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Not making the college golf cut

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Golf participation for the Millennial demographic (ages 18-to-34), has decreased 30 percent in the past 20 years, and the remedy to bring the game back to us remains largely unsolved.

I relish the hot summer days when I’d bang range balls for a few hours, play nine holes and caddy during the afternoon. Life was good, life was golf. My circle of friends lived a similar lifestyle, played junior tournaments and some of us moved onto the college ranks. And then something funny happened. The game tied to our personal being somehow separated as we started careers in different cities. My golfing buddies and I aren’t alone.

The problem begins in the transition between high school and college. In 2012, 152,725 students played competitively in high school, yet only 12,147 students played varsity college golf that year, according to scholarshipstats.com. If you are part of the lucky 8 percent playing golf for a college team, you play for free and get handed school-logoed Pro V1’s. But what happens to those not on varsity who are forced to pay for their own golf, find transportation and courses that actually welcome their business? Some students attend one of the 100 or so universities that have courses on campus, but for many, the clubs don’t make it to the dorm room and students drop the game temporarily.

On the bright side, there has been a significant uptick in number of collegiate club golf teams from 50 to over 200 in the past year alone.  Many of these club golf teams now compete in student-led weekend tournaments in the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA). The organization takes a proactive role—a grassroots effort of sorts—in recruiting and working with students to start school-recognized and funded club golf programs off the ground. While the NCCGA has carved out a niche for competitive non-varsity golfers, it struggles to assist more recreational players or students brand new to the game.

At Michigan State’s club golf fair in the fall of 2011, nearly 500 students signed up with an interest in joining the club, but only a few dozen ultimately remain on the competitive club team roster. The gap could be filled by finding a solution to keep more of these fringe college golfers in the game by getting PGA professionals to teach lessons on campus, helping them improve and stay interested.

CollegeGolf1

The problem—specifically with Millennial golfer participation—begins in college but exacerbates as a young professional.

“Consistently keeping up a golf game has been very difficult since moving to Manhattan,” says Ryan Down, a 26 year-old former Yale varsity golfer. “Transportation is the main issue: most people don’t have cars in the city, which sometimes means two trains and a cab to get to a course. The other difficulty is the lack of availability of decent courses that aren’t constantly packed with weekend golfers. All in all, it can easily be an 8 hour commitment including the ride to and from the course.”

With often 60+ hour workweeks and a lack of transportation options, golf is just not feasible on weekends like it was back in high school. Young professional golfers in cities such as New York, Boston, DC, San Francisco and Chicago face serious barriers in making it out the links on any regular basis.

I live in Boston where I can’t afford to own a parking spot, so I’m left stranded if I haven’t secured one of the few public spaces before 7 p.m., thereby making playing golf after work a serious challenge. Improving or sharpening my game is a thing of the past. For the modern young professional, playing golf requires planning, commitment from friends and some serious dollars if you’re looking to play a decent track with the rest of the masses on summer weekends.

Is golf officially dead for college students and young professionals? Does the industry just need to wait until we turn 40, own a house with a white fence and join the local country club? The answer is no, however, the industry needs to make changes in becoming more relevant to younger consumers. The explosive growth of the NCCGA proves the demand for competitive golf for single-digit handicap players at the non-varsity collegiate level.

So why is nobody extending competitive golf into the young adult space? As a former D3 golfer who plays twice a month, I have zero business spending $125 trying to shoot 74 and qualify for the state amateur. That said, I’d love to compete against other serious golfers around my age in a more relaxed environment.

Theories exist — including foot golf, 15-inch cups and actually using media effectively — to help Millennials keep golf fun and accessible, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. If you have thoughts on ways to engage the next generation of golfers, shoot a note to Mike@nextgengolf.org or better yet, tweet to @MikeBelkin11.

