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Growing the Game

By Brian Summerfield

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.