Growing Golf – State of the Game: 2014

hack-golf-org-mark-king-ted-bishop-690Every year in January the golf world descends upon Orlando, Florida for the biggest trade show in the game – The PGA Merchandise Show. The show welcomes over 40,000 golf industry professionals, buyers, media and guests from over 75 countries for the four day event. The Orange County Convention Center’s massive North/South concourse boasts over 3 million square feet of total space and over 22 acres under roof. The outdoor PGA Demo Day, held a day before the PGA Show at Orange County National’s equally impressive 42 acre practice range attracts over 100 companies and allows industry insiders to hit all the new clubs.

The PGA Show exhibitor list reads like a who’s who of golf, and those of us who are lucky enough to attend every year are like kids in a candy store. All the biggest names in golf equipment, apparel, accessories and travel are there, and so are dozens of startups, entrepreneurs and dreamers with new products to show off, looking for their big break. There are celebrity sightings, presentations and interviews all week, and PGA members can attend seminars for continuing education credits. For a humble blogger like me, it is an opportunity to make connections, see new products to share with readers and catch up with friends.

It’s No Secret: Golf is Hurting

On the surface, PGA Show week may sound like a huge celebration, but not all is well with golf. PGA Show attendance is down. Rounds played are down. Courses are closing. Companies are disappearing. Golfers are leaving the game, but even worse; fewer people are taking up golf. For the last few years I’ve listened to industry leaders give speeches about initiatives to grow the game. In 2012 it was called “Golf 2.0”, and this year a new initiative was announced called “Hack Golf”.

These buzzword heavy initiatives seem to be more style than substance to me, and they aren’t producing results. The changes these initiatives have proposed haven’t happened. Their message isn’t getting through. For the eighth straight year, more golf courses have closed than opened. According to the National Golf Foundation, in the USA there was a net loss of 143 golf courses in 2013. (14 openings vs. 157 closures) The NGF claims the overall reduction in supply is a gradual, natural market correction of the existing imbalance of supply and demand, but course closures have a ripple affect on the entire industry when it comes to equipment sales and rounds played.

Economics have played a huge role in this industry-wide downturn. Golf is a leisure-time activity funded by disposable income, and many households simply don’t have as much money to buy clubs, play golf and sign up their kids in golf programs. Golf is still too exclusive and expensive to play for many, and equipment is also not cheap.  The average golfer still shoots around 100, and that number hasn’t changed in decades. While equipment manufacturers can claim to give you more distance, more accuracy, more forgiveness and more consistency with every new club they introduce, the bottom line is equipment hasn’t really helped the average golfer improve their scores.

In my opinion, part of the reason why golf scores have remained stagnant may be due to advances in golf course architecture and maintenance. As club and golf ball technology have improved, so have course design,  agronomy and turf management. Designers are able to create dramatic landscapes, slopes, bunkers and greens that are increasingly complex and difficult to navigate. Grasses are more resistant to foot & cart traffic, drought, cold weather, bugs and weeds. Superintendents can mow fairways and greens lower and tighter, making greens roll faster and smoother. While golf balls are going further than they ever have, to compensate, golf courses are now longer and tougher than they’ve ever been.

From a technology standpoint, I think we are at a stage where innovation is being stifled by the USGA and R&A. The rules of golf have limited the technology that golf club and ball manufacturers can employ to make the game easier for the players. There are limits on the “spring effect” of all clubs, which limits the distance potential of the club. The golf ball can’t exceed a specific size, weight, initial velocity and overall distance. The grooves on irons and wedges have to meet certain criteria to conform to the rules. The latest rule change adopted by golf’s ruling bodies has outlawed the use of anchored putters. I believe all these changes have had the cumulative impact of making the game more difficult for the average player, and when you take the fun out of a game, people stop playing.

These initiatives to grow the game have resulted in many great ideas, but I haven’t seen anything materialize from them. Almost all of the golf industry leaders that promote these programs say that golf is too hard, too exclusive and too expensive. While they stood on stage at the PGA Show and talked about making the game more affordable, I was standing at club company’s booth holding a 3-wood that will carry a street price of $499. Later, I walked past a booth that makes $125 “performance” golf shirts, and another that wants to sell me a $500 laser range finder. Many of the attendees this year will sneak out and play golf at one of Orlando’s beautiful resorts, and those rounds will cost anywhere from $150-$300 per player. It appears to me that the golf industry isn’t even listening to its own message.