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Mike Belkin is a Co-Founder of Nextgengolf & Director of College Golfer Happiness. Mike played varsity golf at Amherst College, currently resides in Boston, and is passionate about growing the game for millennials. Contact Mike on Twitter @MikeBelkin11 or Mike@nextgengolf.org

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Tom

    Jul 7, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    You’ve brought up some good points and as a single digit who didn’t start playing until I was in my late twenties I have to disagree with the premise that another person or organization should be involved in motivating the “latent” 12m+ population. Unfortunately golf is very hard and time consuming. IMHO this is a cultural issue that runs deep in the “millennial” population – I’m not a sociologist but I think there needs to be a more comprehensive study of what is driving this population. I took up golf because of the challenge and because I wanted to play. It was a singular, individual decision. Even if you motivate 10% of that 12m you’re referencing to play you’re only replacing the losses from the older generation. Socially and culturally things have shifted and the CC lifestyle along with 4.5 hr rounds on weekends (assuming you live somewhere close to a golf course) just aren’t feasible for the Millennial populations. Forgive me if I’m coming across in a negative light. I respect your article and the points you raise but this may be a problem that can’t be solved. It may just be part of the natural expansion/contraction life cycle that everything goes through. I think we should question the question – why should we grow golf?

  2. Peter Kratsios

    Jul 7, 2014 at 8:06 am

    First and foremost, I’d like to say that NextGenGolf and NCCGA are the types of initiatives the golf industry needs in their effort to grow participation amongst millennials. I too played collegiate golf at a D3 college, which provided me many benefits that my friends were unable to take advantage of. However, it were those benefits that have made me realize how unrealistic it is to play competitively at age 25 in local tournaments. Events range from $125-200, which is a steep price for someone simply looking to enjoy a competitive round of golf.

    I look forward to seeing how these organizations develop in the future.

  3. Dave

    Jul 6, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Great picture of South Station in Boston. That picture could have been of me a few weeks ago.

  4. Neil

    Jul 4, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    It’s definitely a time issue with me, having two young kids; I practice way more than I get out.
    Hopefully one or both them are interested in getting out on the course with Dad as that will
    increase my course time ten fold.

  5. Bobby

    Jul 3, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Great article, Mike. I never thought that I would be playing golf regularly in college, but being on a club golf team allows me to play competitively while still focusing on academics and maintaining a healthy social life. Practices are optional, tournaments are held twice per semester, and no classes are missed. Playing club golf certainly helps student golfers get the most out of their college experience.

  6. Peter Klemperer

    Jul 3, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Great article. Club sports are a great opportunity for college students to get involved in athletics without the pressure or time commitment of varsity sports. I didn’t own a car in college but the team provided great opportunities for group training and rides races all over the midwest. I’m sure the same thing could be replicated with golf.

    As a younger professional having recently moved to Northern California I find the courses plentiful but generally packed. I tend to play my 18-hole rounds as early as possible to avoid the crowds or seek out par-3/9-hole courses for after work golf.

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks Peter. Going out and playing early is way to do it so long as you can get some friends to join you! I used to play a Newton Commonwealth, a city course in Boston, with may dad on weekends and tee off at 5:15, we’d be off the course by 8am and have the whole day free (with a brief nap, of course).

  7. Allen Freeman

    Jul 3, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Speaking of the costs of playing in tournaments, check out the petition to the USGA to make playing in national championships more affordable: http://chn.ge/1xu0WNX

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Very interesting, Allen. As a young professional I personally I struggle more with the time to keep my game sharp and having access to places to practice and play. The median greens fee across courses nationwide is $26 so that $100+ entries fee (albeit at high-end) courses is certainly not cheap.

  8. WarrenPeace

    Jul 3, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Book time at the local Golftech and work on your game- they have simulators and instructors. That’s what I would do if I couldn’t get out to play regularly. Practice more-play less if inconvenient to get to a course. That way when you do play- it’s enjoyable to watch the progress you’ve made.

  9. AJ

    Jul 3, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Again, I think this is a real problem with the USA sports model in general. Looking outside in (from the UK) it would seem that once you cease to play any competitive sport, the general infrastructure isn’t there to enable meaningful amateur play in any field.

