November 23, 2009

2009: A Down Year With Real Upside

We've been told 2009 will be remembered in golf history as the year the wrong guys won. How about the year just about everybody in the game lost?

For most people, golf shrunk -- in terms of time to play, in affordability, in enjoyment. Nearly every one of the game's economic indicators -- rounds played, equipment sold, course openings, club memberships, etc. -- went drastically down. The notable exception was course closures, which went drastically up.

Professional golf as we know it got smaller. The LPGA has only 24 events scheduled in 2010, the least since 1971, with only 13 to be played in America. With less than two months before it's held at Torrey Pines -- where Tiger Woods always plays, usually wins and which never fails to provide high television ratings -- the PGA Tour's erstwhile Buick Invitational still doesn't have a title sponsor. Don't think the dozen or so companies who over the next couple of years will decide whether to continue throwing down $7 million to $10 million to hold a tour event didn't hear the canary in the coal mine.

An even more graphic sign of the times was the Dubai World Championship, played in the mother of all boom towns gone bust against an unceasing backdrop of half-built homes on abandoned work sites that made the Race to Dubai look more like "The Road." The 11th-hour, 25-percent cut in the original $20 million purse the desperate sponsors foisted on the European Tour furthered the gloom. Intoned course architect Greg Norman, "Golf is not going to be like it used to be."

It sounded bad, but it's actually good. Yes, there's been a lot of suffering and scrambling lately in a sport whose leaders a decade ago thought it was on the verge of becoming the new national pastime. On the other hand, golf's Age of Excess is definitely over.

If we've learned anything from the latest round of decadence, it's that golf is best off when it remembers that in its particular case, less is always more. Less Al Czervik of "Caddyshack," more Shivas Irons of Golf in the Kingdom. In a growth spurt built on consumerism run amok, the game ended up with too much of the wrong stuff -- overly watered and manicured golf courses, giant clubhouses, high green fees and membership dues, and a lot of talk about the golf industry and not enough about the golfer. The essential game got lost.

The inevitable correction contains a "small is beautiful" opportunity, and some the new indicators are encouraging. The USGA's rollback of grooves is the only thing on the horizon that might slow down the ongoing distance explosion that this year saw 47 drives on the PGA Tour crack 400 yards. The ruling body is also making a statement by taking the U.S. Open back to the intimate gems Pebble Beach, Olympic and Merion in three of next four years. It's heartening to see that setup man Mike Davis has a special affection for the short and especially drivable par 4s that are the epitome of classical strategic design.

We should now know that "less" is the best antidote for golf's terrible toos -- too expensive, too difficult and too slow. Using less water, fertilizers and maintenance on courses works economically and environmentally. Brown -- or at least an olive-hued khaki -- needs to become the new green. The faintly toasted look of ruggedly natural Kingston Heath -- recently piped in during the JBWere Australian Masters -- is finally beginning to look beautiful to Americans. And it's telling that Pinehurst No. 2, which will host the men's and women's U.S. Opens in 2014, has decided to return to its once-signature unkempt sandy areas off its fairways.

Less water and mowing actually produces conditions that are more playable by making fairways faster and greens slower. And when both the carbon footprint and physical footprint of a course are reduced, the friendly turf and closer confines allow the game to speed up. Golf's marketers should be encouraging nine-hole rounds at sporty public tracks, promoting play at par-3 courses or anything else that makes the game consumable in the two or three-hour windows that are often all our current culture allows us. Such golf is also more likely to be walked, another less -- in terms of energy savings and reduced waistlines -- that adds up to more.

Basically, golf has gotten the depression Dan Jenkins has long said it needed, but the game still has to apply the fix. It remains a worrisome time, but the way forward -- when everybody in the game again wins -- is clear.