Once in a while, when I write about “growing the game,” someone responds: “Really, what difference does it make?” Or, as an editor said:
“Our job is to provide access so people who want to play can play. If they don’t, they won’t. So what.”
Which, I thought, is like BMW saying: “We have cars and stores and if you want one of our cars you’ll find one of our stores.”
Would that it were that simple.
I want golf to stay healthy — to grow, not shrink as it is now — for all of the benefits and investment that growth brings. Stronger courses. Better maintenance. Cooler, more helpful equipment. More golf to watch. And most of all, more friends to share the sport with.
Here’s seven ways our game could gain new life in 2014.
No. 1: More Top Golf
Have you been to a Top Golf franchise? On the one hand, it’s a multi-level driving range, with automatized, point-scoring targets, providing great practice even for accomplished golfers. On the other hand, it’s a sports bar where golf broke out — classier than a bowling alley, with much better food — but all about socializing. Run by restaurateurs, Top Golf’s goals are access and attraction. It welcomes outings, leagues, corporate “meetings,” total beginners — you name it. When Mark King, the CEO of TaylorMade, said that going forward lots of new golfers would come from “non-traditional” sources, Top Golf was what he had in mind. Right now Top Golf’s only in Arizona, Illinois, Virginia and Texas, with Georgia on the drawing board. We wish it would open three shops in every other state next year. It’s that good.
No. 2: More Ted Bishop
The President of the PGA is an earnest, plain-speaking Midwesterner who brought light and, OK, a lot of heat, to the golf conversation this year. By arguing against the anchoring ban he stood up for his members — and their members — and promoted the golfer over “The Game.” He made the case more strongly than ever that legislating the same rules for tour pros and trunk slammers is futile. To make sure the PGA continues to take similar independent stands — and to listen to its members — Bishop hired Pete Bevacqua as the association’s CEO, a great move. Bishop was not a breath of fresh air in 2013; he was a truckload of oxygen. And like any attentive salesman, he brought an appreciation for his customers’ time and experiences to his job. “The primary challenge in the game is the time it takes to play. We’re working to create golf experiences of 30 to 90 minutes,” he told GolfWRX. At his course in Indiana, inspired by Top Golf, Bishop installed commercial grade speakers and now plays music for the practicers (and gave out earplugs to those who don’t like it). He also switched his equipment contract from Titleist to TaylorMade and declared Mark King a kindred spirit. “Though we have respect for the rules we don’t necessarily think they are the foundation of the game,” he said. That was the sound of the golf industry catching its breath.
No. 3: More Stableford
OK, Stableford sounds like a stuffy old PG Wodehouse character, doesn’t it? “Percy Stableford twitched nervously over his last Spalding Dot…” So call it Points Golf. Or Positive Golf. The point is you score points; you don’t document disasters. Bogey counts 1, par counts 2, birdie counts 3, eagle counts 4. Forget the collapses. Made a 9 on the 10th? No matter. Just give yourself a zero. We are obsessed with score in this country and our handicap system encourages us to count every meaningless shot and to play every stupid stroke even as we compete in match play: “I’m out of the hole but I need to putt out for my handicap.” Ugh. A recipe for slow play, myopic scorekeeping and low-grade depression. Playing for points, as they do in Ireland and Europe, is more fun, faster, and, we’d argue, makes a bunch more sense to our kids who compete for points in every other sport they play. Under Points Golf, you still get help if you need it. If you average 25 points and play someone who averages par (36) you’d get help on the 11 hardest holes. Try it for a few rounds. It’s OK if you don’t know whether you shot 102 or 103.
No. 4: More Science Against Slow Play
The USGA’s Pace of Play Symposium this fall was a great thing, not because the findings presented were earth shattering, but because they precisely defined what exactly undermines healthy pace of play and what doesn’t. Example: A course’s first group of the day gets off-pace by less than a minute. By day’s end, the last group is an hour behind! That first group is critical! USGA Technical Director Matt Pringle and Jim Moore of the association’s Green Section were the stars of the show, demonstrating how intervention with key groups (Pringle) and analysis of a course’s “wear” patterns (Moore) can help you solve the game’s most destructive problem. The other day on Twitter I heard two players in Florida moaning about how they’d walked off a very good course after nine holes because they were on a 5:30 pace. That course will never see them again. It doesn’t have to be that way. If someone asks you to wear a monitor this season as part of one a data-gathering effort, please say yes. What Moore, Pringle and course owners such as Troon Golf with its “Time Par” are demonstrating is that slow play is soluble. We can do this.
No. 5: More Lizette Salas
I hope you’ve read the Golf Digest series on Hispanics and Golf. And though Hispanics are very involved in our game—mostly taking care of our courses—they are not playing at the level we need them to if golf is to stay healthy. Suffice it to say that any U.S. company, industry or activity — or sport — that does not attract Latinos is doomed to struggle and probably fail. In just the next five years, Hispanic buying power, already $1.3 trillion, is expected to grow 48 percent—against a national average of about half that. One in four of our kids is Hispanic. And though Hispanics are very involved in our game, they are not playing at the level we need them to if golf is to stay healthy. Says Chiqui Cartagena, VP of corporate marketing for Univision: “Absolutely you can sell a sport! It’s very similar to selling a product. The key is to find the right cultural message.” Right now, that message is hit and miss. Though we’ve produced champions such as Chi Rodriguez, Nancy Lopez and younger tour players like the LPGA’s Lizette Salas, golf has not promoted itself to the Hispanic community as football or baseball have. It’s time it did.
No. 6: More 5-hole “Loops”
Streamsong, the hot new 36-hole Florida golf resort has a lot going for it. Three of the smartest designers in the game — Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw — to start. Two courses (both on Golf Digest’s list of Best New Courses) that have a natural feel and a linksy look are getting A-plus ratings. But Streamsong’s got something else going for it, something a number of smart golf operators around the country are offering: loops. Loops of 4, 5 and 7 holes that give you a chance to play when you don’t have much time, a chance to sample a course you’ll play the next day, or a chance to play “a few more” as the sun goes down. It’s part of a movement in the game to match golf experience with customers’ time. It’s fine to say, as Golf Digest did this year, you have time for nine! But sometimes you don’t. So places like Streamsong, Marine Park in New York or Island Hills Golf Club in Michigan are offering “loops” of even fewer holes. It’s still golf.
No. 7: More Caddies….and caddie scholarships
I’m biased here, having attended the University of Michigan on an Evans Scholarship — which paid for the entire tuition and room bill, a fortune to parents faced with putting six kids through college — but caddying is a huge plus for our game. It speeds things up. It adds an element of luxury to any course and round, which is why great new venues such as Bandon Dunes offer them. It gives kids a door into learning the game, and a chance to earn a bunch of money. It gave birth to the best golf movie ever. And it provides golfers a way to give back by creating scholarships at the club, association and national level. Moving First Tee kids to caddy programs is one of the really smart things that took place in 2013. We need more of that. If you belong to a club, support your caddy program. If you play at a public course, try taking a caddy at least once this season. Maybe your own kid! Let’s keep the loopers coming.
Here’s wishing you, and all of golf, a lively, prosperous 2014.