The Loop

Golf's Issues: A rant

March 10, 2008

Allow me a rant.

I spent the weekend in Montauk, New York, at the tip of Long Island, where there's a beautiful public course called Montauk Downs. It's a 1928 Robert Trent Jones design draped over sand hills and around fishing ponds (the kids scatter with their poles when you come to the tee on No. 6), a bargain at the resident rate of $36 and even at the visitor rate of $72. So when the weather broke Saturday night my friend Rich and I looked forward to a fast, off-season round Sunday morning. It would be windy--it had been blowing about 40 miles an hour and was supposed to continue--but sunny and pretty dry, given the rains of 12 hours previous. The sand absorbs water out there like a sponge.

But nothing doing. "The course is closed," said the woman behind the register. At 9 o'clock there were only a few us wanted to go, all walkers, of course; there was no way they would allow carts out after the rain. "Sorry. Too wet. The range is open, though." We hit balls, but we were dying to play. The course looked pretty dry; we could see just two small puddles from our vantage point, looking out at four or five holes. (Later, we talked to a neighbor of Rich's, a golfer, who walked his dog on the course Sunday morning. "Oh, it was fine," he said. "No problem playing."

Hmm, I thought. This is the industry that's wringing its hands about decreased rounds and golfers lost to other activites. Let's say there were just 25 of us who wanted to walk the course on Sunday. Maybe a few friends like Rich and I, a couple of singles, maybe a dad or two and his kids. Maybe it was only $1,000 to the State of New York. The offices were open anyway. The pro shop was open. The range was open. What would have been the harm of letting 20 or 25 diehards walk and play the golf course? In the world of round-counting, we were low hanging fruit. (I remember playing at Tralee in Ireland two years ago. We played through the most ferocious wind and rain I'd ever encountered. As we finished, soaking wet, huge puddles lined the 18th fairway. We dried off, ate lunch and by the time we'd finished the sun was out and golfers were heading out again.) But at Montauk they were closed.

The fact, is golf isn't hungry. It talks hungry. It issues press releases as if it's hungry. But if it were really hungry, there would have been no question about golf on Sunday at Montauk Downs. If it were really hungry, there would be free clinics for kids every month at every public course. If it were really hungry, there would be after-school junior hours where kids could get access to local courses. If it were really hungry there would be nine-hole leagues for every conceivable human subdivision, from singles to sorority sisters, heck, maybe even six-hole leagues. If it were really hungry, I'd be writing about a crazy, gale-swept, laugh-out-loud, triple-digit round at Montauk on Sunday.

Golf ought to take a lesson from the Mom and Pop owners of the courses we grew up on who created couples outings, hit-and-giggle clinics, breakfast leagues, free hot dogs with rounds, you name it, to fill their "inventory". Or from Frank Thomas, the former USGA official whose new book, "Just Hit It", echoes this back-to-basics theme. "Golf really should be a simple and pleasant experience," says Frank. "The game began in nature," says Frank. "That's where we found satisfaction." Not in perfect conditions. Not even in big-name designs. That's all we wanted on Sunday, a little tussle with nature. Folks who understand why people play don't find reasons to shut their gates. They might warn us about the wet spots. But they enjoy crazies like Rich and me who would want to play in a 40-mile-an-hour wind. We're their customers.

--Bob Carney