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

A Top Golf in Alexandria, Va.

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

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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

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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

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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.

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Bob Carney is a Contributing Editor at Golf Digest, writing for the magazine, its web site and sister publication Golf World. He’s an avid golfer and a single-digit handicap who has earned awards for his coverage of the industry and recreational golf. He is co-author, with Davis Love Jr. and Bob Toski, of How to Feel a Real Golf Swing.

Prior to joining Golf Digest, Carney wrote for the Bergen (NJ) Record and contributed stories to People Magazine and Time, among others. He earned a B.A. From University of Michigan, attended Columbia University Journalism School, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, where he managed to get in one or two rounds of golf.

83 COMMENTS

  1. I read a couple of the articles about Hispanics and Golf online. What was interesting were the comments especially after the articles dealing with golf courses and the undocumented workers on the maintenance crews. Every person, who commented about ‘illegals’ taking jobs, requested a cancellation of their subscriptions. No one said anything about boycotting the courses that hire ‘illegals’, only that they wanted their subscriptions cancelled. Its that kind of head in the sand attitude, that is destroying the game.

  2. […] Bob Carney with GolfWRX wrote a really interesting article just recently about the game and suggesti… It’s a great read. And as someone who is surround by three TopGolf complexes, we strongly agree with #1. TopGolf is a truly great thing for golf. The only real issue with the TopGolf concept is that it’s expensive and tends to cater to only a higher-end crowd. Golf certainly needs to be more affordable. […]

    • As a golfer,greenkeeper,and as always promoter of the game in any way i can see it played,on the streets or on a simple or well developed course.I encourage all to take part in a game that taught me how to be a gentleman.How to show true respect to all around me be they higher class or lower.I feel it made me grow hugely.I just wish i could find ways that i could pass it on and keep its legacy alive.

  3. Just like any other sport/hobby, some have the bankroll to take it to another level. That goes for everything, and I believe everyone has the right to do what they want with their money.
    Bottom line as someone said before, just getting into golf and putting the time which in turn costs money to get to the point of actually enjoying the game is to expensive to attract people to the game. That’s why so many 30 something’s play softball. Sponsored, cheap, and a price tag that doesn’t push people away.
    I’m all for programs mentioned at elementary schools to promote growth in youths, but please don’t change this game. I think the best part is the loyalty to your own dedication to the challenges and integrity of this game. Maybe have small courses for those who want to rent clubs and play a few holes (par 3’s? Do they still exist?) but I still wanna play 18 and attain my personal goals in this game, and enjoy a round at a beautiful course soaking in the 3.5 hours I enjoy so much, with those that share the same interests in this game. (Yes I had to slip that in there, agree carts slow things down) but I truly don’t think speed is the major hurdle. It’s money, and the time in general that must be invested to actually get enjoyment from this game.

  4. It all boils down to economics. Times are tough, so people are playing less, and course rates are going up to compensate. I caddie at a country club on the east end of Long Island, and since the recession, they have had to drop their bond, and offer other clubs incentives to entice people to join due to the dip in the membership caused by the economic times. Personally, since my life is not in the business side of golf, and I enjoy playing the emptier courses, I don’t want the game to grow because it just means slower rounds, and more corporations like American Golf taking over great courses and ruining them for a profit. Not trying to be a golf snob, but unless you enjoy 5 or 6 hour rounds, why would you want the game to grow. This whole argument will disappear when the middle class gets its spending power back since it traditionally is a game people pick up when they become a professional anyways.

    • So lets forget classes for a moment.Golf is about takin time to smell the flowers as jack once put it.2minutes of hitting a ball in 3.5-4hr round of golf.I maintain a course where members find problems with pin placements,but do not notice flowers and birds singing the sounds of spring.Golf is about challenging oneself against the course and still enjoying the relaxation that a walk in the countryside brings.I never blame a course for my bad golf,i blame my lack of preparation,but i still notice amazing place around me.

  5. I don’t know about other areas of the country, but where I live one of the biggest reasons for the drop in play is the cost to play. I hear as many people complain about that as I do about the pace of play and I never see anyone mention it when I read articles about growing the game. And by cost, I don’t just mean the green fees, although that is a big part of it. Courses that I used to pay $25-$30 a round now charge $45-$50. That really limits how many times a week\month people can play in these economic times. Equipment prices are high as well so getting into the game is costly which deters people from trying the game.

    As much as I agree with most everything said in this article and others like it, until cost is addressed in some way by course owners and club manufacturers, I think there will still be slow growth in the game going forward.

    • This has happened a lot where I am too. I live in an area with probably 15 courses within about an hours drive, and many of them have decided that they’re more upscale than they are. We have 2 truly “really nice” courses, and both are in the $60 range for 18. We also have 8-10 nice, but not special courses. A few of those have decided to try to move into the group with the 2 special courses, and have decided to jack up greens fees to make money, to then put that money into improvements. It’s tough to pay extra this year in the hopes that the course will be nicer next year.

      In related news, we added around 200 members for full or half memberships where we play, a course that has one decent and one really nice course, as people are seeing more value in spending $2k for the year and playing those 2 than trying to play at $40-60 a round at the other local courses.

