Let’s cut to the chase. Has there been a precipitous drop in golf participation or is it the hand wringing of borderline operators? I promised an analysis based on fact and will proceed accordingly.
Before I start, I want to talk about professional golf: the PGA, LPGA, Champions and Web.com tours. This is not golf as far as a participation issue. It’s TV entertainment played by the most skilled golfers in the world. Take away TV and the purses would be peanuts with the PR folks desperately looking for sponsors.
As a percentage, professional golfers represent some 0.05-to-0.07 percent of all golfers, but if you read the golf magazines and listen to golf commentary and you might think that they were golf. No business model focuses on 0.05 percent of the market for decision making, yet the ruling bodies are greatly influenced by these stars and it’s almost as if the other 99.95 percent of golfers don’t count. Yes the pros are a factor in showing us the game at its highest level and yes they can be considered a positive influence. When you see the participation hard numbers, you will also see that while they’re a factor they haven’t moved the needle.
Add in the elite amateurs (another miniscule group: about 3.4 percent of golfers who play almost to a professional level) and we see more examples of an industry that focuses on the minority. Look up courses on the internet and you’ll find language such as, “Come play our 7200-yard, ultra-challenging course,” etc.
Really, if all the amateurs in the U.S. who could actually play a 7200-yard course were to play golf at the same time, there would be still be tons of empty golf courses in this country. But I digress…
This segment is about a statistical evaluation of participation. My primary database is The National Golf Foundation (NGF). The NGF is sponsored by the various facets of the golf industry and produce a variety of studies on participation. I promised facts not opinions, but others besides me have accused the NGF of painting the numbers in the best possible light. I prefer to look at the data and state the obvious.
- The NGF reports a core base of some 25 million golfers, down from 30 million in 2000.
- Some 40 percent of that total is a category called occasional golfers, who are age 6 and up who play more than once per year. In 2000, they accounted for about 9.1 million golfers. In 2012, that number grew to 11.6 million golfers.
- Then we have core golfers, who are age 6 and up who play more than eight times per year. They accounted for about 19.7 million golfers in 2000, but only 13.7 million golfers in 2012.
- I like to focus on what the NGF calls avid golfers, which are folks (age 6 and up) who play more than 25 times per year. In 2000, there were 10.2 million avid golfers, but that number dropped nearly 4 million to 6.4 million in 2012.
Why focus on avid golfers you might ask? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting the members of the other categories to play more? In fact, if you look at the occasional category you’ll see that it actually increased from 9.1 million in 2000 to 11.6 million in 2014. This would be an example of selective analysis, something for a cheerleader. I could point out this fact to the exclusion of all others. But when you look at the accumulated numbers, one thing is evident; there has been some success getting new players to the course, but it’s been overridden by the fact that they don’t continue playing.
I’m not going into the population factor in detail; over the years we had a significant increase as golf went up AND down. Today’s Caucasian population rate of increase is down, so overall increases come from minorities who are not inclined toward golf as a group. I could turn this data alone into a very negative assessment, but let’s just say population isn’t a positive factor.
In the marketing business this is very serious. The hard job is new customers, and when you get them and can’t keep them you have a major problem.
When I looked at the numbers in greater detail I learned that the avid category picked up the tab for some 71 percent of all golf-related expenses. So a modest increase in the avid category has greater impact than a more significant increase in the other two. If we add in the golfers who play more than eight rounds a year, we now have 94 percent of golf spending.
What about junior golf? What have all the industry sponsored programs achieved? It’s down 10 percent since 2000 and more than 20 percent since it peaked in 2005. That could be the subject of a study unto itself, but the bottom line is that it isn’t something of promise for the future. You can join the NGF for $125 a year if you want to peruse their data.
During the last 14 years there has been a variety of articles blaming weather, the economy and a variety of short-term influences. I maintain that over 14 years these influences have been mitigated.
Why are golfers leaving? In all surveys there is one dominant theme; too slow, no fun. And, for the record, too slow IS no fun.
This will evoke a response from those who say I’m ignoring cost. Not at all; I’m just focused on optimizing value. More than 145 courses closed in 2013 and the vast majority had greens fees and carts under $40. Value first, cost will follow. There was very inexpensive tennis during its decline.
There probably isn’t a reader that can’t point to one specific negative factor that is beyond my boundaries. There is the whole concept of disregarding rules and using “fixes” like 15-inch cups.
I understand the thinking behind all that, but with the overall objective of increasing participation I’ll stay focused; golf needs more avid players. We know who we want to get more involved in the game and we know why they are leaving. Let’s give the plan for bringing them back a 100 percent focused effort. If it shows no progress after a credible time period then we can go off the reservation.
