Few sports honor, protect and revere their history and traditions more than golf. So when the U.S. Open begins this week at Pinehurst No. 2 in the sandhills of North Carolina, there will be odes to the great architect who designed the course (Donald Ross), the late champion who thrust the venue back into the public’s eye in 1999 (Payne Stewart), and the man who was runner-up to Stewart and has since placed second in the event a preposterous and painful five more times (Phil Mickelson).
And across the country, as the sport’s national championship takes place, some men and women will take to golf courses and kick soccer balls down the fairway. Others will make approach shots into greens with traditional clubs, pull out their putters, then roll the ball into holes the size of pot lids.
This is golf in 2014: a sport in the process of finding itself again, on both the professional and grass-roots levels. Participation peaked with about 30 million players in 2005 — when Tiger Woods was in the heart of his major championship-winning days — and has since dropped by 5 million, according to the World Golf Foundation. Rounds peaked at 550 million in 2005 and fell to 465 million last year. April’s Masters, with Woods absent because of a bad back, drew its worst television ratings in 21 years.
But after years of reports of course closings and what was said to be a precipitous drop in interest — fueled, at least in part, by a national recession — the numbers have plateaued. Now, in a world in which a four-hour round seems like a huge chunk of the day, golf is dissecting its problems and, in some cases, offering unexpected solutions.
“Obviously it’s (1) time-consuming, (2) expensive, and (3) our economy got hit,” said Woods, still the sport’s dominant figure, in an interview last month. “So everybody was cutting back on spending and spending time, so that’s just part of reality. I think that we need to provide more access. How do we do that? I don’t know. Especially nowadays, everyone is into this instant gratification, this need for speed. And golf is just not a fast sport. I don’t know how we solve that.”
The answer, some of the sport’s leaders believe, is that tradition and innovation must now walk hand-in-hand down the fairway. The American Footgolf League, which oversees a new sport that combines golf and soccer and is contested exclusively on golf courses, is signing up new facilities each week. Taylormade, a leading equipment maker, is pushing courses to use 15-inch holes that are nearly four times as wide as traditional cups — allowing golfers to both speed up play and build confidence. The PGA of America has formed a task force charged with growing the game not by inviting the traditional starched collars of the sport, but by involving people such as Bode Miller, the Olympic gold medalist skier and noted contrarian.
“We believe that there is room under our big tent of golf for both your traditional game and forms we hadn’t thought of before,” said Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. “We also acknowledge that we have to offer a product that appeals more to a big swath of society that says we can only commit to an hour or two to this activity. What do we have available? Traditionally we said, ‘We don’t.’ Generally, we didn’t have a product that matched up with what the consumer wanted, and we have to change that.”
That’s happening. Take footgolf. Last fall, the California-based AFGL had just 35 courses set up to play. Now, there are 144 courses in 31 states, with more coming on board. The logistics allow for the sport — in which players kick a soccer ball to greens set up to the side of the golf greens, then “putt” into large holes — to be intermingled with golf. An 18-hole footgolf course can easily be contained amid nine golf holes, and it takes about two hours to complete — or roughly half the time of a speedy round of golf.
Players don’t wear soccer cleats and are encouraged to don “golf attire” — collared shirts, no denim — so that an all-out culture war doesn’t develop. Some courses even allow golfers and footgolfers to play at the same time, in back-to-back groups. The AFGL plans to roll out handicap software within the next month, further aligning it with golf. Ted Bishop, the PGA of America president, began offering footgolf in May on the par-3 course at the 45-hole facility he runs in Indiana. Since then, he’s welcomed more footgolfers than traditional golfers.
“We’re getting people who would never come to a golf course,” Bishop said.
Mark Wesolek, a regional manager for course-management company Billy Casper Golf, came across footgolf at an industry conference last October. This spring, he had courses set up at two facilities he oversees: Lake Ridge and General’s Ridge, both municipal courses in Prince William County. Now, he has birthday parties, soccer groups and non-profits looking for new ways to raise money scheduling outings there.
“This has been something of an eye-opener,” Wesolek said.
Martin Zadravec oversees player development at Northwest Golf Course in Montgomery County and for years has put time into the development of junior leagues and clinics. Officials there are hoping to, among other things, tap into the area’s Hispanic community when they begin offering footgolf at the 27-hole facility later this summer.
“We’ve heard other courses raving about their success,” Zadravec said. “You may see a spike in revenue. You may see a spike in near-golf experience rounds. Do I think it will work? I think. But we don’t have the history yet. Hopefully, this is a way to get people to the golf course.”
These efforts come at a time when golf is downsizing. Woods’s arrival, when he won the 1997 Masters, came in the midst of an already burgeoning golf boom, which also happened to coincide with a period of American prosperity. From 1985-2005, 4,200 new golf courses were built, according to the National Golf Foundation, which researches and tracks the golf industry. Many of those courses were high-end daily fee courses charging triple-digit greens fees. The PGA Tour became a television juggernaut. And in the midst of all the success, golf began battling a perception problem.
“The highly manicured golf courses you see on TV, they tend to give the impression of being exclusive and being places where only the privileged few have access,” said Mona of the World Golf Foundation. “Secondly, there’s how people perceive golf in their general communities. You see the gated entrance, the high hedges. This is true in some cases, not so much anymore, but it’s sort of mysterious, like no one can get in there. All of a sudden a perception exists.”
Now, as roughly 650 courses have closed from the peak, Mona and others in the sport have been trying to paint a more egalitarian picture. Mona points out that the median price for a round of golf in the U.S. is $26. He and several of the sport’s leaders, including Jack Nicklaus, appeared last month on Capitol Hill in an effort to remind members of Congress of what they consider to be the sport’s significant economic impact, among other attributes such as health and wellness.
“We need to broaden or redefine what the golf experience is,” said Bishop of the PGA of America. “We also need to try to introduce people to alternative methods of the sport that would possibly serve as entry points into the game, ways to make the game a little more fun and inviting when they’re in that transitional phase of being a beginning player. And thirdly, we have to provide what I would call some more relaxed rules or guidelines when they’re in that transitional phase.”
This from a sport that last week disqualified a player from the U.S. Open because he signed an incorrect scorecard at a qualifying tournament — a nod to the values traditional proponents says golf instills, honor and fair competition while playing by a strict and unflinching set of rules.
Those behind the alternate avenues into the sport say they can and will coexist with the old-school types. They want footgolfers to take up golf with clubs, maybe using 15-inch holes to get hooked. They then want those same players to grow to love the traditional version of the game.
“We want them to develop into traditional 18-hole golfers who have handicaps,” Bishop said. “But we can’t just do it the old way.
“When people have been critical of me for this type of approach, they think guys like me are just throwing the towel in and saying, ‘The hell with tradition.’ That’s not the case. But we’ve got to give people reasons to get in and stay in the game.”