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Bigger holes? Golf industry hunting for options in quest for survival


Remember when golf was the next big thing? Less than a decade ago Tiger Woods was the coolest man in the world. A one man course-destroying army, this Mozart in soft-spikes would, in the words of his father Earl, “transcend the game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before.”

No one took Earl Woods very seriously about humanity, but corporate America and the sporting public were fully on-board with the democratization of golf. Nike (NKE) signed Tiger to a stunning 5-year, $40 million contract in 1996; two years before the company even had a free-standing golf division and five years before Tiger actually played with Nike gear on tour.

It wasn’t just Nike or all about Tiger. Golf’s post-Cold War boom was driven by a decade of prosperity and technology that made all the hurdles between golf and mainstream acceptance seem puny. Sleepy Callaway golf (ELY) developed a driver called Big Bertha and saw its shares more than 1,500% in less than 5 years. By 2003 the number of golfers in the US hit 30 million and courses were being built at a record pace.

Sub-Par Decade

The ten years since have been unkind to the sport. Tiger has performed admirably on the course and generated hundreds of millions for his foundation, but the generation of “Tiger-cubs,” golfers of all ethnic and financial backgrounds, hasn’t materialized. More than 77% of golfers are males and most of them are over 40. Between 5 to 10% of the country’s more than 11,000 public courses are expected to close over the next decade; a geographic space equal to 10x Manhattan.

With Tiger entering his athletic dottage, TV ratings are crashing. The economic condition of the game looks very much like a chart of Callaway’s stock; peaking at the turn of the century and moving lower in fits and starts ever since.

Golf fights back

Now golf is fighting back. Disparate forces within the game are trying to make it more approachable. From dropping the price to shorter rounds, efforts are being made to turn this devilishly challenging sport into something closer to a national pastime.

Among those leading the charge is the PGA of America. Representing some 27,000 golf professionals, the PGA has formed a 10-person task force charged with creating pathways to the game. In the attached clip, panel member and Golf Digest Senior Editor Ashley Mayo says that despite the daunting data golf isn’t dead just yet, though old-timers might not recognize it.

“At Golf Digest we’ve identified this segment of millennial golfers who are totally into the game.” Mayo and her team are trying to retain the virtues of golf (tradition, honor) while pruning back on the stuffiness.

Among the initiatives being rolled out now are more flexible scheduling, reducing the number of holes played from 18 to a more manageable 9 or even 6 holes. Cutting the time and expense of play by one-third would immediately address the two biggest barriers cited for why golfers quit: time and price.

Other ideas are likely to be more objectionable to traditionalists. Among these are larger holes being installed in some courses and “Footgolf” which entails kicking a soccer ball from tee to hole, counting the number of kicks along the way.

This is going to take a lot of getting used to for a sport that’s been billed as civil class warfare for centuries. Mayo says the snobs have to understand that the kids who seem to be fooling around on their course aren’t insulting the game.

“Their idea of what a golf round is might be different,” insists Mayo of younger players. “They don’t keep score and they’re out there to have fun, but they don’t disrespect the sport.”

Snobs against the Slobs

What defines disrespect is more flexible than golf traditions. The PGA doesn’t necessarily see eye to eye with the USGA which establishes the official rules for play and equipment in the U.S. So far at least the USGA is insisting on protecting the existing rule book. This includes regressive moves like banning long putters which have been in the game for more than two decades, but will be phased out over the next year.

As it stands there are too many divergent views of what, if anything, is wrong with golf to expect the sport to be saved. Beyond the PGA and USGA, there’s also the British R&A, which tellingly stands for Royal and Ancient. Many of members of these groups would rather see the sport die than watch it played with soccer balls.

If golf is going to be relevant for another decade it’s going to have to heal these internal rifts. The ghost of tennis, which peaked in popularity in 1978 and has seen participation plunge ever since, is looking for a doubles partner in the graveyard of sport.


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