The PGA Tour season wrapped up last month with 27-year-old Rory McIlroy winning the FedEx Cup, golf’s version of a postseason. The year’s four Major tournaments were won by Danny Willett (who is 29), Dustin Johnson (32), Henrik Stenson (40), and Jimmy Walker (37). Johnson was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
But in a way, 46-year-old veteran Jim Furyk stole the show when he shot a single-round 58 at the Travelers Championship in August. Furyk didn’t even win that tournament, but the 58 set an all-time record for the lowest single-day total at a PGA Tour event. It was quite an achievement, and Furyk, who won the US Open in 2003 and was PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2010, says it rivals anything he’s ever done in the sport. He’s not sure whether it ranks higher than winning a Major or not.
He’s also not sure of how his sport can make itself more appealing to new, young fans—but he does feel, along with many people in golf right now, that the game needs to change and evolve. Equipment companies that make golf clubs and balls have seen their sales suffer, leading Adidas to seek buyers for its golf brands TaylorMade, Adams and Ashworth, and Nike to shut down its golf-equipment manufacturing entirely. For the past few years, annual rounds of golf played in America fell, though the figure finally rose last year for the first time since 2012, according to the National Golf Foundation. Clearly, the sport needs to gin up new popularity both at the professional level (people watching pro golf) and amateur level (people playing golf).
As Furyk points out, golf governing bodies like the US Golf Association have long held the line that the popularity golf tracks with the health of the economy. “I’m not sure we’re quite seeing that right now,” Furyk tells Yahoo Finance. “The economy seems to be on an uprise, I’m not sure our participation is on an uprise. Golf takes a long time to play, it’s an expensive sport; I understand both those things go hand in hand with the economy. I don’t know… it is difficult. I’d like to see the game be more fun.”
While golf organizations have tried lots of different “hacks” over the past few years to grow the game, from larger holes, to shorter courses, Furyk has an interesting theory: The popular destination courses for hobbyists are too advanced these days. The design needs to change to better accommodate more people. “Golf courses have gotten more challenging,” he says. “We see a lot of difficult golf courses designed for tournament play, but not necessarily for the average player. And I think it’s taken some of the fun out of the game. I don’t blame the architects, I don’t blame the companies designing the equipment, but it has gone hand in hand, and golf has become a little more difficult for the average player.”
The sport’s young stars can help. Golf has always been a sport where stars can compete at the highest level well into their 40s and 50s, and Furyk is a good example of a veteran who has accomplished a lot and built up a nice portfolio of sponsors (like Callaway, Adidas, Royal Bank of Canada, and Web.com), even though he has never been world-ranked No. 1. (For part of 2015, he was No. 3, his highest ranking ever.) But most tournaments these days are being won by players in their 20s and 30s. And many have said that’s a good thing for the profile of the sport and for its ability to pull in young fans.
Furyk lists McIlroy, Jason Day, Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Rickie Fowler as the vanguard that can propel golf to the next level. “These are the talented young players of the Tour, but great personalities as well,” he says. “The question was always, What’s going to happen when there’s no more Tiger Woods? Well, you know, we’ve got a great young crew of kids right now. You still have Phil Mickelson hanging around, you still have some veteran players, but these kids are carrying the torch for years to come, and they’re doing a phenomenal job.”
While golf’s top priority right now is to grow the game, the sport is also reckoning with an unusual situation off the course: Donald Trump, who owns 17 golf courses worldwide, which makes him a major figure in the sport, happens to be the Republican nominee for president. What impact is that having on the sport, and what do pro golfers think about it? Furyk says, “I’m not sure we talk about that with each other.” His own take is that Trump has been a positive for golf. That opinion is debatable: Trump has bought up a number of distressed courses and invested money to overhaul them, but his courses have also caused controversy, such as in Scotland, where local residents near his Aberdeen course have said they were bullied.
Because of Trump’s comments about women on a leaked 2005 tape, many have wondered if the brand has been tarnished for good.
Every single @realDonaldTrump hotel and golf course is toast. Done. Over. Bernie Madoff now has a better brand.
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) October 8, 2016
Furyk thinks otherwise. “He’s been good for golf, to have a real estate mogul, someone that has real estate all over the world, put that time, that effort, that expense into golf, and worldwide,” Furyk says. “If he gets elected, I would think it’s going to affect him in an extremely positive fashion, as far as the golf courses are concerned. It’ll be interesting, though, with how the campaign affects that. We’ve just never had anything happen like this in golf before.”