The pile on the sport of golf is officially underway. I’ve received at least a dozen links to different stories about troubling times in the golf industry. We all know about Nike, and I received an email today about 800 courses closing over the past few years. Rumor has it that a TaylorMade sale is forthcoming and at a deep discount to annual sales; another one says Golfsmith is headed to a bankruptcy reorganization to clean up the business prior to a sale, and the list goes on. On the golf course side, the very high-end clubs and low-end clubs are OK, but the great majority in the middle are nervous… as in very nervous.
This article, while influenced by all the negative, isn’t about that. It’s about the game and marketing it to attract new players. Not professional golf, however; that’s television entertainment, is very successful, and is a world unto itself. This is about the game we play.
I watch (and read) the golf commercials promoting the game, and the consistent message is, “Play golf, it’s fun.” I think to myself, “Who authorizes these things? Is this someone’s relative who works in an ad agency who doesn’t play the game?”
So let me propose a “white paper” from which the bright advertising folks can come up with effective campaigns.
Golf is not “fun” in the traditional sense of the word. Golf is hard; it starts hard and stays that way. Fun is ice cream, sunny days and symphonies. Golf, on the other hand, says, ”Here I am, you sap. Do you have what it takes?”
And that’s exactly why it’s such a great game. We get to play against ourselves and the course in the company of friends. I mean, I read where Top Golf is fun and a great lead-in to the game. And you know what, Top Golf is a lot of fun. I know because my grandkids and I went, and we hit balls at targets, got points, drank beer (well, I did), had a competition and a lot of laughs. I kept track; I got points for two shanks, three skulls, one near toe-whiff, and on each occasion I was trying to hit a decent shot. Point is, Top Golf isn’t quite golf, in the fact that you’re not penalized for a poor shot, but rather you earn points. In the real world, I carry a ball retriever because I’ve grooved those shanks and skulls, and at no time do I remember associating them with fun on the course. I’ve not played Foot or Frisbee Golf; I’m sure they are fun, and I’m also sure they are not golf.
A great example of my point happened recently. I’m fortunate to play fairly regularly with Frank Beard, a phenomenal player with 14 PGA Tour wins, and at 77-years-old, we’d all kill to have his game. I’m talking to him on the range the other day and he’s showing me this swing thought he’s working on. I stood there thinking, is there some way to tell this story? This is real golf — a game you can play as a kid, adult and as a senior. It’s a game that will drive you nuts, and just when you think you have the “move” down, it turns out to be a quick source of duck hooks. A game where you make friends for life as you go on course and try to beat each other’s brains out. Public, private? Golf doesn’t care. Hungover, healthy? Golf doesn’t care. Back pain, bad mood? Good mood, new vitamins? Golf just sits there and waits for you to give it your best shot. You know going in that you won’t win because regardless of your skill level, you can always improve. For those of us in the less-skilled division, it’s small victories — the shots you remember are the ones that bring you back.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great professional athletes in my club-fitting days with hand-eye coordination that I’d kill for. Some got pretty good while others quit in disgust. That’s the thing, though, golf doesn’t care if you’re an ex-jock, cop, fireman, computer designer, movie star; I’ve yet to find a profession where golf rolled over and said, “OK, for you I’ll make an exception.” Golf also has an unimpressed attitude about “could haves” — you know, the “he could have played the Tour” players that never quite made it. It’s a bit like life; nothing is handed to you, you just have to go out there and do it.
And while I’m writing about facts, someone will soon do research and learn that there are literally millions of women who could take up the game and change participation demographics for the better. That hasn’t happened to date. There are lots of reasons, or perhaps speculations, and I have my own; women are smarter than men. We will play, hit balls and take lessons, determined to overcome golf’s challenge. Women, on the other hand, seem to realize there are more fun, worthwhile things to do. And I write this acknowledging some fine women players who do not make my quest any less-frustrating.
And there is both the issue and the answer. Golf isn’t fun — at least as the word is normally used. Golf is difficult, and no matter how long you play you will still be working at it. Ball in your court Mr. Advertising person.