Chris Blackhurst: Rory McIlroy gets £155m from his sponsor Nike – yet the industry is in crisis. Maybe bicycle golf is the answer?
Midweek View: As a sport it doesn’t reflect the kind of values millennials like – diversity, inclusion
One of the favourite entreaties of the powers-that-be here is to suggest I write about what they’re discussing “in the golf club bar”.
Well, sadly, one of the subjects increasingly coming up for dissection over a pint or two of the finest Fuller’s has to offer is golf itself. The game is in crisis – not that you would judge so by the expensively dressed, well-equipped types heading out on to courses, the cars in the club car parks, nor by the attention heaped on Rory McIlroy and the £155m paid to him by his sponsor, Nike.
But overall, participation in a sport beloved of business and the City (Royal Bank of Canada, HSBC, Wells Fargo, Deutsche, and Barclays are just some of the banks that currently back professional tournaments) is waning. Numbers playing golf in England has fallen by 12 per cent since 2005, and membership of the country’s 1,900-plus clubs has dropped, from 882,604 in 2004 to 675,000 in 2014.
In Scotland, which likes to trumpet itself as the “home of golf” and next month hosts the Ryder Cup, clubs have been closing due to lack of members. Lothianburn, Torphin Hill, Whitemoss, and a nine-hole course at Gretna are four to have shut their gates.
The downturn is not confined to the UK. Golf in the US is having the same travails. There, says the National Golf Foundation, the sport has lost 5 million players over the past decade, including, critically, a 30 per cent drop in golfers age 18-34. By contrast, the total in that age bracket taking up running rose 29 per cent, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
“It’s slow, takes a long time to play; it’s expensive,” Matt Powell, a SportsOneSource analyst, has said. “As a sport it doesn’t reflect the kind of values millennials like – diversity, inclusion. Golf tends to not be those things.”
I’d go further. Golf is not an easy game to learn. On TV, McIlroy makes hitting a ball 350 yards and chipping next to the pin seem effortless. It isn’t: the reality for most people suitably inspired to take up the game is one of scuffed shots, slices, hooks and lost balls, and a constant, morale-sapping inability to hit the green, let alone get anywhere near the flag.
And that’s after they’ve forked out for clubs, bag, shoes and the requisite clothing. And if they can find a course where beginners are welcome. And if they do not mind the embarrassment of topping their drive in front of a watching throng. And if they can afford to book off four, maybe five, hours from their busy schedule.
If they want to join one of the picturesque clubs they see on their screens, they must be prepared to pay, and to endure a joining process (it will almost certainly help if they’re male and white). And if they want their partner, children and friends to accompany them, they can forget it – unless their guests have also reached the correct standard.
In addition, golf does nothing for fitness. Nobody ever got thin playing golf.
The official body for the sport in England has embarked upon a strategic review, aimed at boosting the game’s popularity by 2017. The second draft of that plan, published by England Golf last November, majored on attracting juniors and women, and on introducing more competitions over 9, 12 holes and par 3s for those short of time. Meanwhile, two campaigns are already underway to try and address the sport’s growing malaise. One, REAL Golf, is fronted by the former TV presenter Michael Barratt. REAL stands for Recreational, Enjoyable, Affordable and Less time-consuming golf.
Barratt believes the McIlroys are also to blame. Technology allows the young pros to hit the ball even further, which results in courses being made longer and tighter, and rounds for the ordinary player taking longer.
“Many in the professional game support our view that the game must change – great players like Jack Nicklaus say golf has become too difficult, too expensive and takes too long,” said Mr Barratt.
“Amateur golfers are being lost to the game because of a whole raft of issues such as escalating costs, complexity of rules and handicap systems, restrictive dress codes, decline of basic etiquette on the course, and much else besides.”
The other initiative is HackGolf, which is funded by TaylorMade-adidas, the equipment supplier, and claims to have the backing of players, other manufacturers and leading industry figures.
It blames the hole for golf’s woes, arguing that a bigger target will make the game easier and quicker, and attract more players. It’s pushing for the replacement of the traditional, 4.25-inch hole with one measuring 15 inches. At courses where it’s been tried, they maintain an hour has been lopped off the average length of a round, and typically, golfers have cut their scores by 10 strokes.
But that does not still address the calorie-burning, cardiovascular issue. FootGolf, the kicking of a football around a special course, with bigger holes, naturally, aims to do just that.
To my conservative mind, however, pizza-sized holes and bashing footballs are anathema. They’re simply not golf as I know it. There are other ways of speeding up play. One is to issue groups with monitors that can be checked by the course manager and if they’re dawdling they can be told to get a move on. It leaves no room for excuses, for them blaming another group.
Another is for players to be less polite to each other, to suspend their normal, middle-class reserve and to say to the member of their party who is slowing them down by taking repeated practice swings, measuring and pacing out his shots, cleaning and marking his ball, lining up his putts, that he needs to get a move on.
One idea I’ve always had is for players to carry less gear – leave the big bag and 14 clubs to those who are playing for serious money, on the professional tour – to wear trainers, and to run round. Sadly, as I’ve got older and broader, its appeal has faded, and judging by many of the comfily-padded players I witness it would not have many takers.
There is a halfway suggestion, however. It comes from Arizona – where else – and is called bicycle golf.
Kierland Golf Club is providing specially adapted Segways (they’ve got smaller wheels and wide tyres, and can carry a set of clubs) so that golfers can pedal their way around the course.
They burn calories, feel as though they’ve had a workout and the golf is much faster – they can do 18 holes in just two hours. Nancy Dickens, spokeswoman for Kierland, tells Golf Club Management magazine, the industry bible: “Why sit on a stationary bike at the gym?”
Before you mention golf buggies, her bikes are quicker because each golfer drives one and can go directly to their ball.
According to Ms Dickens, demand has been so high they’re purchasing more bikes. It’s a brilliant combination in one, golf and the gym – a sure-fire business and City hit.
All I’ve got to do now is to persuade my own club to order some and we’re away.
How, though, I break it to the chaps around the bar that the days of a gentle stroll (“a good walk spoiled” to quote Mark Twain’s rather jaundiced remark) are numbered, and henceforward they will be pedalling furiously, hitting golf balls in-between, remains to be seen.
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