  6. After reading all the comments on these great topics that Mr. Carney has brought to the table it seems that each in it’s own are worthy of a discussion alone. The one topic I don’t see is that all the attention of what’s wrong with golf was not brought on by the amateur’s and general public. The topic seemed to prosper right after the financial fall out, which in turn was followed by a very rainy year and a nationwide drought the next year. Since the profiting companies within this sport had to suffer a 6 year low period in revenue’s they decided that golfers were unhappy with the sport. That something is wrong on our level. This just isn’t true and never was. I never realized how bad it was till I ordered Golf Digest for my 2 son’s. It was cover to cover articles of whats wrong with the sport. Slow play… play nine…tee it forward…cost too much…youth are absent…not enough minority’s playing…blah blah blah…page after page. They are promoting negativity directly to us. I have played golf for nearly 35 years. There has always been slow play, the latest technology was a pinch out my budgets reach. Time has always been an issue. The game of golf doesn’t need it’s founders and governing bodies, manufacturer’s telling us that something is wrong with the game. Because there isn’t. It’s their bottom line that has a problem. I think the game is better than it has ever been. I’ve got better equipment, I hit better golf balls, I’ve got distance to the pin on my wrist all day long. I mean wow, this game is cool. I really like the Top Golf driving range.. neat. Our town doesn’t even have an independent driving range. And yes I like music when I play.

    • Can’t argue that those of us already in the game are enjoying a kind of “golden age” of golf, in course design (Doak, Coore, Crenshaw, Hanse, etal) and in equipment. But I think Golf Digest’s point, and mine, is that we are not doing a good enough job bringing new people in. Some of the things we golfers have become inured to—5 and 6- hour rounds, for example–are turnoffs. I tried to keep this list positive. Hope you’ll take it in that light. Bob

      • Bob,

        I think your article is very positive, and for that matter it seems WRX is purely positive, and it actually allows me to be a part and see a part of golf I would not be able to experience in rural America. What do you think can be done to help rural area’s like I am in. I can’t even find a junior program for my children without having to drive to a major city. The first tee is a nice program but only for the better than suburban area’s. And I’m not in the boondocks or anything just average size town USA.

  7. The biggest pace of play problem is people looking for balls deep in Neverland. Encourage the occasional golfers to play lost balls as if they were red staked. Maybe even figure out a way to allow rounds played that way to be used for handicaps.

    • Good rid of those god awful ball-fisher poles while you’re at it. I feel like exploding and hitting into every person I see using those. If their is nobody else on the course, do whatever the heck you want, but the last thing everyone wants to do is watch you fish for fricken golf balls. I’ll give you one if it means that much to you.

  8. I don’t think I have read anything that makes me worry as much about the future of golf as the section of this article on Bishop. The bit about “commercial grade speakers” and playing music on his practice range (with those objecting being provided ear plugs) pretty much epitomizes everything this guy has done and will do to his industry and the game. And, he heads the PGA (amazing).

    Also, on what basis does Bishop assume the mantle of the defender of the golfing public on the issue of anchored putting. He has an opinion — obviously. But, by casting his argument with golf governing bodies as one where he is looking out for the golfing public and those governing bodies are elitist and out of touch, he is engaging in a bit of demagoguery. No one knows where the public stands on this issue with any certainty (let alone Bishop’s own membership — he is a kook if he claims otherwise), and common sense (take a look around your course on any day) tells us anchored putters are a decided minority.

    The PGA has been in a daze since their effort to become merchandisers in the 80s and 90s clashed with the sudden change in golf retailing to big box. With teaching becoming a huge part of their public face, they seemed to be on the right track. However, a guy like Bishop doesn’t inspire confidence that, rather than just having to contend with the usual business challenges, the PGA won’t just go off the rails on their very own. That will be bad for golf (as the PGA has been a real guardian of the rules and integrity of the game in the past).

    • Playing music on the course is ridiculous. People that want to listen to music on the course have the option to use headphones. Another person and I were recently paired with a twosome that played the most offensive and vulgar music. I had two choices, put up with it and not enjoy the day or end my round and be disappointed that I was unable to play golf. Since the weather was good, I didn’t qualify for a rain check. No matter I’m never going there or any course that encourages open air music. Imagine sitting next to someone for 5 hours on a cross country flight while they blasted their choice of music. Not much difference. Who gets to decide what everyone wants to listen to?

    • HB, I think Bishop indeed is getting feedback from members who hear it from everyday golfers. Deane Beman told the USGA he wanted a pal, who could not even keep peas on a fork due to disease, to be able to use the long putter and keep playing. That’s the guy Bishop is speaking for. PGA members are also seeing young people turn away from the game. That’s a problem. But on the music thing, the last member-guest I played in included three or four teams playing music from their carts. If we’d objected, they would have turned it off. I survived.

  9. I worked with Jim Moore (mentioned in #4 of this article) at the Starburst Junior Golf Tournament. At the time of economic prosperity when he and Steve Smith were in charge, the tournament was one of the largest in the world. Jim brought a level of professionalism and integrity to the tournament that every participant enjoyed. Jim is top notch in his field.

    I wish more courses had push carts available for walkers, especially here in the flat lands of texas. I think push carts would speed up play. We all get the exercise that everyone needs without the back stress of carrying a bag. Carts are nice for hilly/stretched out courses, but they cause more delays than anything else.

    I absolutely love the 4, 5 and 7 hole loops. That would be perfect. I;d rather spend my time playing just 4 or 5 holes than an hour on the range and 30 minutes in the short game area.

    Someone in Houston, PLEASE MAKE T