Let’s Be Honest: Why Is the Game of Golf Struggling? We Stink!

February 17, 2016

This is where I’d like Jack Nicholson to hit you with his classic rebuke from A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”

I have yet to hear anyone in golf address the real issue affecting the game’s shrinking future. Golf’s unacknowledged truth is this: Most golfers are lousy at golf.

The game is in a slump because it’s too difficult, takes too long and costs too much. Why does it take too long? The biggest cause of slow play in recreational golf is bad play.

Nobody ever says that. It’s the elephant stampede in the room. The USGA doesn’t bring up bad play as an issue because there is no solution for it. It’s a deal-breaker, a dead end.

Let’s say it again: Bad play causes slow play.

Yes, there are myriad other slow-play reasons, but this is overwhelmingly No. 1. Barely half of all recreational golfers break 100. No matter how fast a high handicapper moves, it takes longer to play 108 strokes than it does to play 77. Isn’t that right, Capt. Obvious?

“According to my calculations, that is correct,” said he Captain, who works for me on a retainer basis.

Only one of 20 golfers breaks 80. The average handicap for male golfers is 16, representing someone who plays bogey golf (88-90) on his best day but normally scores in the upper 90s. (Reminder: A handicap is a golfer’s potential, not his or her average.) The average woman’s handicap is 29, which translates to scores of 105-115. Realistically, how fast can anyone get around a course taking 110 shots?

This is why the USGA’s recent While We’re Young marketing campaign, while good fun, completely missed the point. It scolded golfers to play faster but didn’t tell them how they were supposed to do that. Pick Up After Six or Quit Keeping Score might have accomplished something. Instead, pointing out that slow play was a problem may have scared off potential players.

The miracle of golf is that people get hooked on the game despite being crummy at it. Or as three-time Masters champ Jimmy Demaret was credited with saying, “Golf and sex are the only things you can enjoy without being good at them.”

Not many other recreations done badly are enjoyable. There’s bowling, a considerably easier game that has beer frames (yes!), handicaps and a limit of two shots per frame (making slow play a non-issue). There’s tennis but it’s not much fun unless you play someone nearly equal in skill level. And there’s slow-pitch softball, which has short bases and commonly includes beer consumption.

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But if you’re bad at basketball or baseball or any other sport, you probably quit playing it. Only in golf and bowling is lousy the national norm.

Golf became popular in the 20th century because it was a social game. In the 21st century, however, we have become an increasingly antisocial society due to computers, the Internet and all forms of technology that permit us to have less true interaction.

One of my esteemed SI colleagues recently asked me, “Did your parents play bridge?” They did. They were avid players with some neighbors and, when I was young, with friends at a country club they belonged to.

“Do you play bridge?” my colleague asked. No, I never picked it up. “Do you have any friends who play bridge?” No, I don’t.

“Well,” he said ominously, “maybe golf is our generation’s bridge.”

It’s a scary thought. Baby Boomers provided the biggest wave of avid golfers the game has seen, and they’re now crossing the retirement-age finish line. Which means they will have a nice 10- to 15-year run playing golf in retirement, which should keep participation numbers afloat. After they die off, however, the bottom drops out unless drastic changes come along to attract new players.

The only hot spot in the game is TopGolf, a multitiered range where players eat and drink while hitting balls at targets to score points on a computer kiosk. But TopGolf is for people who aren’t really hooked on golf.

You hit a shot and score points for proximity to the target, then it’s someone else’s turn. You don’t have to chase errant shots, look for balls, waste time four-putting or taking five futile swings to escape a bunker. There are no consequences for bad shots, just another ball on a tee and a chance to score more points. It’s a social game, alcohol is served and you don’t have to be any good. In real golf, if you’re not any good you’re probably holding up the players in the group behind you. They’re not happy, and they’ll make you uncomfortable. 

I don’t think TopGolf brings new golfers to the game; it just brings new customers to TopGolf. It’s a different product, better packaged for millennials as a Golf for Beginners night out, and it has a lot of appeal. TopGolf is also delving into virtual golf, which could be the game’s future. (Virtual leagues and tournaments are huge in South Korea, for instance.)

Real golf faces challenges. Maybe we can solve them if we start asking the right question: How can we make golf more appealing for those who aren’t good at it — basically all of us?

The answer would provide a game-changing view of course design (easier layouts with fewer forced carries, bunkers and hazards) and conditions (wider fairways, shorter rough, slower greens). 

Let’s start with this: We stink at golf. Can you handle the truth?