What’s the Answer?

So how do we REALLY make the game more fun and affordable? I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years thinking about this question and discussing with my golf industry friends. I believe the average golfer would buy a new driver every year and new wedges every two years if they were more affordable, and I think paying more than $50 to play golf should be the exception, not the rule. With that in mind, here are my real-world ideas to help make golf more affordable and fun to play:

  • Bifurcation of the rules of golf – The USGA and R&A have imposed specific restrictions on equipment performance primarily in an effort to control scoring and protect the golf courses on the PGA Tour. The other 99.99% of golfers are also penalized by these rules even though they don’t play competitive golf. I propose that the governing bodies keep the current rules in place for USGA/R&A sanctioned events and professional golfers, but relax the performance restrictions on equipment for average golfers. Let’s see where equipment technology can take us and make the game more fun for the average Joe to play!
  • Larger hole – This one is simple. Make the hole bigger! A standard golf hole is 4.25 inches in diameter. Why don’t we make the hole a little bigger and settle on a nice round number, like 6 inches? Not only will a larger hole make the game a little easier on the greens, but it would also speed things up! Nobody likes to be standing in the fairway, watching someone putt back and forth across the hole until they finally pick it up in frustration. What would you shoot if the hole were even bigger, like fifteen inches wide?
  • Flatter greens – Course designers love to use elevation and contours to make a course more aesthetically pleasing and challenging to play, but many classic courses weren’t designed with modern green speeds in mind. If designers toned down the slopes a little on the greens, speed of play would improve, drainage would be better, maintenance would be cheaper and I wouldn’t have to watch Bob plum-bob his fourth putt.
  • 3 and 6 hole courses – I believe this one is a game changer all on its own. Golf takes a long time to play. The game needs some better options for those who don’t want to spend 6 hours at the golf course or feel intimidated by a regulation course. I’ve played plenty of “executive” courses in the past, but instead of cramming 18 short holes onto a plot of land, how about a full length 6 hole course? People could then play 6, 12 or 18 hole rounds. If the average round of golf takes 4 to 4.5 hours to play on a weekend, you could probably get around 6 holes in 90 minutes or less. Anyone who has tried to play golf with a child knows that asking them to remain focused on golf (or anything!) for 4 hours is almost impossible, but 90 minutes would probably be doable. I played a brilliant 6 hole course designed by Davis Love III at a fantastic hunting retreat called Cabin Bluff that featured huge greens with 3 different hole locations and 3 sets of tees set at different angles and distances on each hole for great variety. The course uses far less land than a traditional 18 hole course. This design is the perfect role model for smaller, less expensive and easier to maintain 3 and 6 hole courses in the future. You could even design a traditional 18 hole course but instead of the usual nine hole outward and inward loops, design it with three 6 hole loops.
  • Think Outside the Box – Many public and private golf clubs are struggling financially, and with more and more course closures every year something needs to be done to keep these facilities going. I would love to see more private courses open their doors to the public, even if only one day per week or for certain hours. Public courses that force people to ride a cart to make more money should remove that requirement and encourage walking. Caddy programs are a great way to add prestige to your course, and they provide jobs and help introduce young people to the game. Dress codes should also be relaxed. Are jeans and a t-shirt really that horrible on the golf course? Let’s offer a nine-hole rate that is half the 18 hole rate, not a bloated price to encourage people to spend a few more bucks to play 18. How about letting people bring someone to ride around without charging a passenger fee? Equipment companies have to become leaner and meaner. Hopkins Golf is a great example of forward thinking. They offer custom wedges, direct to the customer, delivered faster and at better prices than any other wedge brand. They’ve bypassed the old-fashioned retail distribution model entirely. Golf has to think of changing the way they do business if they want to attract more people to the game and stay solvent.

I’m not trying to suggest that every club in the country should start cutting cups at 6 inches wide, nor should any shlub off the street be able to play a private course in a tank top and sandals, but if we had some cheap 3 or 6 hole courses out there with six inch diameter cups and I could bring my kid to play and my wife could ride around with us just to watch, it might make the game more enjoyable and fun to play without taking all day, costing $200 and having that driving range wannabee scoff at us. Let the weekend warriors buy that hot 500cc driver and enjoy the thrills of gaining 30 yards off the tee. Let us use a long putter if we want, and let’s bring the fun back to this game for everyone and stop punishing the people that made it the great game that it is.

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