Growing the Game

With a history that extends back centuries, golf is a grand game, one steeped in majesty and tradition. It's been played by kings, presidents and captains of industry. That's why the rules and rituals of the sport must be treated with reverence and respect.

Well, raspberries to all of that.

Much like Judge Smails in the movie "Caddyshack" (a character brilliantly portrayed by actor Ted Knight), golf has been taking itself a bit too seriously lately. It's developed a reputation for being a strict and stuffy game, qualities that outsiders can find off-putting. Additionally, industry experts say courses and clubs have become more competitive with respect to issues like landscaping and design, which typically translate into more challenging experiences for casual and improving players (not to mention higher costs).

The result is that golf is seemingly becoming a more exclusive activity, one that's not particularly accessible to newcomers. And, allowing for some possible exceptions, that's not by design. Institutions within the sport are doing more and more to grow the number of people who play it. In particular, most clubs today don't operate like they did a couple of generations ago, with the goal of "keeping the riff-raff out." They're interested in getting more members — or players, if it's a daily-fee or municipal course. But participation in the game seems to be tapering off after the boom it went through during the past couple of decades. The question is: What, if anything, can be done about it?

Problems With Golf Today

It might seem silly to worry about the future of golf right now. After all, it has longstanding popularity as a spectator sport, budgets for many country clubs are rising, and the quality of the courses and equipment keeps improving. However, a big problem with contemporary golf is that the experience caters almost entirely to elite players or old hands. From the pristine greens on the courses to the intense focus on handicaps, it's a sport that can seem navel-gazing and perfectionist to the uninitiated. And if that goes unchecked, that will likely drive a long decline in the number of people interested in playing the sport.

That's the argument put forward by Anthony Pioppi, a golf author, historian and course consultant who's done everything from mowing grass on greens to working as a volunteer at the British Open. He currently contributes to Superintendent Magazine as its senior editor, and he also serves as executive director of the Seth Raynor Foundation. That organization is named for the prolific American golf architect who designed more than 100 courses throughout the early 20th century, from his native New York to Pebble Beach in California.

Suffice to say, Pioppi has spent a great deal of his time thinking about the past, and future, of golf. And if he thinks the sport is in trouble, then that probably means it's in trouble. And one of the biggest issues is what he calls the golf course design "arms race," particularly ever-higher investments in making greens play faster and smoother, so that a putted ball practically glides over them.

"They're as perfect as they've ever been," he said. "They've never been this good, even on average golf courses. That's a real problem at high-end daily-fee or country clubs, because the better players want faster greens, and the average and beginner players tend to be intimidated by them. Beginners have an extremely difficult time putting on fast greens. It requires more touch. The 'slower' the green, the more you're allowed to make mistakes, particularly on a fast, downhill putt. So there's kind of a dividing line in terms of who wants what."

Because the more dedicated players have gotten used to them, Pioppi doesn't see that going away anytime soon.

"Should we back off of those maintenance practices? For a variety of reasons that include money, yes," he said. "But I think it's difficult to do because people have seen this now. They've played on these good greens. This arms race that the courses are in—and this is talked about in the industry all the time—has gone overboard. And it's kind of their fault. But I know why they do it. They're trying to keep their jobs and keep up with the Joneses. So, I don't see it going the other way, but I wish it would."

Additionally, the sport has acquired an unhealthy obsession with formal play, including score-keeping and strict adherence to rules.

"In golf, we're too concerned with not just what we shot, but what we shoot in relation to par," Pioppi explained. "For 90 percent of golfers, par isn't relevant to their game. Supposedly, about 20 percent of golfers break 100 [scores] on a regular basis. That's 28 over par. I understand why it's like that. If you look back to 30 years ago, you had municipal golf courses that had 150 members who would play every Saturday and Sunday. Par mattered to them. But as times changed, this idea of recreational golf seems to have been lost."

Instead of treating golf like the game it is, it's become more of a commercial enterprise, said E.J. Altobello, who since 1998 has run golf operations at the Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, Mass., near Springfield. In that capacity, he's served as the club's golf pro and superintendent.

