Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Significant, Sustainable & Non-Radical Solution to Golf's Participation Problem

The Wall Street Journal published an article last weekend called “The Battle for the Soul of the Game” and it captured the essence of this interesting time in the golf industry. 

The article discusses how the golf industry is thinking about combating the game’s declining participation, causes of which include 5-6 hour rounds, expensive green fees, increasingly difficult courses and little overall accessibility.  Industry leaders face difficult decisions because many of the popular solutions to these problems require a fundamental shift in the traditions, values and “soul” of the game.

Some of the more radical ideas include: two sets of rules – one for professionals and one for amateurs, golf balls that fly farther or shorter to accommodate courses of different lengths, doubling the size of the hole, building courses with less holes and so forth.
I understand why these ideas exist but I don’t support them because they disrupt a fundamental aspect of the game that I believe should be forever sacred – “the number.”  Every round of golf produces a score.  Golfers can compare it to previous performances.  It’ll make them feel good about themselves, or strive to be better, or both.  They can compare it to others.  It can be discussed at ease with both golfers and non-golfers alike.  They can even compare it to professionals.  Thanks to one set of rules, 18 holes, normal-sized golf courses, standardized equipment and a 3” hole, every score produces a number that means something.  In many ways it means everything.  And it should never be taken away.
There are traditional solutions as well – moving the tees forward, eliminating carts on courses where they have to stay on the path, increasing marketing efforts, etc. – but these all feel to me like using a band aid where stitches are needed.
There is one solution, however, that was discussed in the Comments section of the article that I think is game-changing because it would solve these problems in a significant and meaningful way while also preserving the traditions of the game.
The concept is to create a system where people need to be able to achieve a certain handicap on a short course and pass a rules/etiquette assessment before receiving a card that would allow them to play on an 18 hole regulation facility.  This policy would apply to juniors, men, women, everyone.  It makes a lot of sense and would do several things:
1.    Create inherent demand for building short courses and a sustainable business model to support them.
2.    Provide a nurturing, non-intimidating environment for beginners to try the game and develop some skills before going to longer, harder, more expensive and time-consuming courses.
3.    Offer all golfers more opportunities to enjoy the game in a relaxed setting for two hours or less.
4.    Speed up play at 18 hole facilities.
Failing golf courses could convert into a short course as opposed to closing, thus saving jobs and making the transition to this model smooth for everyone.  In the interim of building the short course, or in areas where it would be impossible to sustain one, regulation facilities could utilize the family tees or create a modified routing format (such as Tierra Rejada's innovative "Players Course") on certain days/times for beginners.  USGA members with a handicap below a certain number would be grandfathered in while all others would need to pass through the program.
I’m sure there are many more considerations as I dive deeper into the concept, including potential legal and political complications, but this to me makes a lot of sense on many levels… much more so than some of the alternatives.  It maintains the integrity of “the number,” preserves the game’s traditions, makes it more accessible to beginners, presents more opportunities for seasoned players to enjoy it and has a sustainable business model to support it. 

And, this model would present ample opportunity for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the shifting landscape.

What do you think?


  1. It's an interesting concept Steve, but I fear that it would cause a sharp decline in interest for the game as a whole. As a sub-10 handicapper, I complain a lot about the slow play caused by higher handicappers, but I'm not sure this is the way to change it. How prevalent would these shorter courses be? If we force less-accomplished golfers on to worse courses which they have to drive a long distance to visit, my assumption is that they would take the "easy" route and find somewhere else to spend their time and money.

    I think the rules/etiquette assessment portion might be enough to speed play up. If we make people more conscious of the appropriate way to play the game, and of the other golfers on the course, I think it would do a lot to speed up the course. Kind of like needing a boating license to enjoy a lake - if everyone boating around the lake had no idea what the rules/etiquette were, it would be chaos - kind of like what we experience on the golf course.

    1. Good points, Nathan. The prevalence of short courses is definitely an issue with this idea. I was thinking that regulation courses could use Family Tees or a modified course routing during certain times of the day if there isn't a short course in the area.

      I don't know that this would cause a sharp decline in players, however. I come across many adult golfers who are intimidated by playing a regulation-sized course off the bat as they worry about embarassing themselves and having a frustrating experience ... and these concerns/realities often keep them from playing the game. In my experience, these players feel much more comfortable on short courses and don't see them as "worse courses" but rather as more friendly ones, at least while they're first learning the game. Have you had different experiences?

      The analogy to a boating license is great. Never thought of it like that. I agree that the short course mandate would be difficult to implement but a rules/etiquette quiz is not and would speed up play immediately. It's a great concept that I fully support, either on its own (in lieu of my idea) or as the first step of my idea. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Steve,
    How could I get in touch directly? My address
    William Lewis
    BBC Golf LLC