Slightly Mad Musings on Golf's Uncertain Future
Science has long scoffed at the notion of a full moon's gravitational effect on the human brain, but ask any beat cop, emergency room doc or former golf hack writer and they'll swear it's true. The brain swells, prompting strange opinions and unpredictable behavior.
Even as hordes of cute U.S. Kids and their families wander all over our village lanes and fairways this weekend, I can't resist a few random and slightly mad midsummer musings about the state of golf beneath a full Hacker's Moon.
Whatever else is true, I feel like a guy channeling the ghost of Richard Tufts, wondering about the future of the game.
The golf industry has basically been in a steady downward death spiral since the events of 9/11, which not only dealt the hospitality and resort industry a near-fatal blow it has yet to recover from, but also revealed golf in general to be full of young financial wizards who viewed the game primarily as a splendid investment opportunity and potential commercial bonanza.
The day the towers tragically came down, changing America forever, there were literally a couple of hundred upscale golf and real estate projects pending across the fruited plain. More than half never got off the drawing boards. Many that did opened and eventually got sold at fire-sale prices. Others soon resembled abandoned driving ranges.
Last year's economic meltdown simply put an exclamation point on what many longtime industry insiders have felt in their guts for almost a decade -- namely, that golf, like Florida homeowners and retirees who trusted Bernie Madoff, got taken for a ride by smoothies peddling an elitist vision of the game.
A decade ago, these were the very folks who insisted that golf needed a new course opening every day to keep up with popular demand. Yet less than 10 years on, as popular participation and public interest in the game continues to wane, a golf course closes every day in this country. Some experts think the game may shrink by a third.
And to think Dick Tufts saw it all coming.
Fifty years ago, you may or may not recall, Tufts refused to give in to the extortionary demands of the PGA Tour for more purse money and booted the professional game out of The Pines, warning that playing for money would eventually attract the wrong elements into life's classiest game and drive away future fans.
"Don't let the door hit you on the Sans-a-Belt," Tufts said to the greedy pros, who basically laughed at his predictions.
Often called the "Father of the Amateur Ideal," Tufts fervently believed that in order for the game to continue to prosper as a legitimate leisure activity and competitive sport, popular participation had to be driven by the honest values of sportsmanship and desire for competitive play -- not the desire for a bigger and better payday.
A few years down the fairway, none other than Wall Street banker and Masters founder Clifford Roberts echoed pretty much this same sentiment and went one step further by presciently warning that the only thing that might even destroy the popularity of golf was the presence of too much money and corporate influence dominating the game.
His belief was that if tournaments became beholden to large corporate influences rather than local sponsors, loyal fans, and club members, championships would lose control of their fates and compromise their vital connections to local communities. As purses ballooned, he feared, players would become indifferent to tournament patrons and the events themselves might simply become platforms for introducing new products or wooing customers. This would eventually marginalize the fan's impact on the nature of competition -- and the game's allure to new fans.
To this day, the Masters does not have a title sponsor and its focus remains steadfastly upon pleasing its loyal patrons. For this reason, I submit, the Masters remains the most coveted ticket in the game.
'Totally Changed World'
This past week, a gentleman from Ohio came to town and invited me out to supper at the Pine Crest Inn, eager to hear my thoughts about a potentially provocative memoir he wants to write about his decades as a major tournament chief executive.
I won't mention this classy fellow's name, but for three hours in a corner of the Pine Crest he gave me a fascinating walking tour of how big-time tournament golf lost its way and its soul -- grew from honest championships relying largely on armies of local volunteers who love the game into jamborees of corporate deal-making.
Another friend who is one of the game's leading club makers -- traveling the Tour from the 1980s until 2000 -- recently remarked to me, "It's a totally changed world out there on the tournament circuit today. There are no grassroots left, no local connection to the game. And worst of all, the desire to win and be the best among your peers that drove Palmer and Nicklaus and the rest -- is all but gone among today's players. For the vast majority, it's a corporate job."
