Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Death of Golf

[ed.  Maybe it could die a little sooner so I could get a tee time.]

One night last September, my 15-year-old daughter, Esmee, told me her plan to try out for the girls golf team here in Pacific Palisades, California. While I was pleased with her interest in golf — which I'd played semiseriously, along with seemingly every other man under 40 in the Tiger-dominated late '90s — I felt I had to prepare her for the inevitable letdown. She lacked the requisite power and the repeating, compact swing I assumed were required of a varsity golfer. Do your best, I told her, but be prepared for the possibility that you might not make the team.

When she texted me a week later to say she'd made the cut, I was stunned. In the years I'd gone to the school, the golf team was a bunch of country club regulars whose swings were nice right-path whips, golfers who'd been playing for a half-decade by the time they got to high school. I asked the coach, James Paleno, what had changed.

"There just isn't the interest we used to have 14, 15 years ago," he says. "Now I have kids showing up who have never hit a golf ball before. Kids are just less aware of golf. They have too many other options. And then when they find out it takes five and a half hours to play 18 holes, they're just not interested."

By any measure, participation in the game is way off, from a high of 30.6 million golfers in 2003 to 24.7 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF). The long-term trends are also troubling, with the number of golfers ages 18 to 34 showing a 30 percent decline over the last 20 years. Nearly every metric — TV ratings, rounds played, golf-equipment sales, golf courses constructed — shows a drop-off. "I look forward to a time when we've got the wind at our back, but that's not what we're expecting," says Oliver "Chip" Brewer, president and CEO of Callaway. "This is a demographic challenge." (...)

Not long ago, the game could count on young fathers to hide out on the links, and weekend tee slots are still filled with plenty of off-duty dads. But it takes two to properly helicopter-parent a family these days, and that means parents are spending more of their weekends at the playground than at the country club.

During the Tiger boom, everything about the game seemed to expand, from the length of the putters to the size of driver heads to the scale of the courses themselves. "When I won the U.S. Open at Bellerive in 1965, the course measured 7,191 yards. It was a monster," notes Gary Player, the only non-American to win a career Grand Slam. "Now," he says, "7,500-yard courses are everywhere." And those courses have raised their greens fees. Pebble Beach may be able to charge $495 for a round, but when your local public course wants $150, it gets steep. And many of those golf courses weren't designed merely for golf; they were the lure for tens of thousands of homes that aimed to deliver one version of the American dream: golf course frontage. (...)

By now the various attempts to "save" golf by making the game faster, cheaper, and easier to play have all taken on an air of desperation. There have been a number of initiatives and innovations designed to lure younger players onto the course — most of them attempts to speed up the game. "Golf is losing fans because of time," says Phil Smith. "We need to provide for that." That means shorter courses, some three- or four-hole loops that can be played "through" existing courses, or bigger holes or short-game areas — anything so that a player can go out and swing a club and get back before sundown. "We have to shorten the courses and change the equipment," Gary Player says. "Your average golfer will have a much better experience if he or she doesn't feel the need to hit a driver off of every tee box."

There is also FootGolf, essentially golf played with a soccer ball, and Big Hole Golf, where the game is played with cups as wide as 15 inches, and, of course, Frisbee golf. The PGA and USGA have introduced Tee It Forward, which encourages players to set their tees well ahead of their normal tees, with the hope that beginner players can finish a round in three hours. "I'd like to play a game that can take place in three hours," Nicklaus told CNN this past January. "And something that isn't going to cost me an arm and a leg."

At every turn, the game is trying to lure younger golfers into the clubhouse. The USGA sponsors Drive, Chip & Putt, a skills program for juniors similar to the NFL's Punt, Pass & Kick, and one of last year's participants, 11-year-old Lucy Li, became the youngest player in history to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open. The First Tee, a partner of the PGA, LPGA, and several major corporations, has focused on introducing golf into schools by donating equipment and providing a golf-friendly curriculum.

Still, the sparse crowd on a Saturday afternoon at the Los Angeles Golf Show definitely skews more Arnold Palmer than Lucy Li. In fact, there's hardly anyone under the age of 50 who isn't manning a booth. There were a few dozen golf courses and country clubs trolling for members: Angeles National, Rio Hondo, the Crossings at Carlsbad, each offering deeply discounted rounds and practically begging me to play at their courses. Their sales managers touted their yardage, conditions — "the only Nicklaus Design golf course in Los Angeles County," a "$44 weekday special including a hot dog and a soda" — and said they believed the golf business was finally rebounding. But I didn't have to press very hard to get them to admit that business was slow. "It's a challenge," says Debora Main, marketing and sales manager of Candlewood. "It's been a tough few years."

Nearly everyone I spoke with at the convention pointed to one company as the potential savior. "Maybe Topgolf is our Tiger," says Callaway's Brewer, which owns just under 20 percent of Topgolf, the company that has devised a simulated version of the game by putting microchips into balls at high-tech driving ranges. Players hit into the target area as a computer screen keeps score based on how accurate the shots are. In between drinking, eating, and listening to the house DJs, they stand on an Astroturf mat and play 20 balls. It's golf's version of bowling. The company was formed in the U.K. but was acquired by a U.S. investment group in 2005. Topgolf has 13 locations in the U.S., and will have 20 by the end of the year and as many as 50 by the end of 2017, including a 105,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It's golf as karaoke, with crowds of young people sitting in hitting bays and partying between taking their hacks. And the company is booming, with revenue far exceeding $100 million this year. Most important for the golf industry, 54 percent of its 4 million visitors last year were between the ages of 18 and 34.

by Karl Taro Greenfeld, Men's Journal |  Read more:
Image: Todd Anthony