    My point here is that there is no established organised amateur sport, and this extends to golf. Basically, once you are out of your high school / university sports team, you don’t play that game competitively, ever again.

    Is that right or have I got that completely wrong?

    In Europe certainly, if you don’t make the cut as a professional in any given sport, you can join a local club and play competitive soccer/rugby/cricket for as long as your body will allow, and there is always a level for you.

    It’s the same with golf. In general clubs are more accessible, more affordable and there is a whole heap more organised competitive golf for amateurs. I play at least one competitive round each week, usually two or more in the summer (mixture of medal play and match play).

    I think we have it pretty sweet over here, and I speak as somebody who lives in central London yet can still afford to be a member of a top 100 course and get there pretty easily by car or public transport. I had the chance to move to NYC a few years ago and the prospect of only playing golf a few times a year really did put me off. There was simply no way I could afford to be a member of a decent private members club over there like I can here.

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:15 am

      Great points, AJ. College golfers in the states–be it on varsity of NCCGA club teams–have organized methods to actually play competitive golf. But once they enter the working world, and especially in major cities, it’s nearly impossible to find solid competitive golf outside of USGA & State Am like tournies that are pretty expensive to begin with. I agree with you that NYC is the most difficult for young professionals to play golf competitively, let alone just keeping the game sharp. I am always thinking about ways the industry can become more friendly to young professionals to help keep them in the game. It’s the future and the golf needs to innovate here!

      • AJ

        Jul 4, 2014 at 6:38 am

        Mike, that is very interesting to hear. Example from the UK: this weekend I am playing in a Men’s Open event (typically for handicaps 10 and below) which costs £50, includes 36 holes and all food for the day. It’s on a Saturday so working guys can play. There will be a scratch prize and a handicap prize so it’s fair. UK handicaps are also more tightly regulated because we play so much competition golf and handicaps aren’t adjusted unless in a competition.

        Most golf clubs in the UK will host such an event (be it individual, pairs, mixed golf) once a year at a minimum.

        In August I will play in a further one day 36 hole event and two separate 72 hole events (with a halfway cut), all around the £50 mark to enter and providing great competitive golf.

        I see no reason this model can’t be adopted in the states?

  10. DoWhat

    Jul 3, 2014 at 9:14 am

    How does a 15 inch cup make the game more accessible?

    Oh, wait. Maybe the dude can park his car there.

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:19 am

      We actually hosted a big cup tournament at Newton Commonwealth, a local Boston course. We had a nice mix of somewhat competitive to fairly novice golfers attend the event. https://nextgengolf.org/boston/social-and-competitive-events/ The ability to play golf in a new way helped bring folks out the course who ordinarily wouldn’t have played.

      To your point, however, do 15 inch cups make the game more accessible? No. It was actually more expensive to play that day. That said, more people came out at least!

  11. Gibbyfan

    Jul 3, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Sorry for the confusion with your article, but what was the point you were trying to get across? Is it that you are not able to play when living one of the major cities? That you chose to live in a densely populated area after graduating college? What did you expect? Did you think right down the street next to your corporate office was the company funded Donald Ross designed club where everyone would cut out at 5 PM and hit the links? You made the choice to live there. There are trade offs with living in major cities; golf is one of them.
    As for competition, there are plenty of outlets for competition Golf Channel Tour comes to mind, your local/regional golf associations run a number of events, you are part of one of the largest internet GOLF forums. There is golf to be played, YOU are the one that needs to make the choice whether it is important to ignore the bars on Friday, Saturday nights.
    I mean heaven forbid, you drive out to the burbs where you can practice and play. If you are 20 years old and older it is time to grow up and decide what is important to you. I’m a professional that works a lot,a parent, live near a large metro area, and I golf 2x a week from May -August. Maybe the ” Millennials” that are too perplexed with living in the overcrowded city and just can’t figure out how to keep their game in shape hit the net and blog how our system is broken. Or, you could get into a cab, take a train, move out of the city where you can afford to live, park a car, and golf, or, as many of your Millennials have chosen to do, move back in with their parents.

