Golf … Trouble Ahead

Filed under: Florida News,Golf,Orlando Golf |
Jordan Spieth wins 2015 U.S.Open (Photographer: Nigel G. Worrall)

Jordan Spieth wins 2015 U.S.Open (Photographer: Nigel G. Worrall)

Over the weekend, the world’s best golf players were competing on the West Coast at Chambers Bay, near Seattle, for a chance to win the 2015 U.S. Open. Most of these privileged multimillionaires weren’t too enamored by the golf course and its playing conditions as they moaned and whinged about anything from the state of greens through to how the 18th hole was set up.

All weekend we heard comments such as Henrik Stenson’s “putting on broccoli”, Sergio Garcia’s “The US Open deserves so much better than this”and Billy Horschel’s “lost respect for the USGA” among a host of gems that ignored the basic premise that golf was never meant to be easy. That said, some did make it look rather easy at times, notably Adam Scott’s last round 64 which poured scorn on the critics outlook.

Frankly, it was pretty amusing at times to watch some of the best the game has ever seen suffer in ways the club amateur knows only too well. “Time they got some of their own back” I hear you say and you’d not be wrong.

Fact is, the state of the professional game has never been better as each week another winner (and loser) rolls up to collect a million dollar check from another happy sponsor. Disappointingly though, the real fact is that golf in the ranks is going backwards and it’s got little to do with what happened in Seattle at the weekend.

Some may blame the Tiger effect and his decline in the game that he used to dominate so easily. It’s not that simple though. Life rarely is.

Golf traces its origins to 15th century Scotland but it was in America starting in the 1890s that it really came into its own. Today, the country is by far the world’s biggest market for golf, home to about half its players and courses as well as adding an incredible $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Sadly though, the attraction of golf is waning and from a peak of some 30 million people playing the game in 2006 only 25 million are doing so today although the population has actually grown by 6% in the same time span. Even worse for the sport’s future: The number of young people, aged 18 to 30, playing the game has sagged nearly 35 percent over the last decade.

Of course, 25 million is still a healthy number but the game is on notice that it needs to do better. Unfortunately, the noble game is struggling to attract a new generation of players and the best players moaning about the conditions at the national tournament is unlikely to help in any way.

In 2013, 160 of the country’s 14,600 golf facilities closed, the 8th consecutive year of net closures. Worldwide, a study titled “Golf Around The World”, said there are 34,011 golf courses in the world, 45 percent of which are in the United States.

The current total of 14,600 courses in the U.S. is down from a peak of 16,052 following a “gradual, but steady, market correction,” the report said. Although there are 153 projects in various stages of development, the number of new courses being opened is at an all-time low

It’s a troubling pattern and “The Economist” attributes three main reasons that this is the case:

First, golf’s calm pace may no longer fit in with modern lifestyles. It can take more than four hours to play a full round of 18 holes. And disappearing to the golf course for half the weekend is not compatible with modern attitudes to child-rearing.

Second, while golf may have managed to shake off some of its elitist image, America’s troubled economy is once more making it a pursuit of the wealthy. Middle and lower-income golfers have seen their pay packets shrink, hurting membership numbers at mid-range golf courses. Some public courses have been closed by local governments making spending cuts.

Third, golf has become harder to play. Since the 1990s golf-course designers have taken to building longer, tougher courses in order to put golfers and their equipment to the test. The sport’s growing difficulty and its 200-page rulebook make it a tough sell to new players.

Further, the business behind one of America’s favorite pastimes is slowly declining as TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, the world’s biggest maker of golf clubs and clothes, saw sales nosedive 28 percent last year.

Locally, here in Central Florida golf course closures are prominent. Of course, some of this is to be expected given the vast number of options players have in a 20 minute drive but even so, recent closures have seen Lake Orlando in Rosemont and Rolling Hills in Longwood fall victims to the decay in the game. Florida leads the nation with some 1,048 golf courses statewide but experts say that more and more course closures can be expected in the coming years.

The once signature green at 3rd hole at Kissimmee Oaks Golf Club - 22 June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

The once signature green at 3rd hole at Kissimmee Oaks Golf Club – 22 June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

Sadly, one of our own local courses may just fall victim to the decline. Kissimmee Oaks was a wonderful course just a few short years ago and one of the best kept secrets in Central Florida golf. A challenging lay out with 15 holes on water meant that a player had to know what they were doing or learn pretty quickly. It was the place I learned to play and I often enjoyed two or three rounds per week there in my eleven or twelve year membership before the rot set in.

The deserted club house at Kissimmee Oaks Golf Club - 22 June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

The deserted club house at Kissimmee Oaks Golf Club – 22 June 2015 (Photographer: Nigel G Worrall)

In researching this article, I paid a visit there earlier today and it was a sad sight to see. While the course may officially still be open, it is dead in many ways. The club house was barren, the tee boxes, fairways and greens all over gown and full of weeds. If the professionals at Chambers Bay thought they had it bad, then they should see the state of this place. Frankly, you couldn’t pay me to play it today let alone raid my pocket to get money out of me to play there.

In all of this, you’d think the PGA and the PGA Tour would want to do something about it. Sure, they make bleating sounds about helping the game but their actions defy that notion. My own company, Florida Leisure has for several years attempted to report on the game in an attempt to get visitors to play when they visit our area. Sadly, the response form the PGA Tour was “You can’t use any photographs taken at our events on social media”. So, today, instead of covering the Florida swing and attributing a healthy budget to doing so, we simply don’t. If they take the point of view that they don’t need us to help cover and promote the game, then we certainly aren’t going to spend our money doing so. It’s sad but that’s actually the reality of what is going on with the game of golf today. It’s a dinosaur being run by dinosaurs.

That said, golf is one of the few sports where amateurs can play the same game, with the same rules, as the professionals. The system of “handicaps” ensures that everyone can have an enjoyable competitive round regardless of their skill level if that is their wish. However, there is a need to lighten the sport’s orthodoxy in order to make it more appealing to modern lifestyles.

“I’d like to play a game that can take place in three hours,” Jack Nicklaus, the world’s best ever golfer, told CNN in January. “I’d quite like to play a game that I can get some reasonable gratification out of very quickly — and something that is not going to cost me an arm and a leg.”

Way to go Jack.

Unfortunately it seems, no-one is really listening. The game, with its drivers, clubs, clothing, shoes and tee times is still ridiculously expensive both to prepare for and to play. Worse still, it’s very difficult to become competent and that dissuades amateurs from ever giving it a swing.  One of the biggest factors is that it is extremely time-consuming with rounds of 5 hours being common place. Even the traditionalists would say that the strengths, namely its simplicity, can seem overly austere in an age of fitness classes, information on the go and iPhone games.

The game has its other charms as well. Traditionalists say it builds character as well as relationships. Golf teaches honesty, patience and camaraderie. Players see how their peers handle failure. The mental focus golf requires, with its excruciatingly difficult odds, keeps enthusiasts both attracted to and humbled by the game. P.G. Wodehouse once observed, “To find out a man’s true character, play golf with him.”

Jordan Spieth, the man who said the 18th hole is the dumbest hole he ever played in his life, ironically took home the $1.8 million winners check this weekend as Dustin Johnson missed his eagle chance to win at the 18th and then take the championship into a play off. It was a wonderful spectacle to watch right down to the wire but as we depart from another great tournament, I couldn’t help but reflect on the words spoken by Nicklaus, a four time U.S. Open champion. “Guys would say a course doesn’t suit their game. It’s not supposed to suit your game. You are supposed to suit your game to the golf course.”

The game of golf is once again at a crossroads. It’ll be interesting to see which way it turns in the coming years.

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