WHAT’S THE FU­TURE FOR GOLF?

WHEN IT COMES TO THE STATE OF OUR GAME, THERE’S SOME GOOD NEWS AND SOME BAD NEWS

The Cut - - CONTENTS -

It’s be­come a com­mon re­frain in the print me­dia, you hear peo­ple be­moan­ing it on ra­dio, and even the gen­er­ally pos­i­tive golf com­men­ta­tors on tele­vi­sion are not im­mune. It’s like a mantra: golf is in trou­ble. Club mem­ber­ships are fall­ing, golf re­tail­ers are lay­ing off staff… if not closing down al­to­gether… and tele­vi­sion rat­ings are down.

The X Games gen­er­a­tion is more turned on by Body Var­i­als and Melon Grabs than cut shots and draws and if women are not for­mally ex­cluded from the game they can be turned off by pa­tri­ar­chal club cul­tures pro­moted by chau­vin­is­tic club com­mit­tees.

As the­o­ries go, golf is a mid­dle-class game so the shrink­ing of the mid­dle class in the United States and the UK is also part of the prob­lem. Golf has grown in­creas­ingly more ex­pen­sive to play, they say, so with­out an af­flu­ent mid­dle class, who but the re­ally rich can af­ford it?

On that count, it’s worth not­ing that Don­ald Trump, the pre-em­i­nent owner of some of the best golf cour­ses in the world, has said that 40 per cent of all ac­tive golfers in the US earn more than $100,000 a year, em­pha­sis­ing the point of view that golf is once again be­com­ing a rich man’s game.

The Tiger Fac­tor un­doubt­edly helped boost recre­ational golf in re­cent years and Tiger’s pres­ence on the golf course lifted tele­vi­sion rat­ings, too. But that’s over now and while Rory McIroy might be ‘da man of the mo­ment’, his in­flu­ence on wider par­tic­i­pa­tion re­mains to be seen. My guess is, very lit­tle out­side of Ire­land.

If there is a sin­gu­lar rea­son cited by those con­cerned for the fu­ture of golf, it is time. Who has time any more to play a full round?

Rounds take four to five hours. Add on the prepa­ra­tion, drive time to the course, time on the range be­fore­hand, per­haps, and time for a drink or two af­ter­wards. In re­al­ity, play­ing 18 holes of golf can oc­cupy al­most a full day.

Who can ar­gue that golf is not in trou­ble when you have the peo­ple most in­volved in the game, from tour play­ers to spon­sors to golf course ar­chi­tects and own­ers, say­ing it is?

At the open­ing of his lat­est course in Viet­nam, Greg Nor­man told Paul My­ers of Golf Australia mag­a­zine that the game is in trou­ble be­cause, “Many young peo­ple re­gard golf as bor­ing as bat shit (while) a lot of peo­ple in golf of­fi­cial­dom are stuck in a box.”

Half a world away, as if it could not help it­self from ad­dress­ing the sit­u­a­tion, an ar­ti­cle on the short game with leg­endary coach Pete Cowan, tipster to Lee West­wood and Dar­ren Clarke, di­verted from wedge play to the state of the game.

Cowan told World­wide Golf, a Gary Player or­a­cle pub­lished in the Mid­dle East: “There are too many peo­ple fall­ing out of golf. Amer­ica has lost twenty per cent of golfers in the last ten years. I would es­ti­mate that Bri­tain has lost around thirty per cent. Peo­ple just aren’t play­ing golf — it takes too long.”

Spon­sors are con­cerned, too. Giles Mor­gan, the head of spon­sor­ship for HSBC and its mul­ti­mil­lion dollar in­vest­ment in golf, in­clud­ing the Open Cham­pi­onship, told BBC Sport that golf is “not mov­ing with the times.”

He added that the game was “at the cross­road at the mo­ment”.

“There are lots of pos­i­tives about golf but the world, par­tic­u­larly with dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and peo­ple’s time, has changed in the last fif­teen years be­yond any­body’s wildest dreams. I’m not sure golf has kept up,” he said.