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:40 am

      I wish that my friends in Boston enjoyed golf enough to take public transportation after work and play nine at Fresh Pond in Cambridge. The fact of the matter, however, is that playing golf for most young professionals is just top of mind or a high enough priority to be a regular activity. But don’t take my word, let’s look at Project M from the National Golf Foundation: http://ngfdashboard.clubnewsmaker.org/map7zilj8gqvvn6t1exxr4?a=5&p=2341869&t=410871

      The fact that you suggest that young adults should pass up a job in the city to live in the burbs where they can play golf more easily demonstrates that you are completely out of touch with the Millennial generation. Project M looks at the “latent demand” or 12M+ Millennial golfers who are interested in playing but on the fence. If the golf industry projected your attitude toward this generation, you can kiss those 12M golfers goodbye.

      It’s not easy getting good jobs these days, and America’s best and brightest college graduates will continue move to Boston, NYC, SF, DC and dozens of other metropolitan areas. If the industry does not innovate–and I mean take progressive steps to get young adults playing their courses–America’s finest will continue to keep golf on the backburner.

      If anything comes out of this article and conversation, it is to open up the eyes to all in golf–the PGA of America & the Professionals, USGA, the TOUR, course owners and operators–that the industry can’t sit back on our heels and let this generation leave their clubs behind. We need to take proactive measures to get people on the course. Opening up the cash register and expecting people to come out and play won’t cut it forever.

      Let’s innovate together and make golf relevant again for our Millennial Golfers.

      • Gibbyfan

        Jul 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm

        To begin, thank you for the response. I see that this is something that you are passionate about. Seeing that this is your profession and working with Nextgengolf. First, your job takes you to Boston metro area. Could you do your job if you lived in an area where you could commute into Boston? My guess is yes. BUT, you chose to live in the city where costs are high, parking is a premium, and you lack some green areas like golf courses. So, it is a little unfair when you imply it’s not fair or you ( Millennials) are not being catered to by the golf industry.
        Chicago ( which I live near) has a number of park district/ public courses within the city limits. Are they type of course where you want to travel to and spend your money? That is for the individual to decide. But if keeping your game sharp is important to your age group, then the answer is yes. Will getting there be easy? Doubtful. That is the tradeoff of living a metro area. You are going to have to make some concessions.
        In my earlier post, golf is there to be had. If golf is that important, then the Millennials will need to decide how they are going to play. Golf can be economical. I play at the same course and they give me the twilight rate almost anytime I play. Why? Because I am a returning customer. Some golf clubs and courses are hurting for play. Here is a link to the public courses that are around Boston http://www.golflink.com/golf-courses/city.aspx?dest=Boston+MA. I am sure that one will meet your needs as a practice site or place where your group can play on a routine basis. As the song goes ” you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need.”

  12. Pingback: Not making the college golf cut | Spacetimeandi.com

  13. Straightdriver235

    Jul 2, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Mr. Belkin is correct here. I played some college golf, but as grades got more important, and law school loomed, it became a more special occasion to play. Because I did public service law, and now teach at the undergraduate level, I never made enough money or needed the contacts to consider club memberships. I’ve always been a public course player since becoming an adult… I resent, however, as does Mr. Down, the idea of moving from something pretty competitive, to struggling around waiting on six around rounds near weekend golfers. I miss the competition, the camaraderie of a few close expert and knowledgeable golfing friends, and more associates from younger days of competing. City clubs need to seek out young professionals and cultivate them, but so many seem caught up with the white picket fence, real estate on the course type of mentality. I lived in a major NE city and for ten years just couldn’t even find a public course where I could store my clubs at safely that I might take public transit to. If you can solve this problem you are a genius. It’s not my baby, but I have reflected the same sort of thoughts… and with great regrets. As I grow near retirement now, I am an excellent golfer who is a complete loner. My game is entirely within myself, my rounds are exercises in self control and meditation. I’m eventually heading to France where my wife is from and all but giving up the game. For now, fortunately my university is one with its own course, and it is often not too crowded, but golf clearly now lacks the social foundations I grew up with. I have not had a “golfing friend” in many years. I have given to golf, but I do not feel it has given back so well… still I love her. I’m a liberal, and see it as a capitalist problem in so many ways, but so many golfers are not neo-Marxists, and it makes no sense to them. Golf put to the excesses of the free markets only stretches so far… to cultivate serious play from lifetime committed players who might happen to be middle class and don’t see golf as a tax write off, a different model is necessary.

