about 2.5 percent through the first three quarters, which sounds like a bad thing. But some argue it’s just a natural correction in the wake of the Great Recession that buried a decade of booming interest and activity. While that sounds reasonable enough, how it jibes with a Dow that is two-and-a-half times what it was in 2000—and three and a half times what is was at the worst of the recession—is debatable, to say the least.

More courses closed than opened, again. Of course, that stinks for the operators of those facilities now shuttered but helps those whose doors remain open. No argument there. That’s a simple law of supply and demand. But no one wants a world where business only gets better for fewer and fewer facilities because others are dropping like flies.

In January, Forbes carried a story headlined “Here’s Why We Should Be Bullish About Golf in 2017.” After years of gloom and doom and other headlines announcing “The Death of Golf” [Men’s Journal, 2015], it was a warm and welcome start to the year. But Forbes largely based the case, not so much on defining positive indicators as, downplaying the significance of a lot of negative trends [i.e.. the “natural correction” lens].

It did, however, accurately point out the increasing amount of energy and traction with junior programs. Although, surprisingly given that it probably best satisfies the apparent millennial dilemma of being an individual who is part of something, PGA Junior Leagues didn’t rate a mention.

Other reasons Forbes suggested we should be confident included the growth of Topgolf and the broadening international popularity of the game. Golf course operators in the U.S. should be wary of both until either brings more golfers into the pro shop. The argument that a computerized simulation in a bar setting will grow the game they own seems a stretch until proven otherwise. And how a kid picking up a five-iron in New Delhi, India, puts more golfers on a course anywhere near Delhi in California, Illinois, Louisiana or New York, well, let’s just see on that one, too.

One story that did garner a lot of attention in 2017 was the campaign to simplify the Rules of Golf. No one argues the Rules of Golf are any more user-friendly than the American tax code, but nor should anyone claim that this campaign is any silver bullet. In promoting a review of the rules, the USGA said, “In an ever-changing landscape, the proposed new Rules of Golf will make the game more fun and easier to play.”

An appeal for public input attracted 22,000 comments. That’s less than 1 percent of those we count as golfers in the U.S. Consider that those comments came from people in 108 countries, and it reduces the American-generated interest even further. That makes you wonder just how relevant the rules changes are to the vast majority of golfers who rarely play competitive golf, let alone golf so competitive that the letter of the law is enforced on every shot.

The USGA and the R&A are on the right track, make no mistake. But as has long been the case, they’re behind the pace of change in the world around them and so whatever changes they do introduce, eventually, will be overdue, and hardly cutting edge.

Perhaps one of the more significant positive trends in 2017 was the return of “fun” to the game’s lexicon. As cited earlier, “fun” was a primary goal of the changes to the Rules of Golf. It began to appear in more and more promotions for the game. No lesser legend than Jack Nicklaus, who for decades designed some of the most testing layouts imaginable, was on TV encouraging people to “play it forward.”

When Pinehurst, the trademark-registered “Home of American golf,” unveiled its new 9-hole short course dubbed The Cradle in October, architect Gil Hanse was succinct. “This is about fun,” he said. “We want you to go out there and find your fun.” This is groundbreaking stuff. Pinehurst has nine golf courses and the first was laid out at the end of the 1800s. Now, finally, they have a course that is “about fun.”

And they’re not the only ones. At Bluejack National, Tiger Woods’ first design, another 10-hole short course called The Playgrounds is so popular there’s talk of installing artificial turf to keep up with the traffic. The Playgrounds is, according the club website, an “unstructured golf experience that’s ideal for casual fun with friends and family or high-quality short-game practice.” That, more than Topgolf or golf in the Olympics, seems like a recipe for growth.

Golf might finally be getting the semblance of a system of growing the game. Beginner courses to go with the beginner classes and programs that we know as junior golf.

There was one other tiny tidbit of news in 2017 worth noting. Steve Fuller, the president of the South Carolina Golf Association, who played quarterback for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, called on members to “give the gift of golf.”

Years ago, research told the industry that most golfers get into the game after being invited or introduced by someone they know. Yet, where have the programs been to activate or even incentivize the 25 million players—read potential ambassadors—of the game to that end? To be effective, Fuller’s appeal would need the kind of headlines that went into golf in the Olympics or the Rules of Golf, but imagine in 2018, if every golfer brought someone else to the game. Maybe all it would take is a little love, actually. Maybe it’s not that complicated after all.

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.

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