Golf will shrink if courses don't

December 20, 2012

I'm supposed to be optimistic. So here I go:

Golf is irreplaceable. It is the world’s greatest game. It is hypnotic for both spectators and participants. We can watch it all our lives. We can play it all our lives.

I conclude that golf is the anti-aging sport.

I look at golf’s major championships, and I say to myself, “Super Bowl times four.” Golf is captivating at its highest level and seductive at an everyday level. Golfers and golf watchers alike are lucky to have discovered the game.


So what’s wrong? Why don’t I really feel optimistic?

I have to be truthful: My concern focuses on recreational golf, and my confidence was dented in 2012. Despite modest increases in rounds played, other factors threaten the future of the game.

Golf remains too expensive. That being said, I salute all golf courses in the United States with greens fees less than $50.

Golf remains too time consuming. I am betting more and more people will leave the game because they are unwilling to spend an entire day preparing for and completing one 18-hole round of golf.

Golf remains too difficult for most players. Mike Davis, executive director of the US Golf Association, feels difficulty is not one of golf’s biggest problems. I disagree. Courses have grown longer, and golf course architects would rather drink stagnant pond water than build anything short of a so-called championship course.

Championship, by the way, is a euphemism for “I’m going to beat your brains out.”

Golf remains too dependent on distance rather than finesse. Most golfers play courses that are too long for their abilities. I have seen little evidence that Tee It Forward, the program designed to make shorter courses more attractive, is working.

I hate to say it, but my employer, Golfweek, is an example of why Tee It Forward doesn’t work. Every year we compete in something called the Crain Cup, named for our owner, Rance Crain. This year, the event was played on the Blue Monster at Doral. The famous course was soaked from recent rainfall.

So what did we do? Without consideration for wet fairways and uncut grass, we played the layout at a yardage that prevented at least 50 percent of the field (probably more like 75 percent) from reaching most of the par 4s in regulation. How much fun is that?

Why did we do this? Because mostly we’re guys, and guys tend to be full of bravado and such.

Finally, golf remains stuck in the past.

I admire Jack Nicklaus more than anyone in golf, yet his thoughtful suggestions for the future of the game have been largely dismissed with a shrug and an appraisal such as “Oh, that’s just Jack being Jack.”

How about bigger cups? How about less yardage on our courses? How about 12-hole layouts in addition to the traditional 18? How about a transparent discussion — one that could be understood by one and all — of the modern golf ball? How about a bifurcation plan, under which the game would be less demanding for average golfers and more demanding for professionals and elite amateurs?

I am sure Nicklaus would be happy to participate in a serious public session on these subjects.

Please understand, I am not saying we need to rewrite all the current golf ball regulations. I am not advocating an immediate bifurcation of the sport. But we need to talk about these issues. The way it happens right now, most of the plain and honest talking is done behind closed doors by the USGA and R&A.

Besides our own ignorance or unwillingness to debate serious alterations in the game, another mammoth hurdle looms on the horizon. Golf is looking down the barrel of environmental regulations. Future water restrictions will affect the game dramatically. Brown could easily become the new green.

I don’t believe golf’s movers and shakers are being entirely straightforward about potential problems. The sport is in danger. As much as we love playing the game and watching the game, we should devote equal energy to planning for the future.

So I’ll take my papaya-pineapple smoothie and make a toast to a fruitful and, I hope, thriving 2013.