Global Change ahead for PGA Tour: The Bottom Line of The Barclays

By: Nancy Berkley


This year's Barclays Tournament - the first event in the FedEx Cup playoff being played in Paramus, N.J. at Ridgewood Country Club - is off to an interesting start. The leader going into the final round is Martin Laird who was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Dustin Johnson from the U.S. and Jason Day from Australia are tied and trail the leader by three strokes. Tiger Woods is still struggling with his game. Everything about the Barclay's parallels major changes going on in our world - many of which directly affect the U.S. golf industry at all levels.

But first, I have to admit a mistake. Last year I wrote about the Barclay's at Liberty National Golf Club - played with Miss Liberty and the Manhattan skyline in the background (see http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/the_fedex_cup_barclays_liberty_national_monuments_to_excess) I described the setting as a monument to excess. In fact, I closed that article with the following: "I know that I will remember The Barclay's and Miss Liberty not only as monuments of excess, but that point in time when things started looking up."

Well, I was wrong! Things have not started looking up at all. In fact, things are getting worse.

For starters: the economy is not better. There are not more workers in those Manhattan skyscrapers. In fact, more people have less money. And even though I don't have any statistics to back this up, I don't think more people think playing golf might be a good place to spend those un-employed or even leisure hours.

Think about it: Anyone who has been watching the last big major tournaments on television has watched superior athletes wrestle with extremely difficult course conditions and a set of rules that is not easy to understand. Who needs to play a sport that beats you up - especially if you already feel a little "beat up" every day?

The truth, of course, is that the venues for these special tournaments were selected several years ago when Woods was at his peak. The goal was to pick courses that would test his limits and draw big TV audiences. Well, Tiger showed us his limits and they aren't pretty.

And, yet, there is never an announcer who tries to convey to the TV audience that these are not typical courses or tees that recreational golfers would use. Only The First Tee public service advertisements relay the concept that everyone can and should play golf.

So it should not be surprising that the number of golfers in the United States is declining. And the number of women golfers - a special interest of mine - continues to decline also.

In spite of new programs by the PGA of America such as "Get Golf Ready," which attempts to entice non-golfers to learn the game in five affordable lessons, the number of golf participants continues to decline. It is almost impossible to get good statistics on segments of the golfing populations. The sweetest spot in the markets seems to be junior girls.

As for TV tournament golf ratings, they have been uniquely affected by the personal issues of one person. Something is wrong with an industry when Tiger has such "tipping-point-power," to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Gladwell's book, "The Tipping Point."

Usually we think of tipping points in terms of starting positive trends. To the contrary in the golf industry, Woods's problems have tipped the industry negatively and the industry doesn't seem to have a Plan B in place.

Moving on: In this FedEx cup, the names at the top of the leaderboard heading into the final round of the Barclay's have three notable qualities: the players are young, they are not generally well-known to American television viewers, and many are not from the U.S. None of this should be surprising.

A best-selling writer and columnist, Tom Friedman, who by the way plays with a single-digit handicap, predicted this in his book "The World is Flat." The leaders of the major U.S. golf associations have had a particularly parochial approach to the game that is not only male-dominated but appears unprepared for the new global theme.

Unlikely as it may have appeared a year ago, the LPGA under the leadership of Michael Whan, seems to be putting a strategy in place that makes our female golf players - whatever country they are from - more interesting.

While on the subject of women's golf: There is a great contest going on in Winnipeg at the LPGA's Canadian Women's Open. Michelle Wie and Jiyai Shin from Korea are tied for first. Both women are young and playing on a global golf platform.

So maybe we can all start getting used to golf that looks more global. And young players are healthy for the game. The truth is that the United States operates in a global environment. So let's get used to it on our golf courses and make it exciting.

And since only an optimist can continue to keep playing this game, I want to offer up a variation of the statement I made at last year's Barclay's: "I hope that I will remember the 2010 Barclay's tournament as that point in time when things started looking up."

I want to close with one optimistic anecdote. I've been playing lots of golf this summer in Colorado's Vail Valley and in the Grand Junction and Moab areas doing research on a forthcoming article about forward tees and whether or not they will bring more women to the game.

A couple of days ago after playing a Pete Dye course in Gypsum, Colo., my husband and I decided to stop at the new Avondale Restaurant deck at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa in Avon for a sunset drink on their beautiful terrace overlooking the Beaver Creek ski slopes. A young gentleman stepped out to valet my car. I quickly apologized for looking so sweaty, explaining that I had just come from playing golf.

"You play golf?" he asked. "Well, yes I play, but mostly I love to write about it," I answered.

And then came a stunning reply: "I'm thinking of taking up the game," he said. "I've wrecked my body snowboarding - two broken legs and bad knees. I'm looking for a sport where I won't get hurt."

"Well golf's your sport," I said. "Find a pro who will teach you a swing that will protect your knees and save your back. You're set for life."

"Can you believe this?" I thought to myself. Young adults looking at golf as a challenging sport they can play forever. (This is not exactly a new idea since decades ago golf was championed as a "lifetime" sport.)

Maybe there is hope for the game if we can just keep it going strong for a few more years. Maybe all those hot-shot snowboarders and mountain bikers will retire to the links! That will be a challenge because the golf industry is slow to recognize new markets and adapt its marketing methods. Tradition is safe; change is always risky.

But, I'm still an optimist!

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She is also the author of the NGF publication: "An Insider's Guide to Careers in the Golf Industry." She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.


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