"The business of golf has gone a little bit off the rails, in my opinion," Altobello said. "A lot of it is driven by the manufacturers [of equipment such as clubs, balls, sportwear, etc.]. They're the ones that really benefited from the boom, and they're the ones that are struggling a bit now."

He added that some private golf clubs are struggling as well, and pointed out that a few have even gone out of business. Rather than view this as a sign of golf's possibly rising unpopularity, he sees it as part of a natural evolution, and one that has more to do with how those institutions operate than the actual appeal of the sport.

"Golf has historically been a niche game," said Altobello, who added that the total number of players historically has fallen somewhere within 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population. "It's not going to go up to 16 percent. It's just not. And to do promotions and [outreach] just to increase the 'business of golf' … that's not why I do my job."

Given all of the issues above, how can private and daily-fee clubs, municipal courses, and parks and recreation departments work to grow the game and keep these facilities afloat? Here are three steps they can take to broaden the appeal of golf in their areas.

1. Make More Distinctive Courses and Holes

When a new golf course is developed these days, there are certain expectations built in. For instance, the fairways and greens will be immaculate, and the bunkers will be arduous. There will be a certain number of holes that are par 3, 4 and 5. And there will be at least 18 of them in all. In short, it will be designed conventionally, and with the "serious" player in mind.

But these standards exist more due to the "business of golf" that Altobello referenced rather than any rules set by the industry or some governing body. It's gotten to the point where it's done that way because it's done that way, and because doing it the same over and over again requires less thinking. That's a shame too, because it constrains one of the greatest aspects of golf: the distinctiveness of each course.

"A soccer field is a soccer field, and a football field is a football field," Altobello said. "Sure, some are nice than others, but generally, they're all the same. With golf courses, each and every one of them is unique. To me, that's the best part about the game. You go out to different courses, have different shots, different weather, and this and that. And I think that enhances the game tremendously. These are beautiful sites. Whether you play golf or not, the courses are super-interesting places, with the wildlife, all the different grass cuts."

Take the Old Course of St. Andrews in Scotland, which is today considered to be something like the birthplace of modern golf. It's a popular destination for American tourists, many of whom play the course. Those who do quickly discover that while it is landscaped, and beautifully so, it's a little rougher and wilder than what they're used to back home, Pioppi said. Patches of wildflowers or even weeds might sit in the middle of a fairway, for example. Despite that, it's fun to play, and that more natural state has a big part of that.

Thought it's not mainstream yet and might not be for some time, there is a burgeoning movement in the industry to loosen up a bit on landscaping standards and allow nature to do what it will in certain places, Pioppi explained. He cited a growing "brown is the new green" mentality that says fairways don't have to be lush all the time for playability.

"You don't have to over-water fairways," he said. "You can keep them lean. And several courses have gotten rawer when it comes to bunker design and landscapes around the course."

Another potential improvement is to make them smaller and shorter—and thereby more generally appealing for new golfers, who can enjoy a course that plays faster and easier. An example of this approach shared by Pioppi is the new Nine Grand development, a small, nine-hole golf course in the Houston area. He came across the project, which is still under construction, while doing research for his upcoming book "The Finest Nine: North America's Best Nine-Hole Golf Courses," scheduled for release in February 2018. According to Pioppi, course designer Mike Nuzzo was given a mandate before he started planning it out.

"The owner said to him, 'I want you to design a fun golf course. Not a challenging one. Just fun,'" Pioppi said. "And for a beginner, that means not having to hit seven [strokes] to get out of a bunker or hitting over a body of water."

"It's not meant to have a long scorecard to impress someone," said Nuzzo, who's designed courses ranging from the very public to the very exclusive. "It's nice and manageable. It doesn't require a great deal of expense and time to play. We don't focus on how long the golf holes are. We focus on having them all be a little bit different and interesting, and a good overall variety."

Bottom line: Whether you're developing a new course or just redesigning a hole, consider something unconventional. It might drive interest, and save your organization money over time.

2. Do More for New and Novice Players

In addition to finding courses that have shorter holes and more forgiving terrain, new and inexperienced players can benefit from offerings targeted specifically at them. That could start with a touchpoint such as a website, as Nuzzo pointed out.

