Can golf win me back?

Jeff Macke

I’ve got a long and mostly good relationship with golf. From Pebble Beach to St. Andrews, even down under at the Australian in Sydney and everywhere in between, I’ve been lucky enough to play and enjoy some of the finest courses in the world with my best friends. The competition, comraderie and tradition are in my bones. I have truly loved the game.

That love affair is behind me now. I still watch the Majors but now that I have kids and other responsibilities, the prospect of spending five hours plodding through 18 holes has lost its appeal. After hundreds of rounds over three decades, about five years ago I quit hunting birdies and quit golf cold turkey. It’s been years since I took a single swing with a club.

Unfortunately for golf I’m not alone. Just this week, the USGA announced it’s “Play 9” initiative, a plan to get into golfers and course operators’ minds that playing nine holes instead of 18 is a perfectly acceptable alternative. Unfortunately for golf, initiatives like Play 9 are much needed at this point in time.

After peaking in 2003 the number of golfers has dropped by more than 20%. Over the next decade as many as 1,000 of the public courses across the U.S. are expected to close. According to no less an authority than Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS), demand for golf gear has hit the wall and shows no signs of recovery.

Realizing they face a problem, the PGA of America has formed a 10-person task force charged with making golf more approachable. Golf Digest Senior Editor Ashley Mayo is on that panel and she invited me to see what’s new in the golf world at the Pound Ridge Golf course in Westchester, N.Y. Using these beautiful facilities and all the new fangled technology developed for the game over the last decade, Mayo’s job today is to act as a relationship counsellor for me and the game I once loved.

PGA steps to the plate

Mayo notes that the PGA of America is tackling a pretty huge task in trying to change the game. They’re the ones who created a task force that revolves around coming up with ideas that make golf, in Mayo’s words, “more fun, faster, more accessible and cheaper.”

In order to make golf more inclusive and inviting, the PGA is toying with the idea of offering 15-inch holes as an alternative (not a replacement) to the standard holes. It’s one way they’re trying to make golf easier and faster. Another thing the task force is trying to do is change the definition of golf. As mentioned earlier, golf doesn’t have to be an 18-hole round, it can be nine holes, or even three.

Mayo also points out that beyond what the PGA of America is doing, for a while now golf manufacturers have been designing clubs that are lighter and easier to hit. Drivers like the Callaway (ELY) Big Bertha have a sliding weight that, depending on where the weight is located, can promote a draw or a fade. Counterbalance putters like the Odyssey Tank Cruiser #1 I tried on the course aim to alleviate a putting stroke that’s wristy and unpredictable. And irons like the “game improvement” style TaylorMade SLDR S, an Adidas (ADS.DE) product, have slots in them to make the club face distort and bounce on impact, giving players more length.

The Verdict: a mixed bag

First things first: golf is not going to die. For all its faults playing a few holes with Ashley Mayo reminded me of what makes the sport so special. It was a Friday afternoon outside of Manhattan. While our friends and co-workers were trapped like rats in skyscrapers and fetid subways, Mayo and I strolled down perfect fairways, pushed along by a gentle breeze.

Once you actually get on the course, a round of golf is pure bliss, even if in this case that state of joy was interrupted by brutally skulled approaches, snap hooks and blocks to the right. My swing was an absolute abomination, making it hard to tell exactly how much the technology spent on new equipment was really helping or hurting.

In terms of performance I used to define a good round by whether or not I broke 80. If I played tomorrow and kept score for real I’d be lucky to break 100. One of the of biggest impediments to golf is one of its greatest selling points: the sport is simply difficult and the biggest problem most golfers have has more to do with the six inches between their ears than anything related to clubs.

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The USGA can encourage golfers to "Play 9" holes but that’s not going to solve the game’s problem in regards to time requirements. Playing golf is a ritual. It takes the proper clothing, gear and a lot of practice to be enjoyable. Trying to turn it into a one-hour affair is akin to the hunting industry offering to walk deer through your yard so hunters never had to leave their kitchen table. The essence of the sport would be lost without the ritual and most people simply don’t have time.

Now that my son and daughter are old enough to learn the game I could definitely see getting them some lessons. The thrill of sneaking in an improbable putt or lacing a drive straight down the middle is one of the great joys of recreational sport. But it’s never going to be for everyone. Golf has been and will remain a niche sport. It’s an acquired athletic taste that will never be for everyone.

Maybe what’s wrong with golf isn’t so much the game itself but the ghosts of its ambitions in the late 90s. The game is more than 500 years old. It can neither be saved nor killed by new technology or changing tastes. Golf transcends trends. The sport simply is.

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