By Bob Green

With the North Shore’s 2017 golf season winding down, it’s time to examine the state of our game.
In recent years, we’ve been bombarded with news that “golf is in trouble,” “the game isn’t growing,” and doomsday predictions that “golf is losing popularity” and “participation is dwindling.”

During the 1980s, baby boomers were reaching the age of making an impact on the economy. Real estate values were climbing as boomers entered the housing market. Salaries were going up.

Golf was growing along with the economy, and boomers were taking up the game in record numbers. In 1988, the National Golf Foundation issued a challenge to developers to “Build a golf course a day for 10 years” to meet the demand. The number of golf courses in the United States increased at an incredible rate over the next decade.

The flawed thinking was that there were enough new golfers to fill the memberships of all the courses that were being built, many of which were sprouting up in already-saturated areas. The costs of land, construction of the courses and the clubhouses, let alone yearly maintenance fees, were at a record high.

Supply exceeded demand.

This forced clubs to charge high initiation fees, high dues and green fees that were more than the average person could afford.

During the 1990s, developers bought land and built golf communities. The prediction was that houses in a golf community could sell for more than the same house outside of a golf community. It spurred the growth of even more golf course developments. The middle class couldn’t afford them. Consequently, lots went undeveloped and builders went bankrupt.

Again, supply exceeded demand.

It looked bad, with so many courses closing. But golf itself was not in trouble. Flawed thinking and unrealistic expectations were the reason for these closures, not that golf was “losing popularity.”

A market correction was needed.

In the mid- to late-’90s, more unrealistic expectations occurred, thanks to the arrival of a young phenom who was going to motivate hundreds of thousands of people to take up the game of golf: Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.

Golf industry leaders envisioned a large increase in participation from inner-city and minority teens and young adults. It didn’t happen. They certainly were fans, who watched Tiger on television, but they did not flock to golf courses and learn to play in the numbers anticipated.

In the meantime, the golf manufacturing side of the business exploded in anticipation of the demand for equipment, creating an oversupply. Again, the game itself was not in trouble just because the number of golfers hadn’t increased to meet the growth of a “new course per day” mantra and the glut of golf equipment manufactured to meet the anticipated demand of new golfers from the Tiger Boom.

Supply exceeded demand.

With the Tiger phenomena a thing of the past and participation numbers and revenues lagging, some industry leaders offered suggestions on how to interest more people to take up the game or play more.

TaylorMade Golf CEO Mark King created a game called “Hack Golf,” played with 15-inch cups, and manufactured a set of oversized, easy-to-hit, nonconforming clubs designed to make golf easier and, thus, more attractive.

“This is all just an experiment,” said Benoit Vincent, TaylorMade’s chief technology officer. “We have no idea what this will lead to, but that’s not stopping us from trying it out. The idea is to make golf more fun for more people. Part of the plan is to have people playing only for an hour or 90 minutes at a time, at least at first.”

All in the interest of furthering their goals, not the goals of those of us who love the game as it is. You see, it’s not about golf, it’s about money. Thankfully, such initiatives have not caught on.

Golf is and always will be a niche sport. The entire population of the United States does not have to play golf to keep the game vibrant and successful. It would be great if everyone in the world played golf, but that’s not realistic in any sport. Despite that, golf has grown incredibly in the past 50 years.
The PGA of America, USGA, LPGA, PGA Tour and Masters Tournament, in the spirit of collaboration, are working with each other to focus on four major areas to develop the game: bringing the game to young people and improving player development on an adult level, accessibility, retaining golfers and sustainability. PGA Junior League, Drive, Chip, & Putt, Get Golf Ready, LPGA USGA Girls Golf, and the First Tee are some of the initiatives that are serving to grow the game at incredible rates at the youth level.

The PGA Tour has a group of young, exciting-to-watch players like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. I’m sure they will pique the interest of young people. Besides being incredibly talented, their attitude toward each other brings a breath of fresh air to competition at the sport’s highest level. They are all outstanding role models, the way they play, compete, and their genuinely positive attitude toward
their fellow competitors.

Does golf have some things to work on? Of course, all sports do. Some of those are slow play, equipment costs, green fees, membership dues and easier-to- understand rules.

There are options for affordable equipment. Many public and municipal courses offer discounted green fees to juniors and seniors. There are several online tee time websites that offer substantially discounted green fees at several area courses during off-peak times.

The USGA and R&A have proposed changes to simplify the rules that will be finalized next year and go into effect Jan. 1, 2019. New top of the line golf clubs are expensive, but there are many avenues to buy used clubs that are affordable. Many companies offer good second-line clubs at reasonable prices.

The patient is not sick. The game will continue to grow, but at a sensible rate, not the rates that were anticipated 20 years ago.

We all want to see golf grow, but certainly not at the expense of compromising the great game with 15-inch cups and non-conforming equipment.

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