Golf in the Rough

By | Updated April 21, 2017 7:51 AM UTC

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?

The Situation

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. 

 

The Background

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 

The Argument 

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

First published July 13, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
James Ludden in London at jludden@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net