As you read this there is a very good chance that today’s economic news is not very good, as it hasn’t been for some time. For all but the super-rich the outlook can only be described as a bit depressing, with things in general costing more while what you have and what you earn are worth less. The golf industry is no different, although its recession started well in advance of the sub-prime mortgage mess of 2007. Rounds of golf are stagnant or lower, and more golfers are leaving the game than are picking it up. Why is this? Has the “Tiger Effect” burned itself out? Is this a cyclical phenomenon or something more permanent? Can anything be done about it?
First of all, it is important to note why it matters at all how many people play golf. The simple answer is that many people make their living through golf, and the ability to sustain many of the jobs the industry has to offer depend on the continuing growth of the game. If the game were to recede in any sort of significant fashion there would have to be layoffs at all of the companies that manufacture or provide the material to manufacture and sell golf equipment and accessories. Golf courses, including resort, public, and private facilities, would have to scale back, and certainly some would not be able to survive. The members and apprentices of the PGA of America would suffer keenly as golf course owners and operators assess the bottom line and scale back on the service such professionals provide.
Unfortunately, such is already the case. Golf professionals who previously earned in the six figure range are being forced to accept similar positions for half as much, or give up the job to less qualified pros that will be happy to take the position at the lower salary, all orchestrated by management companies whose allegiances are with the owners who hire them to ensure that the property turn a profit. And make no mistake; profits are more difficult to come by at a daily fee course when less people show up to play. Couple this with the fact that high-end daily fee courses are vastly overbuilt, the competition for a dwindling number of players is cutthroat, and as courses cannibalize each other some simply won’t survive. The root of all these issues is that people are quitting the game, and not enough are taking their places. Why is this, and is there anything that can be done about it?
I have been playing competitive golf for many years, and teaching golf for nearly as many. I have been associated with the most talented, and the least talented players you can imagine. One item always comes to my mind when talking about golf and that is that golf is damned hard. It’s hard to start, hard to get better, and hard to be any good. It’s hard to hit the ball, hard to get the ball into the hole, and hard not to get discouraged while you’re trying. It’s a solitary game: no teammates to rely on or share with, no one to blame for your failures, no one to take a vested interest in your success. It’s a self-motivating game: if you don’t feel like practicing, no one is going to make you. If you don’t love it, you will find little reason to stick with it. The disappointments and frustrations far outweigh the moments of accomplishment. Most of the time, it’s an accomplishment simply to return for more punishment the next day, or the next week. It requires tremendous persistence and perseverance, attributes that many of us just don’t possess in large quantities.
On the other hand, golf offers a tremendous challenge, both mentally and physically. The physical demands are not ones of athletic prowess or endurance: you don’t have to run fast, or jump high, or lift a heavy weight. You do have to train your body to pass through positions at high speed that seem totally counter to anything you would think of as “natural”. Even the conceptual nature of the game is counter-intuitive: hit down to make the ball go up: swing in a circle to make the ball go straight. Without guidance most are doomed to be poor practitioners. Only the most talented (and there is nothing to indicate whether or not a person will have a “knack” for the game or not) are able to pick up a club and wield it with any proficiency. To reach the highest level these talented few are still in need of a vast array of other characteristics (persistence, patience, desire, dedication, will, guts, etc.) to achieve any great success. It is a great selling point of the game, however, that one not possessing the athletic qualities of strength, speed and agility can still be fine players.
Given the level of difficulty the game presents, it is without reservation that I can label any success with it “exhilarating”. Nothing feels quite like a well struck shot. The odd chip-in or long putt holed produces an output of adrenaline and a rush of happiness unlike most anything else in sports. Winning a one-on-one match, or a competition against a field of aspiring players, provides a sense of personal accomplishment that is hard to achieve in any other venture.
There are other aspects of the game which make it a hard sell in terms of getting masses of people to take it up and continue playing. First, it is an expensive endeavor. Equipment is expensive, greens fees are expensive, lessons are expensive: in fact, just about everything about the game screams “rich-man’s sport”. Upon its arrival in America golf was a game played at private clubs by wealthy individuals. Most of the public courses now are what are termed “high-end” daily fee courses, where a round of golf is in excess of 80 dollars, and many times up to and above 200. A top quality set of clubs, along with a bag, balls, and shoes, are going to run well over a thousand dollars. I charge someone who is not a member of the club I work at $200 an hour, so I am definitely part of the problem. How do you make golf more affordable? Well, I’m not charging any less, so I’m no help. I don’t think that there are any golf courses, ones which are already hard pressed to turn a profit, are going to permanently lower their rates. And I don’t believe that the price of top quality equipment is going to trend lower, either, especially with the cost of research and development and the intense competition among the largest companies. In short, golf is not a cheap game. If rounds have been down as the economy boomed, what is in store as the economy tanks?