Clark: A teacher’s take on Brandel Chamblee’s comments
Because I’m writing to a knowledgeable audience who follows the game closely, I’m sure the current Brandel Chamblee interview and ensuing controversy needs no introduction, so let’s get right to it.
Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player, now plays a role as a TV personality. He has built a “brand” around that role. The Golf Channel seems to relish the idea of Brandel as the “loose cannon” of the crew (not unlike Johnny Miller on NBC) saying exactly what he thinks with seeming impunity from his superiors.
I do not know the gentleman personally, but on-air, he seems like an intelligent, articulate golf professional, very much on top of his subject matter, which is mostly the PGA Tour. He was also a very capable player (anyone who played and won on the PGA Tour is/was a great player). But remember, nowadays he is not being judged by what scores he shoots, but by how many viewers/readers his show and his book have (ratings). Bold statements sell, humdrum ones do not.
For example, saying that a teacher’s idiocy was exposed is a bold controversial statement that will sell, but is at best only partly true and entirely craven. If the accuser is not willing to name the accused, he is being unfair and self-serving. However, I think it’s dangerous to throw the baby out with the bathwater here; Brandel is a student of the game and I like a lot of what he says and thinks.
His overriding message in that interview is that golf over the last “30-40 years” has been poorly taught. He says the teachers have been too concerned with aesthetics, not paying enough attention to function. There is some truth in that, but Brandel is painting with a very broad brush here. Many, myself included, eschewed method teaching years ago for just that reason. Method teachers are bound to help some and not others. Maybe the “X swing” one player finds very useful, another cannot use it all.
Brandel was asked specifically about Matthew Wolff’s unique swing: Lifting the left heel, crossing the line at the top, etc. He answered, “of course he can play because that’s how he plays.” The problem would be if someone tried to change that because it “looked odd.” Any teacher worth his weight in salt would not change a swing simply because it looked odd if it was repeating good impact. I learned from the great John Jacobs that it matters not what the swing looks like if it is producing great impact.
Now, if he is objecting exclusively to those method teachers who felt a certain pattern of motions was the one true way to get to solid impact, I agree with him 100 percent. Buy many teach on an individual, ball flight and impact basis and did not generalize a method. So to say “golf instruction over the last 30-40 years” has been this or that is far too broad a description and unfair.
He goes on to say that the “Top Teacher” lists are “ridiculous.” I agree, mostly. While I have been honored by the PGA and a few golf publications as a “top teacher,” I have never understood how or why. NOT ONE person who awarded me those honors ever saw me give one lesson! Nor have they have ever tracked one player I coached. I once had a 19 handicap come to me and two seasons later he won the club championship-championship flight! By that I mean with that student I had great success. But no one knew of that progress who gave me an award.
On the award form, I was asked about the best, or most well-known students I had taught. In the golf journals, a “this-is-the-teacher-who-can-help-you” message is the epitome of misdirection. Writing articles, appearing on TV, giving YouTube video tips, etc. is not the measure of a teacher. On the list of recognized names, I’m sure there are great teachers, but wouldn’t you like to see them teach as opposed to hearing them speak? I’m assuming the “ridiculous” ones Brandel refers to are those teaching a philosophy or theory of movement and trying to get everyone to do just that.
When it comes to his criticism of TrackMan, I disagree. TrackMan does much more than help “dial in yardage.” Video cannot measure impact, true path, face-to-path relationship, centeredness of contact, club speed, ball speed, plane etc. Comparing video with radar is unfair because the two systems serve different functions. And if real help is better ball flight, which of course only results from better impact, then we need both a video of the overall motion and a measure of impact.
Now the specific example he cites of Jordan Spieth’s struggles being something that can be corrected in “two seconds” is hyperbolic at least! Nothing can be corrected that quickly simply because the player has likely fallen into that swing flaw over time, and it will take time to correct it. My take on Jordan’s struggles is a bit different, but he is a GREAT player who will find his way back.
Brandel accuses Cameron McCormick (his teacher) of telling him to change his swing. Do we know that to be true, or did Jordan just fall into a habit and Cameron is not seeing the change? I agree there is a problem; his stats prove that, but before we pick a culprit, let’s get the whole story. Again back to the sensationalism which sells! (Briefly, I believe Jordan’s grip is and has always been a problem but his putter and confidence overcame it. An active body and “quiet” hands is the motion one might expect of a player with a strong grip-for obvious reason…but again just my two teacher cents)
Anyway, “bitch-slapped” got him in hot water for other reasons obviously, and he did apologize over his choice of words, and to be clear he did not condemn the PGA as a whole. But because I have disagreements with his reasoning here does not mean Brandel is not a bright articulate golf professional, I just hope he looks before he leaps the next time, and realizes none of us are always right.
