Room For Growth
One of the oddities of the Tiger Woods Era has nothing to do with fire hydrants, swing changes, knee surgeries or a sudden surge in missed putts. While more people are watching golf than ever before, fewer are playing it, at least in the United States. More specifically, that plateau was reached in 2000, four years into the Woods decade of dominance.
With the U.S., if not the world, beginning to show signs of emerging from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is time for all the stakeholders in golf to place growing the game on a front burner. We need to turn up the heat and get more people playing the game and get those already playing it to play more often.
"From the mid 1980s to the turn of the century, the number of golfers grew by about 50 percent -- from 20 million to 30 million golfers," the National Golf Foundation said in a report entitled Golf Participation in America, 2010-2020. "But since the year 2000," the report continued, "the number of golfers plateaued and has been slowly declining, raising concerns about the future."
The issues are obvious and defining the problem is a huge step forward. From where I sit, the game is too expensive, takes too much time, is not friendly enough to new players -- especially women -- and is burdened by a stereotype that those who play are wealthy sticks-in-the-mud who make bad fashion choices.
All of those issues can be addressed by what I see as the four Fs that golf needs to market itself around -- Fitness, Family, Fast and Fun. Let's advocate walking and caddie programs, promote families playing together, make pace-of-play a priority and keep the emphasis on fun by relaxing dress codes, promoting nine-hole leagues and focusing on the social aspect of the game.
Let's start with the first F -- Fitness. The medical community agrees that walking a minimum of 30 minutes a day has unquestioned health advantages, and walking 10,000 steps a day -- about five miles, which is about 18 holes of golf -- will help you live longer and with a better quality of life.
The challenge here is for courses to turn their back on the revenue generated by cart rentals and encourage walking. But the short-term revenue loss by abandoning riding is an investment in the growth of the game, especially if courses develop caddie programs that expose young people to golf.
According to the book, "Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf" by Pete McDaniel, 26 blacks played the PGA Tour before Tiger and in the decade from 1972-85, more than a dozen were on tour, guys like Jim Dent, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, Charlie Sifford and Jim Thorpe. Now, Woods is the only African-American on the PGA Tour.
What has changed? Carts have replaced caddies. And this is not just a race thing, it is a socioeconomic restrictor plate on the growth of the game along income lines. Remember, some of the game's greatest players -- Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead come to mind -- were from less-than-modest backgrounds and learned the game by working as caddies. The pro game will also benefit as the talent pool is deepened along economic lines.
All who care about the game should be encouraging walking and the development of caddie programs. They should also be trumpeting the value of golf as a family activity. Because of the handicap system, players of diverse ages and abilities can compete against each other and, when walking, have the opportunity to talk and connect. Some of my favorite memories are playing with my Dad.
Fast is an essential component to growing the game. The five-hour round needs to go away. Play ready golf. And don't be wedded to 18 holes. Play nine holes, or six holes or 12 holes. How about if daily-fee courses charge by the hole? Only have time for six holes? Buy six holes. The professional tours can help in this effort to speed up the game by penalizing slow play.
As for Fun, I disagree with those who say the reason golf is not growing is because it is too difficult. The difficulty is part of the attraction. And back when Arnold Palmer and television combined to launch golf's great growth spurt 50 years ago, the game was a lot more difficult to play than it is now, but the game grew anyway.
We need to focus on the Fun in the game. My father was a 35-year-old steel mill worker when he took up golf. The factory had a nine-hole league -- inspired by our local working class hero, Palmer -- and that league got my Dad hooked on the game. He started playing nine holes on Tuesdays and eventually was playing 18 on Saturday and Sunday, and soon he had a club in my hands.
These sorts of fun, social/competitive events are also a way to get more women in the game. Only 18 percent of rounds played in the United States are by women. The growth potential there is enormous. How about courses encouraging that growth by having daycare centers or play areas so Moms can bring their kids to the course?
Equipment companies also need to embrace the women's game more, as Wilson, Spalding and MacGregor did after World War II when, looking to expand markets, they hired players like Patty Berg, Marilynn Smith and Louise Suggs to do exhibitions and clinics to promote the game -- and their product. Those marketing efforts led to the creation of the LPGA in 1950.
The year ended with some positive numbers. The NGF says rounds played in the United States were up 7.4 percent through September against the same time period in 2011, with every state experiencing a gain. That report in November projected the largest single-year increase for golf in 2012 since 2000.
The momentum is there, and so is the clear direction we need to go: Fitness, Family, Fast and Fun. Golf is a uniquely challenging sport that is also unique in the way it offers a brilliant combination of physical, mental and social experiences. A new year is beginning. Let it begin with a new commitment to growing the game of golf.