Golf State of the Union: A Mid-Season Report

By: Jay Flemma


Golf is at a crossroads right now, but none of the issues it faces are as lethal as the scaremongers would have you believe. Sure, rounds are down, costs are up and American players haven't won a major championship in six tries. Nevertheless, with a little patience, wisdom and foresight golf will do what it has always done best - see us through troubled times with the joy and purity inherent in the game. Golf endures. It's up to us to do the same.

State of the Game

Remember a few years ago when the music industry claimed that file-sharing of songs cost them $4.3 billion in losses? Well that was only one-third true. Sure, file-sharing was responsible for a significant economic loss, but the rise of file-sharing also coincided with a cyclical downturn in the economy and a cyclical downturn in the music industry as well. They were all simultaneously and equally responsible for the industry's woes.

The same is true of golf. Public rounds nationally are down - a fraction - and fewer people are keeping their country club memberships. But these things are happening during a general economic recession and, simultaneously, during a cyclical downward tick in the golf industry as well. Many of these problems will dissolve when the economy cycles back for the better, but there are things golfers can do on an individual level to help.

"It's not that people are giving up golf, but many people who try it don't stay because they say it costs too much, takes too long and they don't have much fun," said Adams Golf founder Barney Adams, who has created the "Tee it Forward" initiative, designed to get players to play from the correct set of tees, speed up play and enjoy the game more.

America desperately needs such a wake-up call, as rounds are routinely over four hours and 20 minutes. In the U.K. a round of golf that takes longer than three-and-a-half hours is anathema, and slow players find themselves without a game. Additionally, when you go to play in the U.K. some courses require a handicap certificate; another way in which they monitor pace of play. Some courses, like Royal Cinque Ports in Deal, England, are two-balls only. And in the Netherlands you have to pass a test and get a "driving license" to play on a regulation-sized course.

"I remember when I lived in Amsterdam, I had to play three holes no worse than 7-over par in order to get my license and play on a regulation-length course," said John Van Zoost, a young Dutch émigré who now lives in New York. "What people do there is take lessons, go to the driving range and practice on the short courses until they graduate. We generally play golf in about three to three-and-a-half hours. Making sure golfers are minimally competent helps."

To bring that concept stateside would be extreme, but something must be done about lug-nuts with 25 handicaps playing the tips, shooting 130 and taking six hours. Here in America, at a place like Bethpage Black for example, signs that read "expert golfers only" simply serve as an invitation for every hacker to try their hand. Rounds on the Black are a minimum of five-and-a-half hours, longer on weekends. At some New York City public courses, that figure stretches to a ridiculous six-and-a-half hours. Even getting out of the city can cost you a whole day if it's an hour to an hour-and-a-half each way.

"Tee it Forward" will help alleviate that condition to an extent, but so can other changes like the old rule that a player could only mark his ball once on the green, and that a player must finish out once he begins putting on the green. Although I'm sure it would be unpopular at first, rigid adherence by course rangers would make golf more enjoyable for everyone except the slugs, and the business attracted to a course that got a reputation for fast play would more than offset the few selfish golfers put off by having to maintain a reasonable pace.

Golfers also complain that the game costs too much. That's true as well. Drivers alone can cost $500 or more, and sets of irons can ascend into the thousands of dollars for designer sets. Quick! Name one other sport with such a cost. Skiing, perhaps, maybe hockey.

Also, rounds of golf at some overpriced, under-designed resorts with "signature" courses like Turning Stone Casino cost a ludicrous $300, primarily because they overpaid a former tour pro or brand-name architect in the first place. Some rich men, seeking to impress with the size of their wallet, create country clubs with astronomical initiation fees. Liberty National, for example, was deeply impressed with itself for charging $500,000 for an initiation fee (now reportedly close to $1 million), then was widely panned as a poor design during the 2009 Barclays. Now both Turning Stone - which talked itself off the PGA Tour last year with high-handed demands - and Liberty National are cautionary tales about the shortcomings of excess.

Minimalism, however, has made significant inroads in the last 15 years in its rejection of such concepts. Golf architects like Tom Doak, Coore-Crenshaw, Gil Hanse and others are taking a "less is more" attitude, spending less on such things as earthmoving - which is costly - and creating strategic designs, not penal, which means fewer lost balls, lower scores and faster play. Build a golf course inexpensively and the maintenance budget should be correspondingly lower as well, translating into both value for the consumer and profit for the owners and operators.

Golfers can find many good values if they try. Colorado architect Jim Engh has many courses in his home state in the $75 range that are both beautiful and challenging. Courses by Hanse and Stephen Kay are typically inexpensive as well. Even chichi private country clubs are offering excellent deals right now. Players can join Forsgate (halfway between Philly and New York and right off I-95) and Inwood (a former U.S. Open and PGA Championship venue) for wonderfully low initiation fees and monthly dues. Both clubs are rich in history and have world-class golf courses, as well as excellent amenities. Who needs to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in initiation fees and $10,000 in charges to hang around with posers?

As we New Yorkers say, anybody can find a great $60 steak. The trick is to find the great $20 steak. In a tough economy you trim the fat. We need fewer Liberty Nationals and more Forsgates, fewer Donald Trumps and more Chris Schiavonnes (the new owner at Forsgate who has led its resurgence), fewer multi-million-dollar "signature" designs like Turning Stone Casino and more minimalist successes like Rustic Canyon in California. Remember, money for golf comes out of disposable income. If you're smart about how you spend it, it can still go quite a long way.

