The Times, They are a' Changin'
The changing game, the extreme golfer
Golf membership is declining participation is going down. Effort and millions are being spent to arrest the decline. What’s really happening in this great game? At the end of the day the golf’s greatness will be it’s leveler. It will always have an allure. The actual challenges are around ways of playing evolving to suit not just modern life but modern sensibilities. The challenge that faces golf’s governing bodies is the greatest of all time. The question now is have they even understood the situation or are they simply too entrenched in the way things have always been? In the void which exists now will organizations and commercial opportunists sneak in and destroy the integrity of the greatest game?
At this point in time it’s fair to say that the game fails utterly in creating new golfers. Millions can be spent on new initiatives to drive people into free golf lessons but the driving range is irrelevant to anyone looking to learn or improve at this game and the leap to playing overly long and mundane golf courses too great. Not to mention the game is badly taught, in my opinion modern golf coaching has been on trial with Tiger Woods, this year’s Masters proved he has every ounce of mental toughness still intact but sadly not the skills. The skills have been eroded by coaching techniques targeting the conscious mind, not the natural learning instincts that made him great.
Equally the game is built and governed around organised competition. I would argue that we as human beings are less inclined to put our selves through this experience. Our leisure time is more and more compacted and we want to spend it in a relaxed enjoyable way. Sadly the stress of the monthly medal doesn’t measure up these days against other activities. Equally when practice time and golf in between competitions is non-existent golfers who are willing to maintain a club membership and support the regular competitions will practically disappear over the next 10 years. The challenge is in creating new players and providing convenient short sharp ‘golf fixs’ for existing players during the time between full outdoor 18 hole games. Without these solutions the game will go into a rapid slide.
We need to get back to the game’s roots. An adventure with friends into an unknown wilderness. The bad lies, the humor, the games nuances and what would now be considered unfairness were embraced and seen as endearing elements of the sport. How well you accepted what the golfing gods threw at you often trumped your score if anyone was counting at all.
The emergence of extreme sports in my opinion is evidence that we are increasingly driven to seek experience and positive emotions as opposed to serious competition. Consider the attitude of a group of friends surfing together. If some one catches a great wave it is greeted with group fist pumps and woops. However golf by its nature is an individual sport and when played competitively good shots inevitably are greeted with a polite ‘good shot’ but not delight by fellow playing partners.
So I would argue that one of the root problems facing the game is ideological. There has been a slow shift in the competitive game at both a professional and amateur level towards fairness. Golfers expecting a perfect lie in a hazard. Professional golfers being commissioned to design golf courses has lead to golf courses which lack the charm and humor of the great old courses. Golf courses should be designed by golf enthusiasts from a experience’spectators perspective with a view to challenging players and testing their skills to find the complete player with all the skills. Listening to JB Holmes complain that he could not hold the green on the redesigned first hole at Doral with a seven iron was great evidence of how far off track the game has got. The first hole at Doral is now a 600 yard par 5 designed as a three shot hole by the great Gil Hanse. The idea that JB should be forced to hit into an area where he would have an easy wedge shot to a green designed to receive a wedge shot was inconceivable to him.
So time is a huge issue, the game takes too long. However there is also an attitude shift. How do we keep the games traditions and integrity whilst making it the most pleasurable, flexible, fulfilling and fun experience possible. Which rules are essential and which can be relaxed? Inevitably some tradition will go but if the process is managed and dominated by big business as opposed to governing bodies the long term integrity of the game will be compromised in exchange for short term profits.
Good examples here:
Golf skate is an appealing and fun way to get around the golf course and speed up play. It has no impact on the fundamental integrity of the game itself and appeals to new audiences. It’s a shining example of enhancing the experience of golf.
Hack Golf’s idea around creating 15 inch cups is an example of how bad things could get. Its an idea created by an organization run by an ex Taylor Made CEO. An idea focused around a corporate organization taking control of a form of the game and a concept that fundamentally compromises the game of golf.
When radical change is required in any walk of life it is hard for those reliant on revenue from the status quo to effect change. Golf clubs are reliant on membership fees, moving towards more flexible membership options means risking the loss of existing revenues to gain new ones.
With the emergence of what I will describe as the ‘extreme’ golfer will also come the emergence of non-conforming equipment. Many niche brands are gaining traction selling higher quality non-conforming equipment. They can produce a higher quality product because they are not paying professionals millions of dollars to play their clubs. For the golfer looking to enjoy his golf and play courses designed for the world’s best players he or she will certainly appreciate the help from a hot driver coupled with hot balls and wedges with grooves like teeth that help to stop the ball on the greens. Potentially we could she a shift in golf’s dominant brands because the big guys might not be able to change at a fast enough pace. What fun!
So as those in the golf business scramble to protect their revenue based around the status quo I would suggest the change has occurred already. What is to come is a period of change where the game will survive but will it be governed by organizations which have its best interests at heart? Or will it be governed by the market? To me these are exciting times but times of uncertainty are inevitably a little scary!