Golf, besides being difficult and expensive, is also quite time-consuming. A round of golf, even if played at a brisk pace, is, for a foursome, at least a 4 hour excursion. Add to that time to and from the course, time to warm up, and time for eating or drinking during or afterward, and you have most of a day spent. There is really no way around this. To play golf is to commit the day. With many people tied into work or driving their kids to various activities it is almost impossible to play more than once in a while. Sure, 9-hole leagues can be set up and pace of play can be monitored and enforced, but those who are depending on an ever-increasing number of people picking up and playing the game are going to be disappointed.
I would not go as far as to say that efforts to grow the game are misplaced or misguided. My sense of it is: if you have committed yourself and you depend on certain levels of growth, what else are you going to do? If you have built a golf course and you need X number of rounds at Y price just to break even, you have to try just about anything. If you work at one of these courses, you are going to be heavily involved in the effort. Private clubs need to maintain their members, and fill spaces that open up with new ones: when membership levels fall to low enough levels there are always members willing to look at the value of the real estate the course sits on and assess the possibility of selling the club for development.
Perhaps there should be more of an effort to keep the people who already play from quitting. All of the reasons that dissuade people from picking up the game serve to cause them to reassess why they play in the first place, and ask whether or not the time and effort they are committing to the game is worth it. It is difficult to come up with ways to make the game less expensive and less time consuming. There is no way to make the game less difficult. Instructors and entrepreneurs can pretend to offer ways to make the game easier, but all these efforts are laughable. To my mind, most people quit because they can’t seem to improve to any significant degree, and as they add their frustration to all the other factors pulling them away from the game they find nothing to hold them to it.
There are many who cannot be saved: they’ve had it with the game and just don’t want to play anymore. Others love the challenge, the beauty of the surroundings, the peaceful nature of the solitary battle with the course, and would like nothing more than to find some hope, some reason to soldier on and continue to pay greens fees. Here, instruction is the last, best hope. In a perfect world the competent instructor would explain the intricacies of the game, whittle away at misconceptions, shed light on the process of change and improvement, offer encouragement, and inspire by example. Alas, the quality of instruction by those calling themselves “teaching pros” is wildly uneven. There is no guarantee that the person you might find yourself paying for a lesson is even marginally proficient at his or her position. The PGA of America affiliation may be the best indication that a teacher is at least somewhat knowledgeable, but even the PGA has a hard time figuring out how to train its own members to teach the game. And when you consider that just about anyone can call themselves a pro and profess to teach the game without any substantive training, it becomes obvious that scores of players who are desirous of improving are being let down through sheer incompetence.
Some of the problems with golf instruction are built into the subjective nature of the subject matter. A professional can say and teach almost anything, and who is going to step up and say that the information is wrong? The average guy only knows that he knows next to nothing, and that when he signs up for a lesson the person he is going to pay is supposed to know more than he does. He is paying for a “pro”, after all. The player could go a long way toward avoiding wasting his money by doing some research regarding the person he chooses to take the lesson from, but in most cases people trust a golf professional to know what he or she is doing, and will blame themselves when no improvement is forthcoming, even though it is entirely the instructors fault. Golf instructors get paid a lot of money for teaching the game: many of them need to be honest with themselves and work harder to get better at what they do by playing competitively, studying the swings of good players, and availing themselves of the educational opportunities offered by more experienced and accomplished teachers.
I have two daughters, and neither plays golf. I introduced both to the game, had them watch me play in a Tour event, got both of them to make a nice looking swing and hit the ball. They just didn’t take to it. Lindsay, played lacrosse and loves it. Lacrosse is a reactive, hard-charging sport that is a neat combination of technique, speed and power. It is also a team sport, which adds an important social aspect that all teenagers need. It never bothered me that they chose not to play: I love the game, but I realize that it is not for everyone.
There, I said it. Golf is not for everyone. There are many people who try to play who would be happier doing something else. I am asked at least once a week by struggling students if I would tell them if I thought they were “hopeless”. I tell them that I would never do that, that there is no telling when a breakthrough might occur, and that as long as they wish to try I will be there trying just as hard to help them. I have struggled with the game for over 40 years, and every now and then I find myself out on the course wondering why I put myself through the torture of competition when it would be far easier to stay at work and make guaranteed money. But I can say without qualification that there is no greater feeling of accomplishment than one earned on the golf course. The game is so hard, so elusive and maddening, that any small victory is truly exhilarating. And that, as they say, is what keeps you coming back for more.