State of the PGA Tour

We've heard a lot about how American golf is on the decline. Hogwash. Just because we're in a slump in the majors and just because Tiger Woods is a mere shadow of his former self doesn't mean we are finished as a golf nation or that we have passed the torch of world domination of the sport. Quite the opposite is true. The future looks bright.

Here's an interesting fact: the No. 1 and 2 players according to the World Golf Ranking (Luke Donald and Lee Westwood) share two dubious distinctions. First, when they both missed the cut at last week's British Open it marked the first time since 1989 that the "reigning" Nos. 1 and 2 in the world both missed the cut at a major. Secondly, and far more telling, neither has ever won a major, which marks the first time in the history of the ranking that the supposed two best players in the world have not won one of the four most important tournaments in golf.

Ordinary golf fans don't care one jot about the World Golf Ranking and see them for the transparent commercialism they are, no matter what the golf media or broadcasters may say. Take ordinary golf fan David Kurawski, a muni player from NYC who loves the game like a tour player and had several astute observations in one statement:

"There is no clear number one right now. Any one of 10 guys can lay claim to it. We were spoiled during Tiger's time at the top, but it doesn't make golf any less compelling. I really enjoyed the U.S. Open and the British Open even though Americans didn't win. We'll be back on top soon enough."

Translation? Pro golf is cyclical and the World Golf Ranking is overrated. Meanwhile Westwood skipped the Players Championship to make an ugly political statement about how he believes power in golf has shifted to the European Tour players. Maybe he really ought to win a major before suggesting a sea change in world golf politics.

The Paddies

If you remember the years before Tiger, European players dominated golf. Once again, for the moment, they have the upper hand, especially the Irish and Northern Irish. Take a look at Rory McIlroy's post on Twitter, where he says, "Nobody parties like the Paddies." He has a point. Right now, the Paddies are on top. But that can change faster than you can say "It's going left, Rossie."

Golf, like life, is cyclical. Did we proclaim the death of European golf when Tiger and Phil dominated the world rankings? Of course not. Right now there is a long list of great young American players growing up before our eyes and our old guard is still rock-solid.

At the top of the list, Mickelson is still competitive at the highest level of the game, he's the goodwill ambassador for the game Tiger should have been, and he's as electrifying to watch - for good or ill - as Arnie in his prime. Casual fans may flock to Tiger, but ardent golf fans love Phil first.

"He's the real People's Champion," said Jeanne Capraro, a life-long golfer and pro golf fan from Syracuse. "He drives you crazy when watch him, but he's a great role model. He's still the first name I look for on the leaderboard."

Next, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink are all proven winners at the highest levels of the game, as well as formidable Ryder Cup players. Among the younger crop, Dustin Johnson is a breakout star in the making, as is Anthony Kim if he can find the consistency he showed in past years. Then there's Hunter Mahan, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Lucas Glover, Ricky Fowler and, if he can keep his foot out of his mouth, Bubba Watson.

The next generation may be even stronger. Remember the name Webb Simpson, because has been competitive in every event this year, high on the leaderboards and close to winning at least once. He is making an impact now. You don't hear much about Simpson because he's humble, low-key and quiet, which means he'll have to win a major before Madison Avenue comes barging through his door. But he is exactly what true golfers - who have the Victorian soul of a lady or a gentleman - want to see in a champion: grace and class. The same is true of amateurs like Patrick Cantley (who fired a 60 on tour the week after the U.S. Open) and Michael Whitehead, who's shown great promise.

As for our drought in the majors, remember I said this: an American will win in Atlanta. The PGA Championship set-up usually invites everybody to the party. You don't have the walking-on-egg-shells sense of the U.S. Open, and you don't need to have the ability to play in all weather and have mastery of ground-game shots like you do for the British Open. Moreover, Atlanta Athletic Club was the site where David Toms - on no one's "Murderer's Row" line-up of all-star golfers - set the aggregate scoring record for any major, 15-under par 265 at the 2001 PGA. Nine of the last 10 majors have been won by first-time winners. That trend could continue.

As for Tiger? Sadly, his self-immolation continues apace. Woods has lost his caddie, his endorsements and his aura of invincibility. Tiger has lost a step, and it's time for us to look elsewhere. Already a question mark for the rest of the year due to injuries to his knee and ankle, with the news that he needs a new caddie Woods won't return to top form until the Masters next year, and even then, he won't have the same dominant form that defined him for 15 years. Tiger is no longer the face of golf. Perhaps after all that we've learned about him in the last 18 months, that's for the better.

So we'll necessarily see a little more parity before a few premier players are separated from the rest of the tightly bunched pack. Even so, the stories this year have been nothing short of riveting. Everyone said this was the most exciting Masters in years, with any one of 10 players having a chance to win before Charl Schwartzel streaked past everyone at the end. Rory McIlroy broke a dozen U.S. Open records and five huge ones in particular in his virtuoso performance at Congressional. And Darren Clarke lifted everyone's heart once again - like he did at the 2006 Ryder Cup - with a performance more magical than anything even Harry Potter could conjure.

So don't listen to the doomsayers who tell you golf is down because Tiger is in the tank. Golf was great long before Tiger was a twinkle in his father Earl's eye. And golf will be great long after Tiger sails away in his new sloop called Solitude.Golf endures, and with just a little patience, so will we.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.


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