Editor's LetterJune 21, 2016

Nongolfers Out, Golfers In

In South Korea, 60 percent of the golf played is indoors on a simulator.
Courtesy of GolfzonIn South Korea, 60 percent of the golf played is indoors on a simulator.

A golf friend passed along a story about the chief executive of Rakuten, Japan's largest online marketplace, who one day announced to several thousand Japanese-speaking employees that, starting immediately, all business, from board meetings to internal email, would be conducted in English only. "Japanese out, English in," said one observer.

The move was widely criticized, but Hiroshi Mikitani was ruthless in sticking to his decision. "The only way to compete in this interconnected Internet age is to speak the language of the market—and that language is English," he said. It had the added linguistic benefit of breaking down "the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society." Five years later, Mikitani reports that 90 percent of his employees speak English, their work environment is more casual, efficiency has increased and Rakuten has become more globalized.

The thought occurred to me that golf offers similar but different benefits. What if a chief executive came to work one day and announced that henceforth all employees would have to play golf: "Nongolfers out, golfers in."

Maybe employees would be offered entry into the PGA of America's Get Golf Ready program that has introduced almost half a million beginners to the game (with a 73-percent retention rate after three years).

Golf is the language of business, the real capitalist's tool, the game of globalization. It rewards honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment—which happen to be the nine core values of The First Tee. There's a putting green on the White House lawn; more Bloomberg terminal users subscribe to Golf Digest than any other magazine; more money is raised by golf for charity than all other sports combined. It's played by kings and CEOs and people who aspire to climb the ladder of success. It's good for your health, physical and mental. It repairs the soul, and it gives back.

And kids get it, too. Three million juniors 6-17 play golf, up 500,000 since 2010—growth in a period when youth football, basketball, baseball and soccer have declined. Golf isn't a concussion sport, so there's certain to be more relative growth among kids in the future. And women's participation is up 800,000 in the past five years.

The challenge for millennials (18-34) is time. If being a golfer means four or five hours out of your day, how can we make it fit? The answer is to change that definition. Golf doesn't have to be 18 holes outdoors on 150 acres of grass. It's why the high-tech driving range and entertainment company Topgolf just announced a partnership with the PGA and LPGA tours to grow the game. And it's why I'm bullish on simulators that allow a video-game version of golf to be played indoors in less than an hour. We just need to define the game simply as hitting a golf ball with a golf club.

In South Korea, 60 percent of the golf played is indoors on a simulator, and a company called Golfzon has 5,500 branded cafes with up to 30 simulators in each, where millennials hang out after work drinking beer and hitting golf balls. They look like golfers to me. "The three keys to growing golf are making it fun, affordable and social," Golfzon's chairman Young-chan Kim told our editors.

Last year in the United States, 2.2 million people took up the game for the first time, which is the largest influx since the height of Tigermania in 2000. The coolness of Jordan and Rickie is obviously having a magnetic effect on sports fans, as an estimated 95 million Americans played golf, watched golf or read about it in 2015.

We also know that age brings increased commitment to golf in our retirement years. Another 300,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 each year for the next 15 years, which translates into more than four million rounds of golf annually.

When nongolfers are asked if they want to take up golf, 37 million Americans say they're either very interested or somewhat interested—that's up from 26.5 million in 2010, according to the National Golf Foundation. So the latent demand for golf is higher than at anytime on record.

Participation growth isn't easy in a culture like ours driven by spiraling technology and time spread thin, but there are signs for optimism. Nongolfers out, golfers in.


Murrin Photography

MY TOP-5 HALFWAY HOUSES

I've been around food all my life, so I consider myself an expert. Before turning to Matt Rudy's story, "A Golfer's Guide to the Best Halfway-House Grub in America," check out my favorite mid-round haunts:

1.) Any comfort station at Mike Meldman's Discovery Land properties, from the Madison Club in La Quinta, Calif., to Baker's Bay in the Bahamas (above).

2.) The Windmill at Pine Valley. Dandy Dan serves all the drinks you can imagine, plus Chuckles, Goldenberg's Peanut Chews and Philadelphia soft pretzels.

3.) Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., resembles a little 1920 cocktail lounge with white subway tile and rotating bar stools.

4.) Ben's Grill at Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb., where the leisurely burger-and-porch thing is done to perfection.

5.) Chicago Golf Club's glorified shanty, which is basically a way to get out of the weather long enough to pull honor-system snacks from a couple of coolers.


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