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:44 am

      Very thoughtful response here. Can you please expand on what you mean by “a capitalist problem in so many ways”?

  14. SW

    Jul 2, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Boohoo. Move to the South or SouthWest, why dontcha?

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:46 am

      I started my career out in Buckhead, GA where it was DEFINITELY easier to get around and play. That said, it was my first year after graduating college in a totally new city so getting acquainted to my job, meeting a totally new friend group, and budgeting all got in the way. That said, I did manage to play once every other week.

  15. Phil C.

    Jul 2, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Prioritize the player to player competition aspect of the game and let match play format take center stage. Let it be the primary format on TV, that we teach to new players, and that we play with our friends on the weekends.

    Also, Break up the match play of 18 holes into 3 separate 6-hole sets, with the winner decided after a player has won 2 sets.

    • Mike Belkin

      Jul 3, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Competition is a key ingredient to getting folks interested. Look at the explosive growth of PGA Junior Leagues which anticipates having 14,000 kids involved this year, nearly double y/o/y growth. They wear jerseys and play team golf against other clubs.

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Opinion & Analysis

A road trip to St. Andrews

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In 2017, my son Brian and his wife Lauren, proposed a family trip to Scotland. Both of them have traveled a surprising amount for a couple barely 30 years old, but for us it would be a huge trip. We couldn’t get it scheduled for 2018 but everything lined up for October, 2019, a trip that might even include playing the Old Course in St. Andrews, if we got lucky. The amazing Lauren made all the arrangements, beginning with multiple email exchanges with the staff at the Old Course, who were extremely gracious and encouraging in their communications.

Unlike most other courses, in order to play the Old Course, you have three options: One is to book a very expensive trip through a travel broker who will guarantee a tee time. This is the only way to make your arrangements in advance, but you’re paying thousands for the package, which would include at least three other days of golf. Sounds great but above our budget. Secondly, you can take a real gamble and just show up at the starter’s window the day you are hoping to play, and get in line as early as 3 a.m., put your name on the list and then wait, maybe all day, maybe hopelessly. It’s no way to budget an entire day on your vacation. The third way is to use what is called the “ballot system,” submitting your request for a tee time via email to standrews.com, 48 hours ahead and hopefully getting a spot.

Now, it’s not as grim a prospect as it may sound for planning to play golf in St. Andrews. The above only applies to getting onto the Old Course. We were able to make a tee time for the Jubilee Course, one of six other courses (Jubilee, Castle, New Course, Eden, Strathtyrum, and Balgove), all part of the St. Andrews Links complex, “The Home of Golf” as their brochure proclaims. Since we were scheduling our trip for the tail-end of the golf season, the gentleman from St. Andrews wrote that he was cautiously optimistic we would be successful using the ballot system.

This wasn’t just a golfing vacation, the five us had an outstanding time touring the west coast of Scotland, including the Oban Whisky distillery, the Harry Potter train in Glencoe, Ben Nevis—the highest peak in the UK, Fort William, and the spectacular Highlands, the town of St. Andrews, and finally the marvelous city of Edinburgh. We ended up spending one night in St. Andrews, at The Saint, a lovely four-room hotel, a 10-minute walk from the Old Course. That evening, walking down cobblestone streets, with the R&A clubhouse coming into view, was like walking in a dream.