Even The Econ­o­mist, a most un­likely source, has taken note. Re­port­ing on the clo­sure of a golf course in the Amer­i­can state of Louisiana, a re­gion that was a flurry of new-course ac­tiv­ity 15 years ago, it quotes the owner of the West Mon­roe Golf Club lament­ing loss of rev­enue.

One Satur­day, the club’s busiest day of the week, the club took in just $200 in green fees. That’s like one four­some the en­tire day.

“I some­times be­lieve I could give golf away and they still wouldn’t come,” the owner said.

The num­bers else­where are sim­i­lar. Golf club mem­ber­ships in Australia have been de­clin­ing on av­er­age by 1.5 per cent per an­num since 2000, ac­cord­ing to Cameron Wade, golf devel­op­ment direc­tor for Golf Australia.

“A num­ber of clubs are in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty and are ex­plor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to merge with other clubs,” he told The Cut.

Ac­cord­ing to UK news­pa­per The In­de­pen­dent, club membership in Scot­land is down 14 per cent since 2004. In Eng­land, it’s down 20 per cent over the same pe­riod.

When the Bri­tish Golf In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion launched a PR cam­paign by declar­ing a ‘Na­tional Golf Month’ as an at­tempt to bring 100,000 peo­ple back to the game, only 30,000 reg­is­tered.

New Zealand mir­rors th­ese trends. It’s been re­ported of­ten enough that golf club membership has de­clined in

re­cent years. While 425,000 New Zealan­ders claim to play at least one round a year, club membership has dropped to 115,000 from its peak of 132,000 in 2001.

The US is the largest golf mar­ket in the world with 15,350 golf fa­cil­i­ties and 25 mil­lion par­tic­i­pants pro­duc­ing an an­nual $70 bil­lion in­jec­tion into the Amer­i­can econ­omy.

Yet ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Golf Foun­da­tion, the or­gan­i­sa­tion that mon­i­tors golf in­dus­try trends, there have been eight con­sec­u­tive years where more golf cour­ses have closed than opened.

The re­port de­tailed that net loss this way: “Since 2006, course clos­ings have out­num­bered open­ings af­ter more than 4500 cour­ses had opened over the pre­vi­ous 15 years. Those cour­ses, many of which were built as part of real es­tate projects, shut down as the US re­ces­sion led to a re­duc­tion in home sales needed to sup­port the cour­ses. Golf club mem­ber­ships and rounds played also de­clined dur­ing the re­ces­sion.”

Steve Mona, the CEO of the World Golf Foun­da­tion in Florida, told The Cut that while golf in the US “has not re­turned to its high-wa­ter mark of par­tic­i­pa­tion in 2005, the game has been through two re­ces­sions and been more re­silient than many other in­dus­tries.” He added, “As for golf course open­ings and clo­sures, com­pres­sion in the US golf in­dus­try is pos­i­tive as sup­ply and de­mand reach equi­lib­rium.”

To be sure, Pel­lu­cid, a golf in­dus­try re­searcher, re­ports that golf course clo­sures in the US alone av­er­aged 137 a year over the last eight years. That led noted golf course ar­chi­tect Brian Cur­ley to quip, “If golf course ar­chi­tec­ture were a pub­licly traded stock, it would be a penny stock right now.”

Equip­ment mak­ers are cer­tainly feel­ing the pinch. An ar­ti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post en­ti­tled ‘Why Amer­ica fell out of love with golf’ (as if the party is al­ready over) re­ports that Tay­lorMade-Adi­das Golf (the world’s big­gest maker of golf clubs and clothes) saw sales nose­dive 28 per cent last year (2014).

That same story re­ports, “The num­ber of young peo­ple, aged 18 to 30, play­ing the game has sagged nearly 35 per cent over the last decade.”

Mark King, pres­i­dent of Adi­das North Amer­ica, is quoted, say­ing, “I don’t like where the game is go­ing.”

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