How golf got into the rough

Inside Golf - - Starters Box - Richard Fell­ner Group Editor richard@in­sid­e­golf.com.au @in­sid­e­golf

As I’ve regularly dis­cussed in this col­umn, golf is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cult times. But how ex­actly did we get here?

In ex­am­in­ing our present, we must quickly look at our past.

Prior to the 1990s, golf was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered a bor­ing, elit­ist game for re­tirees. But with the en­trance of Tiger Woods into the pro­fes­sional ranks in 1996, ev­ery­thing changed. Tiger made the game ex­cit­ing for the masses. Peo­ple of all ages hopped onto the golf band­wagon. soon, landown­ers rushed to get cour­ses built, man­u­fac­tur­ers went into over­drive, the media took a new in­ter­est in golf, ad­ver­tis­ers came on board... it was a “golden age” for the in­dus­try.

Around this time, golf tech­nol­ogy (and im­proved player fit­ness, etc) had ad­vanced to a point that play­ers like Tiger, John Daly and oth­ers were hit­ting the ball into the strato­sphere, mak­ing cour­ses seem shorter and eas­ier. The im­me­di­ate re­sponse by the in­dus­try was to sim­ply make the cour­ses longer and more dif­fi­cult. In­stead of de­sign­ing cour­ses that placed a pre­mium on ac­cu­racy, the over­whelm­ing men­tal­ity was to add “Tiger tees”, ul­tra-pe­nal fair­way bunkers and su­per-thick rough.

The UsGA then took the “dif­fi­culty’ fac­tor to the next level. They soon de­manded longer, tougher cour­ses, ma­ni­a­cally pre­sent­ing lay­outs with knee-high rough, ul­tra-slick greens and ridicu­lous yardages. They put golf’s gla­di­a­tors into the arena and set the lions loose.

As play­ers made quick work of these ob­sta­cles, the media be­gan to glam­or­ise these “David and Go­liath” tri­umphs. Ul­tra-dif­fi­cult, long cour­ses soon be­came the Holy Grail.

Course own­ers and de­sign­ers then fol­lowed suit. They all wanted to host a Us Open. They wanted the pres­tige of hav­ing the long­est, tough­est cour­ses in the world. But in the process, they largely ig­nored the so­cial or club golfer’s abil­i­ties al­to­gether.

The av­er­age player was not able to keep up. In their at­tempt to “be like Tiger”, they wanted (and needed) to hit the ball fur­ther. Equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers re­sponded with a fo­cus pri­mar­ily on “Dis­tance dis­tance dis­tance!” From driv­ers to balls to shafts and ev­ery­thing in-be­tween, week­end golfers soon bought into the “grip it and rip it” men­tal­ity.

The prob­lem, how­ever, was that the av­er­age golfer didn’t have the ac­cu­racy re­quired to ben­e­fit from this ex­tra dis­tance. They just hit it fur­ther out of bounds (mak­ing the game harder, and slower). The pros, how­ever, were now get­ting even more dis­tance, thus fur­ther­ing the cy­cle for even longer cour­ses, etc.

Now, while many in the in­dus­try are quick to state that golf’s woes are due to the “ball go­ing too far”, keep in mind that, from the dawn of the game, there has al­ways been a race to im­prove golf equip­ment. Oth­er­wise, we’d still be play­ing with feath­eries and hick­ory shafts. And man­u­fac­tur­ers are sim­ply re­spond­ing to what the public wants, and, far more im­por­tantly, what they will pay big money for.

And that’s, I be­lieve, the key to golf’s cur­rent woes: Money.

At the height of the Tiger boom, golf be­came less of a pas­time, and more of a com­mer­cial jug­ger­naut.

Chas­ing the almighty dol­lar can of­ten lead to prob­lems for any busi­ness or com­pany. When an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s main goal shifts from mak­ing great prod­ucts (i.e. keep­ing cus­tomers happy) to in­stead mak­ing great prof­its (i.e. keep­ing share­hold­ers happy) then trou­ble can of­ten fol­low.

Cars, toast­ers, TVs... they used to last a life­time. Now, you’re lucky if they last a cou­ple of years, as man­u­fac­tur­ers pur­sue prof­its from re­peat sales or en­gi­neered ob­so­les­cence. Banks, air­lines, ho­tels (the list is ex­ten­sive) all tack on “ser­vice fees” at ev­ery turn to max­imise profit. This angers cus­tomers, and can force them to look else­where. Golf is no dif­fer­ent. some man­u­fac­tur­ers are in­tro­duc­ing new prod­ucts ev­ery six months (good for share­hold­ers, bad for the av­er­age cash-strapped golfer). The gov­ern­ing bod­ies like the R&A, UsGA and even coun­try-based bod­ies cur­rently seem to fo­cus more on their prof­itable na­tional cham­pi­onships, and seem­ingly less on grass­roots golf. A push for prof­its from TV, for ex­am­ple, has seen golf sold to the high­est bid­ders, thus mov­ing the Ma­jors from Free-to-Air TV (i.e. the masses—golf’s pre­ferred tar­get mar­ket) to Pay-TV (cashed-up sports trag­ics who are likely al­ready fans of the game.)

This is in stark con­trast to al­most ev­ery other main­stream sport in the world. Ten­nis, Cy­cling, Cricket, Footy, Base­ball, Bas­ket­ball (i.e. sports which are tak­ing par­tic­i­pants away from golf ) ALL have their ma­jor cham­pi­onships/ events avail­able to the masses on FTA. Their gov­ern­ing bod­ies re­alise that TV is still the om­nipo­tent medium to draw the masses into the game.

Yet golf (at least in Aus­tralia) stays hid­den away on Fox­tel, seem­ingly for the sake of short-term prof­its.

Even more wor­ry­ing: when the masses DO see golf on TV, we regularly bear wit­ness to re­ports of “car­nage on the course”. It’s hardly the im­age we want to por­tray of our fine sport.

This year’s Us Open at Cham­bers Bay is a per­fect ex­am­ple. The UsGA’s con­tin­ued push for dif­fi­cult cour­ses was dis­as­trous. In hind­sight, let­ting the UsGA give in­put into the de­sign of the course was, in my opin­ion, like ask­ing a fox for his opin­ion on de­sign­ing a hen­house.

When fans go to a sport­ing event, we don’t want to see strug­gles and strife. We want to see ex­cite­ment and ex­cel­lence. We want to see play­ers drain­ing long putts for birdie, not three-putting on an ice-skat­ing rink. We want to see long-iron ap­proaches stiffed to tap-in dis­tance, not hack­ing out of knee-high rough or ridicu­lously deep bunkers (like Cham­bers ‘Base­ment’).

so who is to blame? It’s easy to point fin­gers, but I be­lieve that we are all equally at fault. From the gov­ern­ing bod­ies, to man­u­fac­tur­ers, to the media to the golfers our­selves, we must all ac­cept some of the blame. The key, how­ever, is to all work to­gether to get out of the rough.

As al­ways, I welcome your com­ments.

Richard

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