Michael Smith, Deputy Chairman of NZ Golf Inc., gives some thoughts on the relevance of golf today.
I suspect there would be many reading this article who are old enough to remember the days when we dressed in our finest when travelling, whether by land, sea or air. Today the dress code for travel is way more relaxed, comfortable and practical. You don't have to be too old to recognise that the age old business of ferrying passengers by taxi has been tipped on its head by a phone app.
One of the largest publishing entities on the planet has no writers, but rather allows authors and individuals to post their own content using their platform. One of the largest retailers on the planet has no stock of its own nor warehousing, but co-ordinates buyers and sellers and delivery through an online process.
The challenge for the wonderful game we enjoy is to recognise the disruptive risks to the popularity of participation. The related challenge is to ensure that we can be flexible enough to refresh the way our game is offered to retain its relevance. The burning platform is the average age of the member of a golf club in New Zealand gradually increasing year on year and currently sitting around mid-60s. To a certain extent one of the beautiful features of golf serves to mask one of the biggest threats. That is, that with the handicap system unique to our game, players of all ability and, in particular, age, can enjoy the game deep into their twilight years. To examine the numbers of members of golf clubs without regard to the age and proximity to the very edge of the burning platform is shades of King Canute vainly trying to command the waves.
As well as the struggle of retaining golf as a relevant option for time hungry millennials, many courses are faced with the issue of continued sustainability. There are a number of contributors, ranging from dwindling membership to courses on Council owned land, where a range of geo-political pressures from population growth to balance sheet pressure have bought scrutiny to relatively large tracts of land occupied by urban golf courses. There is a perception that golf is a sport for the well-heeled elite, which is not helpful in arguing the case for retention of critical golf infrastructure. The viability of on-course facilities and café and bar type facilities especially, is a challenge.
Clubhouses and courses that are set up as multi-functional type facilities make a lot of sense. By way of example, the Balmacewen Tennis Club is comfortably situated now in the beautiful grounds of the Otago Golf Club and sharing bar catering clubhouse facilities. The outcome has multi-layer benefits, including young families using the facilities and recreating in a golf club environment. The Old Course at St Andrews has public walkways allowing community access. To retain the privilege of having courses on Council land, we rapidly need to make the facilities more inclusive of a broader range of recreational facilities than solely golf.
We need to collectively challenge the relevance of features of our game and our clubs which may be an impediment to attract or retain younger participants. There are any number of examples where the passage of time has overtaken outdated conventions.
A common issue for younger people is pressure of time. There are any number of examples of shorter forms of our traditional games which have proved to be very popular and, in some cases, game changing - cricket, rugby, rugby league. Golf should be no exception and yet we have clubs still who are allergic to nine hole memberships and clubs where nine hole membership whilst allowed, don't have full membership rights like voting, etc.
We have challenges with the relevance of outdated dress codes. We need to very carefully examine the rationale between trying to justify the very smart collarless Tiger Woods Nike T-shirt being unacceptable in the clubhouse where the cheap and nasty $20 collared T-shirt is acceptable. Sandals and jandals in summer ought not to be an issue. The hash tags around dress code ought to be appropriate and relevant and having respect for the institution of both the game and the club. But respect is earned, not prescribed and an example of expectation is way better than a stop sign with a list at the door in terms of a welcome.
Tradition can and does form a very important part of the fabric and history of where our game has come from. Continuing to prescribe traditions in the face of challenges to the relevancy of our game and how we deliver it, runs close to offending the old adage of doing the same things the same way and expecting a different result. What is important is retention of the respect for not only the traditions, but those who have worked, strategized, volunteered and done all that is required to facilitate the evolution of the game to where it is today. Respect is earned, not prescribed. Our club facilities need to be welcoming and a good club culture will ensure that those facilities and services and the people who have and continue to provide them, are respected, along with the important and relevant traditions of the game.
Our game faces some fundamentally important issues. Some of the answers to which may reside in our members and participants as an untapped resource. We need to be brave enough to listen to the players as owners of the game, particularly the younger ones and encourage thought leadership from within.