Our day started out by driving directly to the new Links Clubhouse, which has wonderful views of the courses from the restaurant. We had lunch, and I must admit to being a bit nervous over my chicken bacon mayo sandwich. We’d parked our bags in the locker room down below, it’s just what you’d expect in terms of world-class accommodations and feel. I could just imagine the pros suiting up there as they prepare to play in The Open.

Our day of golf at the Jubilee Course was spectacular, although it got off to a rainy start, but the weather cleared by the fourth hole. Mary, Jill, and Lauren formed our gallery as we teed off, then they went for a walk around the lovely town. I parred the first hole and told Brian that made my entire trip to Scotland. I was on fire, shooting 42 on the front nine but hitting only three fairways and two greens in regulation. Brian shot 45. We’d decided on match play, and I was up by three on the 11th hole. Brian then said the fateful words, “You haven’t hit into a pot bunker all day!” Which I promptly did. My game immediately tanked while he proceeded to make a total of nine pars, shooting 42 on the back, and won the match 2 & 1. Our gallery re-appeared on the 17th hole, the sun was shining, and we were in golf heaven! We ended the day with a pint at the famous Dunvegan Pub by the R&A clubhouse.

Earlier in the day, Brian had received an email from St. Andrews, unfortunately stating that we had not been selected for the ballot to play on the Old Course the next day. He resubmitted our request for the following day with fingers crossed. We headed to our next stop, Edinburgh, looking forward to exploring this ancient yet cosmopolitan city. During our walking tour, Brian received the email notification that we’d scored an 11 a.m. tee time on the Old Course for Friday. He and I would be making a road trip back north while the ladies spent the day in Edinburgh.

It was about an hour ride back to St. Andrews but traffic was quite manageable and we arrived at 9:30, plenty of time for breakfast at the Links Clubhouse. I felt that anticipatory excitement I always have right before marshaling at a big event, like a U.S. Open, where the atmosphere of the place is nearly overwhelming. Not really nervousness, but we were about to play the Old Course! Isn’t that every golfer’s dream? To say Brian was wound up tight would be an understatement, he could barely choke down half a scone. The walk over toward the starters shack, where we would meet our caddies, with the R&A clubhouse right there at the first tee was unreal.

The clerk was so gracious, taking our 130 Scottish pounds green fee (about $160), and handing us a very nice valuables pouch complete with an amazingly detailed yardage book, tees, pencils, divot tool, and scorecard. We were then approached by our two caddies, who between them had nearly 30 years of caddying experience. I got John, whose personality was perfect for me, quiet, calm, not too chatty, yet personable. Brian’s guy, Steve was just right for him as well, right from central casting with a thick Scottish brogue. He instantly bonded with Brian to become his playing partner/coach, which was just what he needed to get over the first tee jitters.

The starter, Richard, approached us as we made our way over to the first tee, greeting us much like you see them do at the start of the Open Championship. He made our presence there seem extra special, despite the fact he’d probably done the same routine 10 thousand times. He even took our picture. We were then introduced to our two other playing partners, both former members of the course, so they didn’t need caddies to show them the way. These guys were hilarious, self-deprecating, with brogues so thick I could understand maybe one word in three, not the best golfers by any stretch, which was somehow quite reassuring and certainly less intimidating. Brian proved to be the best golfer in our foursome by far although he had a rough start, hitting his drive into the Swilcan Burn.

I was really calm on the tee, it helped that there were very few spectators as it was drizzling and maybe 50 degrees. John told me where to aim, (“at that gorse bush off in the distance”) and I was able to do exactly that. As we walked off the first tee Steve said “now you can all breathe again!” I found having a caddy to be such a wonderful added dimension to this whole experience—not just as a guide to point out where in the world I should be aiming on this alien golf layout, but also to set an expectation for me on each shot which I then tried my best to fulfill. The greens weren’t too scary as I felt used to the speeds having played Jubilee, but having John read the subtle breaks and provide aiming points was terrific.