Some of my regular readers will recall I “laid down my pen” a few years ago, but it occurred to me, I would be doing many teachers a disservice if I did not offer these thoughts on this particular topic!
A trip down Magnolia Memory Lane: Patron fashion at the 1991 Masters
Like a lot of golfers out there, I’ve been getting my fix thanks to the final round Masters broadcasts on YouTube via the Masters channel. Considering these broadcasts go back as far as 1968, there is a lot we could discuss—we could break down shots, equipment, how the course has changed, but instead I thought we could have a little fun taking a different direction—fashion.
However, I’m not talking players fashion, that’s fairly straight forward. Instead, I wanted to follow the action behind the action and see what we could find along the way – here are the 1991 Highlights.
I love the “Die Hard” series as much as anyone else but one fan took it to a new level of fandom by wearing a Die Hard 2 – Die Harder T-shirt to Sunday at the Masters. This patron was spotted during Ian Woosnam fourth shot into 13. Honorable mention goes to Woosie’s gold chain.
There is a lot going on here as Ben Crenshaw lines up his put on 17. First, we have the yellow-shirted man just left of center with perfectly paired Masters green pants to go along with his hat (he also bears a striking resemblance to Ping founder Karsten Solheim). Secondly, we have what I would imagine is his friend in the solid red pants—both these outfits are 10 out of 10. Last but not least, we have the man seen just to the right of Ben with sunglasses so big and tinted, I would expect to be receiving a ticket from him on the I20 on my way out of town.
If you don’t know the name Jack Hamm, consider yourself lucky you missed a lot of early 2000s late-night golf infomercials. OK so maybe it’s not the guy known for selling “The Hammer” driver but if you look under the peak of the cabin behind Woosie as he tees off on ten you can be forgiven for taking a double-take… This guy might show up later too. Honorable mention to the pastel-pink-shorted man with the binoculars and Hogan cap in the right of the frame.
Big proportions were still very much in style as the 80s transitioned into the early 90s. We get a peek into some serious style aficionados wardrobes behind the 15th green with a wide striped, stiff collared lilac polo, along with a full-length bright blue sweater and a head of hair that has no intention of being covered by a Masters hat.
Considering the modern tales of patrons (and Rickie Folwer) being requested to turn backward hats forward while on the grounds of Augusta National, it was a pretty big shock to see Gerry Pate’s caddy with his hat being worn in such an ungentlemanly manner during the final round.
Before going any further, I would like us all to take a moment to reflect on how far graphics during the Masters coverage has come in the last 30 years. In 2019 we had the ability to see every shot from every player on every hole…in 1991 we had this!
At first glance, early in the broadcast, these yellow hardhats threw me for a loop. I honestly thought that a spectator had chosen to wear one to take in the action. When Ian Woosnam smashed his driver left on 18 over the bunkers it became very apparent that anyone wearing a hard hat was not there for fun, they were part of the staff. If you look closely you can see hole numbers on the side of the helmets to easily identify what holes they were assigned to. Although they have less to do with fashion, I must admit I’m curious where these helmets are now, and what one might be worth as a piece of memorabilia.
Speaking of the 18th hole, full credit to the man in the yellow hat (golf clap to anyone that got the Curious George reference) who perfectly matched the Pantone of his hat to his shirt and also looked directly into the TV camera.
It could be said the following photo exemplifies early ’90s fashion. We have pleated Bermuda shorts, horizontal stripes all over the place and some pretty amazing hairstyles. Honorable mention to the young guys in the right of the frame that look like every ’80s movie antagonist “rich preppy boy.”
What else can I say except, khaki and oversized long sleeve polos certainly had their day in 1991? We have a bit of everything here as Tom Watson lines up his persimmon 3-wood on the 18th. The guy next to Ian Woosnam’s sleeves hit his mid-forearm, there are too many pleats to count, and somehow our Jack Hamm look-alike managed to find another tee box front row seat.
You can check out the full final-round broadcast of the 1991 Masters below.
The 19th Hole Episode 119: Gary Player joins the 19th Hole!
Hall of Famer Gary Player gives an exclusive one-on-one interview with Host Michael Williams about his life in golf, his thoughts on the current game and his tips for thriving even in difficult times.
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