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Growing the Game

By Brian Summerfield


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."