"I have yet to see a golf website that asks visitors: 'Have you played golf before?' or 'Are you new to the sport?'" he said. "As an experienced player, I've seen everything and I know how they operate, but there's nothing there to invite someone who's never done it before."

Also, it helps to have practice areas along with the actual golf course. Once again, Pioppi turned to Nuzzo's Nine Grand course as an example.

"What [Nuzzo and his team] are doing is trying to get people to the golf course, but do things before they get to the actual golf course," he said. "They have a very large putting green that has undulations in it. You can go out and not only putt, but actually read greens and have funky things happen. It's fun. But it's not like putting on a tennis court."

Golf lessons and camps that cater to children and youth who are just beginning to learn about the sport can be beneficial as well. And these don't have to be particularly rigorous or fussy, either. Altobello runs a program at his club that brings in between 70 and 80 kids annually, some of them as young as five or six years old. And for those younger participants, there's very little emphasis on skills training.

"We're not teaching many golf specifics at a really young age," he said. "We'll get them to hold the club properly, stand at the ball properly, and then we get them out on the golf course. Our mantra is to get the kids on to the course as quickly as possible and the rest will follow. Whether they go on to be good, great or average players — none of those things are necessarily our goal. We want them to enjoy playing.

"If the kids are interested in it and they love it, they'll figure out the specifics of it soon enough," he added. ""Kids are great learners. As soon as they want to learn fundamentals and are old enough to learn them, they pick those up very quickly. Mentally, they're not as blocked as most of us adults are."

3. Focus on Fun and Family

Altobello said the youth program he runs at his club has just three rules:

  1. Have fun
  2. Be safe
  3. Have fun

That's not a typo. "Have fun" is listed twice because it's that important. Essentially, this is the key to sustaining golf and growing it to its full potential in the future. The game needs to become fun again, and not just for people who already play it obsessively. Perhaps the quickest and easiest way to do this is by leaving the scorecards behind, Pioppi said. If clubs and their members and players can loosen up about keeping score, newcomers won't find the sport so intimidating.

"For people getting introduced to the game who are looking for something to do that's fun, we have to put the scorecard away," he said. "I don't think people should worry about finishing a hole, or the fact that they're hitting 9 on a par 3. Keeping score isn't always an integral part of the game. We should look at it as if we're going to a basketball court and just shooting around. We have to try to get people to just approach golf like that."

Pioppi has even used this approach to get his girlfriend into golf.

"She has a blast," he said. "But we play it this way: We don't take a scorecard, and if she takes so many shots that she gets frustrated, she just picks up. And when we get to the green or to my shot, she'll drop and take another shot. She'll putt or chip or something, and then we'll move on. I don't even really know what I shoot. I'm just out there having fun."

Another key for growing the game of golf is getting families back into it—not so much for the kids, but for their parents, today's Generation Xers and older Millennials.

"The world's a very different place than it was 25 or 30 years ago," Altobello said. "When people who got into it as kids reach college age or become young adults, it's much more difficult for them to participate in the game. There are the costs associated with it, though I'm not sure that's the biggest issue. It just becomes a time factor. People today are much busier with their kids and their jobs than they ever were in the past. Whether you can get them back in their thirties … well, that's an interesting question."

Fortunately, golf can indeed be a family activity. Recently, Pioppi has seen families of four riding around courses in golf carts, with parents playing the start of a hole and letting their children take over when they get on or near the green to take a putt or a chip shot. This not only qualifies as quality bonding time, it also gets the kids into the game by teaching it to them "backwards" — that is, from putting to driving, rather than the other way around.

"They have this feeling of accomplishment right away as they get adept at a legitimate portion of the game," he said. "And it's really fun to stand around and putt, even for me. I've done that with people who are just starting to learn the game: 'Let's just go putt for a little while.' And then we'll just go from there."

Though it might seem new, that family- and community-oriented approach represents a return to the roots of golf, which started out as a somewhat egalitarian and definitely social sport.

"The Old Course at St. Andrews can be played by anybody," Nuzzo said. "The young kid or the grandmother can go out and get started there, and enjoy it."

Brian Summerfield