Let’s cut to the chase. Here’s how we’re going to take this game of golf and grow it. I have a plan.
Golf = Fun. It’s true.
Fun for the entire family. Fun for everyone. By everyone, I mean men, women, girls, boys, every race, creed and religion. Yes, even them, whatever them means to you. If the game of golf is going to expand, it has to attract those who have felt shunned or unwelcomed by the game.
If we want golf to grow, or at least halt its decline, the game has to appeal to people in a way that makes them want to play, to enjoy the sport, specifically millennials, who became adults around 2000. Forget baby boomers; they are so 1946 to 1964.
Here’s how we’re going to do that. We’re going to tell golfers the truth, starting with: You don’t need $350 drivers and golf balls that cost $60 a dozen. You can spend half that and get the same result. See, the game isn’t that expensive.
We’ll encourage getting lessons to learn how to hit that ball the correct way, reducing the frustration that beginners often experience.
We’re going to teach the game, as I’ve heard it referred, “backwards.” First putting, then chipping, then pitching, then the driving range. Rolling the golf ball into the hole is the ultimate goal and, for most people, the most rewarding part. Let’s have golfers experience the reward right away.
We also need to get rid of this near neurotic desire to post scores and maintain a handicap. I’m not rejecting the United States Golf Association’s Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) system for the serious player. I’m talking about the recreational golfer. Getting away from posting every time one plays a round will reduce anxiety and tension, and cut down on grinding over 22-inch putts.
“Golf shouldn’t be a test every time you go out and play,” a friend recently remarked.
For some, it’s like every round is a final exam. By reducing the focus on posting scores, medal play can be replaced with the more fun match play and Stableford formats, both of which lead to faster rounds. Reducing playing time is important to the health of golf.
In the U.K., the rating system is called Standard Scratch. Your handicap is based on what the average scratch player would shoot from your tees. If par is 72 and scratch golfers shoot 73, then 73 is the Standard Scratch number. If you are a 10 handicap, then you are an 11 that day from those tees.
The catch is that only scores from official club tournaments are counted toward a player’s handicap; all other rounds don’t matter. Hence, almost all nonmedal play friendly rounds in the U.K. are either match play or Stableford. Since a four-ball match between friends doesn’t count toward the handicap, there is no hesitancy for picking up when out of a hole. Likewise with Stableford, since only a bogey or better can earn a point, no one putts for double bogey because double bogey has no value and a Stableford round won’t factor into the handicap.
With the GHIN, a woman who just returned from hip replacement surgery is considered to have the same handicap as she did prior the surgery even though she might not have played in weeks. With Standard Scratch, her handicap could be adjusted prior to her first round back and probably again after she finishes, since Standard Scratch adjusts after each round.
With an official competition, Standard Scratch is adjusted based on the scores of the day, resulting in the Competition Standard Scratch. For instance, if during a tournament the winds are howling and the average score is 10-over par, then everyone’s score is adjusted accordingly.
So if a player with a Standard Scratch of 15 participated in that event and shot 25-over-par, the adjusted score would be 15, since the average score was 10-over. Real-time adjustment to a real-time situation.
The same concept is used by thousands of American recreational golfers who do not have an official handicap.
Most recreational players know what they usually score. They know what their opponents usually post. Decisions on how many strokes are to be meted out are often made on the first tee, not by looking at the GHIN computer.
Good design, fun golf
Here is another change I’m advocating: We need owners and prospective owners of golf courses, including municipalities, to understand why good course design makes for fun golf, and why there’s no need to drop $1 million on a “name” architect.
Hiring a talented designer who understands options and angles and who challenges golfers of every skill level brings enjoyment. Designs that place “everything right in front of the player” lead to boredom, and tree-lined hole corridors can equate to frustration and dead turf (and increased maintenance budgets).
Quirky designs can equal pleasure. If I had it my way, there would be one blind Punchbowl green on every golf course. There is nothing like the feeling created when a well-played approach shot disappears over that front edge. The anticipation of discovering where the ball came to rest is enough to send a golfer running up the slope to find out.