I played bogey golf through the first 12 holes but the rain only intensified and despite John’s best effort to keep things dry, the final 6 holes were a mess. Brian was one up on our match at the turn, then went on to win decisively at 5 up, with a total for the day of 5 pars and a birdie, including par on 17, the famous Road Hole. As the day went on, we found ourselves saying over and over to each other, what a wonderful experience this was despite the conditions. Steve took the traditional picture of us on the Swilcan Bridge, on our way to finishing on 18, which Brian almost parred. He later said he had such a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, having conquered the Old Course.

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TG2: Brooks and Peter Kostis rip Patrick Reed

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Brooks Koepka and Peter Kostis both talk about Patrick Reed and his cheating allegations. Brooks was on SiriusXM and Kostis on No Laying Up don’t hold back their feelings on cheating. Kostis also has some PGA Tour beef, saying that they don’t care about the television broadcast.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Watch for players lofting up at altitude at the WGC-Mexico Championship

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This week, at the PGA Tour’s WGC-Mexico Championship, we are going to watch some of the best and longest players on the planet play what will effectively be one of the shortest courses on tour.

Now, 7,341 yards is by no means a cakewalk, and there are shorter courses from a pure yardage perspective played on tour—Harbour Town, as an example, only plays at 7,099 yards from the very back. The difference is Harbour Town is played at sea level while Club de Golf Chapultepec is at over 7,500 feet of elevation, and when you factor in the altitude difference between the two courses, they play very differently—more on the math in a moment.

The altitude will also factor in how some players will be setting up their equipment and we could see some adjustments. The most obvious is lofting up the driver or fairways woods to increase carry, which is something Tiger Woods specifically mentioned last year.

The biggest misconception when talking about playing golf at altitude is that the ball doesn’t spin the same in thinner air and players “loft up” to maintain spin. Let’s get into the physics to bust this “spinning less” myth and simplify the science behind playing at altitude,

The golf ball is an inanimate object, and it has no idea it’s at altitude; the air will not have an impact on how much the ball will actually spin. Yes, increasing loft should, by almost every imaginable measure, increase spin but the air it travels through will not change the spin rate.

However, playing at altitude has an effect, Let’s break down what happens

  • Thinner air exerts less drag force (resistance/friction) on the ball. The ball moves more easily through this less dense air and won’t decelerate as quickly as it flies. But note that the faster an object moves the more drag force will occur
  • Less resistance also means that it is harder to shape shots. So you when you see Shot Tracer, the pros are going to be hitting it even straighter (this makes Tiger’s fairway bunker shot last year even more unbelievable)
  • Less force = less lift, the ball will fly lower and on a flatter trajectory

Time for some math from Steve Aoyama, a Principal Scientist at Titleist Golf Ball R&D (full piece here: The Effect of Altitude on Golf Ball Performance)

“You can calculate the distance gain you will experience (compared to sea level) by multiplying the elevation (in feet) by .00116. For example, if you’re playing in Reno, at 1 mile elevation (5,280 ft.) the increase is about 6% (5,280 x .00116 = 6.1248). If you normally drive the ball 250 yards at sea level, you will likely drive it 265 yards in Reno.”

Not every player will be making changes to their bag, and some will instead focus on the types of shots they are hitting instead. When speaking to Adam Scott earlier this week, I was able to ask if he planned on making any changes heading into Mexico the week after his win at the Genesis Invitational.

“It’s very rare for me to make club changes week-to-week beyond playing in the Open Championship and adding a longer iron. The one thing I focus on when playing at altitude is avoiding partial shots where I’m trying to reduce the spin because as spin goes down the ball doesn’t want to stay in the air. I’ve experienced partial shots with longer clubs that end up 25 yards short, and because of that I want to hit as many full shots as possible”

With Club de Golf Chapultepec sitting just over 7,800 feet above sea level, we’re looking at 9.048 or an increase of just over 9 percent. That makes this 7,341-yard course play 6,677 yards (+/- where the tees are placed).

 

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