Whenever I participate in a discussion about growing the game of golf, I’m reminded of a line from a movie I saw a few years ago that goes: “When a forrest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.”
What I’m trying to say is – Like the forrest that burns down, the game of golf needs to recover and renew itself. That’s a pretty vague statement of course. Renew what? Recover from what? To me it means injecting new life into the game for those that have played it their whole lives and giving aspiring new golfers more reason to start playing.
Look, in recent years there have been all kinds of initiatives and plans laid out to “grow the game” and none of them have had any measurable impact. That’s another way of saying they crashed and burned. I think that’s because what they really meant by “growing golf” was more like growing their profits. According to Golf Datatech, the total number of golf rounds played annually continues to drop. Nike just announced they are shuttering their golf equipment division. Industry stalwart Golfsmith went into bankruptcy protection and was snatched up at auction by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Golf courses all over the US are still closing.
The reality is that golf is a difficult game to play, and a round of golf typically takes between 3 and 5 hours to play. The equipment and greens fees are expensive. Golf is a leisure time activity that is funded by disposable income. When the economy struggles as it has since 2008, fewer people play the game. It’s not rocket science, and it’s nothing new. Am I painting a bleak enough picture?
What Do We Do?
If people are playing fewer rounds per year, it stands to reason that efforts to attract new players are not working. Perhaps it’s time to change course and focus on retaining the golfers we already have playing the game. These are the dedicated, loyal people that form the backbone of the game. I would argue that converting courses to play some new fad like foot golf or adding throngs of new golfers on the tee sheet will only serve to alienate these life long golfers even more.
Instead of trying to attract new golfers to the game, right now I think we need to make the game faster to play, less expensive and more family friendly for the people that are already playing golf. Like most of us, I was introduced to the game of golf by my parents. So why not make it easier for families to share this great game with their loved ones? In order to make the game more family friendly it needs to be cheaper and faster to play.
The Solution – Hybrid Golf
One of the best solutions I’ve seen is designing courses in 3 or 6 hole loops to give people the option of playing 3, 6, 9 holes or any other combination. I first encountered this type of design over 5 years ago and fell in love with the idea. A family friendly course would have no forced carries, forgiving landing areas and large greens. Any golf course architect that knows his craft can vary the placement of tees, hazards, obstacles and greens to design a course that is challenging from the back tees for good players, while being forgiving and fun to play from the forward tees.
I visited just such a course recently in Ocala, Florida called Trilogy Golf Club at Ocala Preserve. This hybrid layout can be configured in a number of ways. The first is the traditional 18 hole, par 72 layout. There’s the Gallery Loop, which is a 6 hole, par 18 track that can be played in less than an hour, to the Players Loop – A 6-hole, par-24 routing with one par 3, four par 4s, and one par 5. In about 90 minutes, one can play the Players Loop in any one of four different configurations. Designed by Tripp Davis & The Tom Lehman Design Group, Trilogy Golf Club is the model for what I think is the most viable solution for the problem of price and time that faces most current and aspiring golfers. Not only that, but the entire course is laid out on only 50 acres, dramatically reducing maintenance costs. That’s about one quarter of the land normally used for an 18 hole regulation golf course. Members pay $7 for unlimited play and their guests play $15 for unlimited golf. The public can play for $20. Bring your own push cart, or pay $4 to rent one. Where else can you play golf all day on a beautifully maintained course for only $7?
Hybrid golf courses are starting to catch on, and for good reason. It’s cheaper, it’s faster and the environment is more laid-back and family friendly. This is the future folks. Those half-baked initiatives from the PGA and other industry groups didn’t work. I don’t need another $400 driver. I don’t want to kick a soccer ball around the golf course. I’m not interested in your “tee it forward” program, and I don’t need to “get golf ready.” Diehards like me just want to enjoy the company of our mates and play 18 holes in 4 hours or less. Many others would like a place to play golf in a couple of hours or less and bring their family with them.
We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet
While I don’t think any single solution will fix what is wrong with the game, I believe hybrid golf is the best solution I’ve seen yet. It is the only solution that I’ve seen implemented and in practice with any degree of success. I live within an hour of two of the courses on Golf Digest’s hybrid course list, and I’ve played them both multiple times. The price is right, a round of golf takes as little or as long as you want, and the environment is family friendly. I think golf will endure more course closings and more bankruptcies before it’s all done, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Remember the purging fire? I for one am looking forward to seeing more of these fun hybrid courses spring up from the ashes of the forrest floor.