Yes, I want difficult holes, too, but we don’t need to bash anyone in the head. You can’t have 18 holes that require a high left-to-right ball flight in order to play well.
It’s not easy creating a course that is a challenge, and yet still fun. I’d guess there aren’t more than a handful of architects in the country right now who are capable of producing such a course. Even fewer if you take away their ability to move copious amounts of earth. The restriction needs to be in place to keep construction costs and, ultimately, the price of golf down.
We don’t need anymore fescue-ringed bunkers and fastidiously maintained “natural” areas. Natural areas will be natural.
We’re going to have rough that is chunky, knobby and uneven so that lies are not the same every time and so luck and chance will make the game more entertaining. Here’s how long we should grow rough: right below the height when a step cut is required.
Nine is fine
In addition, more people in the golf business need to support the USGA in its Play9 initiative. Get the word out that playing nine holes is a legitimate round, whether it be on a nine-hole course or at an 18-hole facility. The stigma that only 18-hole rounds are valid keeps people away who think golf takes too much time. “Come on over, play nine,” we’ll say. “We want you to play nine, as a matter of fact.”
While there are many ways to attract golfers, though, one giant opportunity has been all but squandered to assist golf in appealing to a younger demographic.
There was a day when virtually every golf course in the U.S. had caddies, from affordable municipal layouts to the exclusive private clubs. Then the golf car came along and the world changed. Clubs and golf professionals saw another avenue to make money and caddies were phased out. Making it worse, the cost of course construction and upkeep rose dramatically with the introduction of cart paths.
The only places to get a caddy these days are at high-end daily fees, resort courses or top-end private facilities. It’s sad how few courses have caddies. Between southern Connecticut and Montreal, Canada, there is one facility, Hartford Golf Club in West Hartford, Connecticut, with a full-time caddy program.
I’m continually amazed to learn when talking to people a generation older than me (I’m 52) at how many of them caddied in their youth and how toting someone else’s golf clubs was their introduction to a sport they’ve played ever since.
Many of the older caddies at Hartford Golf Club are avid golfers who regularly play on municipal and affordable layouts in the area; they came to golf because of caddying, and it is highly likely had they not caddied they would not be golfers.
The horse and buggy are out of the barn on this one, though. There is no turning back. The revenue stream from golf cars is too much; reversing the trend in an effort to help grow the game a few years down the road is not enough of a stimulus for clubs or facility owners to take a hit on income right now. As a result, a tried and true avenue to bring youngsters to golf is all but eliminated.
Throughout all the efforts to grow golf, one reality must be kept in mind: times change.
While researching Charles Blair Macdonald, for who the argument can be made is the most important figure in the history of American golf, I came across a story from the Aug. 7, 1892, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper that trumpeted what the next popular pastime would be in that region, correctly foreseeing that what was all the rage in the East would soon be the desired in the Midwest. This article appeared three years before the first U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open were played.
“Golf is the coming game. The element of change is as necessary in the pleasure of Americans as is the element of chance in their business. And the general sense seems to be that it is time for something new in the way of out-of-door pastime,” it reads in part.
“Croquet has long since been relegated to apple-cheeked, print-gowned country lassies; tennis, while it retains much of its popularity, as of late suffered a significant falling off in its following; cricket and baseball are confined almost exclusively to the professionals and struggle along under the additional disadvantage of being, on account of the violent nature of the exercise, men’s games strictly; while golf, in spite of the amount of walking it involves, can be and is played by women.”
I cite this article because just as the change in the “pleasures of Americans” occurred in the early 1890s and brought people to golf, a change is happening that is taking people away from golf. Former or potential golfers are now running, hiking, biking and climbing fake rock walls. Others are attending classes for karate, yoga and spinning. However, not many are playing croquet.
It’s a reality that must be dealt with. The pleasures of many Americans have moved away from golf, but the game can, with a few alterations, be shown to a new group of potential players as a pastime that is at once challenging and frustrating, and when played the right way with the right attitude, always fun.