Golf in the Rough
When Tiger Woods's golf game imploded in 2009, the entire sport got stuck in the rough. Viewing figures declined along with the number of players. And the challenge of attracting and retaining new golfers only became harder for a time-intensive game often criticized for its misogyny, elitism and cost. Optimists point to an emerging crop of professional stars and to its return as an Olympic sport after a 112-year absence. They also see new and faster formats than traditional 18-hole rounds as a way to reinvigorate golf. The question is, will a sport hardly renowned for embracing change and progressive attitudes adapt quickly enough?
Professional golf is rallying, spurred by a core of top men’s players — Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day — all in their twenties or early thirties. Prize money has jumped, with tournament payouts up by more than one-third on the U.S. PGA Tour since Woods's heyday in the mid-2000s. At the grassroots, it's another story. The number of U.S. golfers dropped from a Woods-propelled peak of 30.6 million in 2003 to 24.1 million in 2014. The decline has been more severe in Japan, another of the sport’s heartlands, offsetting growth in golfing frontiers like China and India. New course openings are at an all-time low, according to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, or R&A, which oversees golf outside the U.S. and Mexico. And participation among young people is down 30 percent over two decades. Even golf's reinstatement to the 2016 Olympics, a seeming godsend for a sport seeking to showcase itself, may have backfired after Spieth, McIlroy and Day withdrew because of concerns over the Zika virus. Nike, the world’s largest maker of sporting goods, said it will stop selling golf equipment, while Adidas, its biggest rival, is also shifting away from the sport. Meantime, Woods returned to action after a 15-month layoff following back surgeries only to require a fourth back operation in April that may have ended his season.
Golf has always been about time and money. The Scottish aristocrats who devised a version of the sport in the 15th century and the American middle class that embraced it from the 1890s had plenty of both. Playing 18 holes takes more than four hours; add in travel and food, and suddenly that’s a day away from work — something that doesn’t sit easily with hectic modern lives, and certainly with millennials. The average age of avid once-a-week players in England jumped to 63 in 2014 from 48 in 2009. And today's 50-year-olds are unlikely to be able to retire as early as their 65-year-old partners did. Other concerns include golf's dwindling status as a corporate bonding exercise, the environmental impact and a failure to build interest among women. It took until 2015 for the R&A to admit its first female members.
“Golf, like measles, should be caught young” — P.G. Wodehouse
Reformers point to other old-fashioned sports that turned their fortunes by developing shorter, higher-energy versions, such as cricket’s colorful, whiz-bang Twenty20. Golf’s rulers have pushed playing nine-hole rounds as one alternative. More innovative versions include a six-hole game known as Sprint6golf that gives players a maximum 30 seconds per shot and a driving range-based setup called Topgolf. The European PGA Tour is experimenting with a six-hole format in its new GolfSixes event, a team competition that involves miking up players, fireworks and pumping up the music. In fact, golf lured more new players in the U.S. in 2015 than at any time since the early 2000s. The problem is retaining them, and one of the biggest turnoffs is the sport’s intrinsic difficulty. That’s prompted calls for shorter courses with less rough (meaning less time looking for balls), and even experiments with bigger holes. Few disagree that golf should be more beginner-friendly, but critics wonder whether a sport steeped in arcane rules and anachronistic traditions may be its own worst enemy. Royal St. George’s, a regular host of the British Open, will let visitors play in shorts only if they wear knee-length socks. Some officials appear open to change. Both the European and U.S. PGA Tours have allowed players to wear shorts in practice at particular tournaments. Muirfield (another regular British Open venue) reversed a decision to ban women. And a comprehensive rewrite of golf’s rule book is coming in a bid to simplify and modernize the sport.
The Reference Shelf
- A European PGA Tour study into the state of U.K. golf and a report by Sport England.
- The European PGA Tour outlines its GolfSixes event.
- The National Golf Foundation summarizes its finding on U.S. playing numbers.
- Bloomberg News on golf’s demise in Japan and its struggles in the U.S.
- Men’s Journal wrote a report called “The Death of Golf.” Golf Digest asked: “Has Golf's Demise Been Greatly Exaggerated?”
- Syngenta’s study on U.K. youth attitudes to golf.
- The R&A’s study on speeding golf up.
- Andrew Greig examines golf's history, geography and social meanings in his book “Preferred Lies: A Journey to the Heart of Golf.”
- “Golf is not, and never has been, a fair game,” Jack Nicklaus said. More golf quotes here.
First published July 13, 2016
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James Ludden in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
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