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Editor's Letter

How Will We Celebrate?: Let’s steer golf’s popularity the right way

December 12, 2023

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Nick Dolding

The other day I heard a somewhat disturbing story from a golf coach. He was at a PGA Jr. League event, which, as you know, is that innovative and excellent program modeled after Little League baseball in which teams of kids wearing individually numbered “golf jerseys” compete against other towns in a scramble format. This past season had a record 71,000 participants, yet another recent golf stat with a great spin rate. Anyway, after winning a match, a boy pantomimed shooting an arrow into the sky before shaking his opponents’ hands. The gallery of shrieking parents, presumably new to golf, had behaved aggressively the entire nine-hole match.

May we take a quick timeout, please? Is not part of what makes golf unique an atmosphere that’s distinct from football, basketball, hockey, wrestling, etc.? Has golf not always been, in large part, a refuge for more quiet souls who prefer athletic pursuit with a different tone? Let wide receivers shimmy and bump chests after a touchdown. I’d prefer we teach new golfers that after a birdie putt drops, you pick that ball out of the cup and put it in your pocket. The exception can be winning the Ryder Cup.

Make no mistake, I am thrilled by the fresh energy in our game. The latest R&A report counts 61 million adult golfers outside the United States and Mexico if we include alternative formats such as par-3 courses, simulators and driving ranges. More telling than any stats is who is playing: Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Tom Holland, Patrick Mahomes, Jennifer Lopez, Jason Bateman, Tom Brady, Steph Curry, Alex Morgan, Jake Owen, Kate Upton, DJ Khaled, ScHoolboy Q. Most of these celebrities were avid before the pandemic, but now they’re showier. It’s finally cool to be a golfer. The game is having a cultural moment that I can only imagine was last experienced when Arnold Palmer first brought green grass to life on color TV.

The only dampener is the uncertainty that hangs over the professional game. The fracturing over huge money has some fans anxious that professional golf will devolve toward exhibitions that struggle for drama and meaning. On the other hand, pro golf is positioned for the trappings of true global sports, like soccer and car racing, with mega contracts and mega stages that overwhelm the senses. As LIV’s slogan promises or threatens, depending on your point of view, “Golf, but louder.”

In warring response, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Co. are set to launch TGL in January 2025, a version of golf that will be contested on launch monitors inside stadiums and pander to regional allegiances. If they’re successful, the New York and Atlanta franchises will hate each other as much as the Mets and Braves.

Yes, there are a lot of new currents entering golf right now, mostly positive. Stilted dress codes are being replaced by stylish clothes you can truly wear anywhere. A prevailing attitude of inclusivity is welcoming beginners from all backgrounds. Social media is giving awareness to the myriad ways the game can be enjoyed beyond 18 holes at the country club. But amid all this change let’s protect what makes golf special. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but post-shot celebrations are worth monitoring.

Fist-pumping Tiger Woods is (was) the greatest of this era because he could play with an emotional intensity for 72 holes that most other pros could summon for only two or three. He didn’t hide it, though he never crossed the line of offending his opponent. Tiger never shot a bow and arrow to the sky.

Where’s the line between enthusiastic and inappropriate? It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it, whether on TV or in your Saturday game. Some gestures chip away at a shared sense of dignity.

As we hurtle forward, golf’s atmosphere is likely going to trend more WM Phoenix Open and less Masters, which is OK, but let’s keep golf as the gold standard among sports for showing respect.

Next time you’re lucky enough to sink a 30-footer, do your part.

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