If you haven't heard, we're in a recession here, folks. Likewise, even the most casual devotee to any form of golf media has been bludgeoned with the news that private golf courses/ clubs have been suffering for quite some time. Now that I have established myself as the conduit of extremely obvious information, on to the business at hand.
I am, certainly, not in any position to give a "State of the Game," or "National Golf Convention" address. Were I, however, appointed acting "President of Golf in America, Overseer of all Private and Public Golfing Establishments, Tours, Equipment Manufacturers, Governing Bodies, and the Golfing Media," I would stand behind my podium, before my adoring public (think Kennedy in Berlin, or the Obama Inaugural Address) and deliver something resembling the following:
Thank you, Thank you… really.
My fellow golfers,
I stand before you humbled by the enormity of the task at hand, mindful of my duty and focused on the road ahead. I know there's a guy out there, let's call him Joe the Golfer. He's trying to play a round with his buddies at the local muni. He's lost his job and he can't find the money for the round, the cart, and beer. He's got a tough decision to make. No man should be forced to carry his bag and a couple of six packs, but that's just what he'll do.
When times are tough, you've got to be aware of your priorities. I can still see Joe, struggling to make it in before nightfall, a few cans dangling from one of those plastic thingies you're supposed to cut up so it doesn't strangle birds, half drunk, quaking under the enormous weight of his bag, lagging behind his more hardy friends. It makes me shudder to think of it.
I take comfort in the fact that Joe had his priorities straight. As President, I assure you I have mine straight as well; let me share them with you.
First, a modified return to glory for all viable private clubs. This is something I hear about constantly in my office. Enrollment at even the largest clubs is down, while smaller operations are struggling to stay afloat. It's clear to me that we need a new business model going forward. The days in which men, young or old, were able/inclined to leave their families at home and spend evenings, weekends, and the occasional weekday at the club are long gone. When I talk about a "modified" return to glory, what I'm referencing is the restoration of a stable and vibrant member base for private clubs. We may never see the days of waiting lists again, or at least not in the near future, because of both cultural shifts and the present economic downturn.
I was talking with a gentleman just last week who described the plight of the average male member of a private golf club. "Mr. President," he said. "I work fifty hours a week, sometimes more, and my wife expects me home for dinner every night. I spend the weekends doing the stuff I was to busy or tired to do during the week. I don't know what good this membership is to me."
We are less concerned today with decorum and certain tokens of social prestige. As my friend illustrated, once membership is viewed for its instrumental value, rather than as some object of intrinsic worth, the answer has to be, for a lot of people, a club membership is not worth very much.
I've always believed that unless it's necessary to change something, it's necessary not to change it. Ladies and gentlemen, it is necessary to change fundamental model of the private club and scale down the majority of current operations to ensure both continued prosperity and opportunities for growth.
Get more specific!
Pardon me, what's that? More specific, you say? I'm afraid I can't be. I'm a politician, I make promises and I am ill equipped to keep them or provide any blueprint for their implementation.
Moving on then, my second priority is the continued growth and development of golf technologies, both for the average player and the professional while remaining true to the "spirit of the game." With respect to this, first of all, I believe that if a driver hits the market next year which will propel the ball 500 yards, or a putter emerges that will make every putt (à la Al Czervik in Caddyshack), that these technologies are unacceptable as they are clearly not in keeping with the spirit of the game, that is, the way the game has been played for the past 100 years.
Golf equipment ought to both serve a golfer's specific needs, whether that be more spin or increased accuracy. Additionally, golf equipment ought to make the game marginally easier for the atrocious player. For example, a driver should create more distance and forgiveness for the 25 handicapper at the expense of workability. Continued increases and refinements, with regards to these attributes ought continue.
Additionally, a recent trend in golf equipment is specification and customization. This trend, to the extent that things become "better" rather than just "different," ought to continue. No longer does a golfer expect to wear the same polo shirt to work and to the golf course. His 100% cotton Lacoste doesn't wick moisture away from his body in the manner of today's golf shirts. In the same way, the golfer expects, or should expect, to head to the first tee with a driver that has a shaft precisely suited for his ball flight and a clubface which is set up either neutrally or to draw or fade the ball, depending on his preference.
In some sense, this line in the sand is difficult to make out. It is anything but arbitrary, however. Innovation and improvement are absolutes and they are to be lauded within the world of golf equipment to the extent that they function within reasonable limits and do not push anything beyond the point of absurdity.
On the one end of the spectrum, we have Czervik, the other, hickory sticks. Difficult waters to navigate, to be sure. An increased dialogue between players, club makers and governing bodies is needed to find a happy medium between the two extremes. As President, I am more than happy to moderate such a discussion… perhaps on board my yacht? Or, better yet, at my ranch?
Moving on to my third priority, the continued development of a broad, enthusiastic and informed fan base who actively support local events, cheer loudly at Tour stops, and are frequently glued to their television sets Sunday afternoons and evenings - whether Tiger is contention or not.
Whether Woods, since 1996, has been good for the Tour or not, the reality is both viewership and prize money have increased from that time until the present. Tiger has changed the game, but we need to do more organizationally than simply ride his coat tails. I don't think we know, collectively, what "more" is, in this case-we need to figure that out.
Attendance at Tour events goes the same way, if Woods is in the field, sales are X. If he's not, they are X divided by Y. This is a matter which needs to be addressed as well. It would be foolish to think we can quickly or easily come up with something equal to Tiger's starpower to attract fans. It would be equally foolish not to try.
Support for the game of golf begins at the local level. Young golfers need to be encouraged and local events needs to be entered and attended. Communities and courses ought to present themselves in such a way as to attract the highest level of tournament play possible, whether that is the local interclub or a PGA Tour event. Golf is a worldwide game which is rooted locally; this can't be overlooked or forgotten.
My next priority is an increase in the number of programs similar to The First Tee: charitable liaisons between golf professionals/programs and local communities. Players on the PGA Tour and other tours are in a unique position to accomplish that great platitude of "giving back to the community." However, what really sets them apart in this respect is the intersection of golf and business.
Phil Mickelson, with his partnership with Exxon, is the poster child for this type of endeavor, as is Tiger Woods with his Learning Center. True, not many players have the star power to "sell" such a program, which is why charitable endeavors such as The First Tee, provide a viable model for those affiliated with the business of golf to provide real benefit to communities at large.
Moving to my fifth priority: making great golf reasonably affordable for anyone of any class. When I say "great golf" I mean something beyond a $19 round where the greens roll like fairways and all the par fours are fewer than 300 yards. How do we accomplish this? I'm not sure. I have a few suggestions, however.
Certain courses with "makeover" possibilities ought to be identified and a local governing golf body ought to oversee continued maintenance of said courses beyond what is currently being done. Rates ought to remain the same.
Conversely, doomed private courses - and I know this flies in the face of my first point - ought to be purchased not by local governments or by private entities, but by a nationwide organization devoted to providing cheap golf at an incredible venue.
If these propositions sound socialist in nature, keep in mind that we are talking about a couple hundred courses (maximum) across the country. As with any business decision, I ask, what is the cost? What is the benefit?
I'll leave that question to the jury while moving on to my final point of the evening. We need to make sure, above all else, that golf is and remains a game for gentlemen and gentlewomen in which we are called to act with strength of character and civility at all times, uncompromisingly adopting stewardship of the game. This is more of a unifying core principal than it is a specific initiative or project. Let us never lose sight of the horizon.
Thank you, and and God bless golf.