I sure hope my friend from the tournament wars writes his book, because his is a Pyrrhic message both Dick Tufts and Cliff Roberts would appreciate -- and the rest of us need to hear. For all my moonlit carping about the soulless state of a modern professional game, on the other hand, I actually happen to believe the silver lining of this economic downturn may be that it sweeps away the opportunists and returns the game to the folks who love it most, producing a sustainable level of slow growth.
After all, for the vast majority of us who play and love the game, golf remains the most appealing social activity on earth. The most inspiring moments, the most enduring memories and deepest bonds of friendships still come from a game that has little or nothing to do with Tigermania.
A Grassroots Game
For that reason, the Quail Hollow Invitational sounds a lot more appealing to my ear than the Wachovia Championship. And pretty soon, the way things are going, we may have local car dealerships, supermarkets and drugstores sponsoring tournaments again, the way they did back in the pro tour's glory years after the Second World War.
Patrons could get free lunches and heart checks in those days. The players often stayed in the homes of club members just to save dough, hobnobbed with local golfers, put on exhibitions, drank in the local pubs, and drove their own cars to the next event down the line. Pro golf enjoyed an intimacy it's never had since. Players were colorful characters. The game surged in popularity.
And there may be more good news from the downside of the economic curve. Several famous old-line clubs in dire financial straits are reportedly considering opening their doors on a limited basis to unaccompanied visitor play -- a factor that can only stimulate broader interest in the game. Most British clubs have had this enlightened policy in effect for a century, it may be worth noting. So it's probably about time we colonists caught up -- or maybe just went back to the future.
After all, as the golf clich goes, something always brings you back. Over the past few weeks, I've had several nice reminders that golf is essentially a grassroots game.
Rooted in History
Two weeks ago, my occasional golf pal Dr. Walt Morris invited me to play in a one-day member-guest event at the Country Club of North Carolina. The summer day was perfect, the jokes were gently blue in hue, the companionship most agreeable, and even if our team failed to carve up the front nine of the Dogwood course, it was far from a good walk spoiled.
On the 11th tee, Walt paused to tell about a miracle shot that Mark O'Meara made on the hole during a qualifying round at the 1980 U.S. Amateur Championship. Apparently O'Meara, the reigning Am champion, scuffed his ball off the tee of the picturesque downhill four-par that doglegs over a small pond to an elevated green -- and then holed his shot from 180 yards to advance into the match play segment of the event.
"That must have been something to see," I remarked to Walt as he addressed his second shot in the fairway more or less where O'Meara stood.
"Maybe I'll try and do the same," Walt agreed with a genial laugh.
Moments later, he made a lovely swing and, indeed, holed his own miracle shot from the spot. After the whooping and high-fiving and laughter died down, we agreed Babe Ruth couldn't have called it any better. Inspired by Walt's O'Mearean eagle, we went on to make six or seven birdies and win the event. Better to be lucky than good, as they also say. I was just lucky to have been along for the walk.
That next Sunday, I was driving up to check on my college kids in Maine, getting regular phone updates on Tom Watson's quest at Turnberry to become the oldest player to win a major championship. At one point, three different pals from around the country and my wife phoned within the space of five minutes to vent their frayed emotions over Watson's heroic near-miss.
In losing, though, Watson probably did more to enhance the professional game's appeal than anyone has done in donkey years. His graciousness in defeat, more than one observer pointed out, made Tiger's tantrums seem all the more painful to watch.
Finest Friends and Memories
Then, last weekend I was invited up to The Greenbrier to watch my friend Bill Campbell and his longtime friend and mentor, the late Samuel Jackson Snead -- the greatest amateur since Bob Jones and, respectively, the most successful (and colorful) PGA Tour player of all time -- become the first inductees into the new West Virginia Golf Hall of Fame.
Campbell, the insurance man who played in 37 U.S. Amateurs, is no stranger to Pinehurst, having won Dick Tufts' North/South Amateur on four occasions.
In every respect, Bill Campbell is the Amateur Ideal. During supper at the Campbells' home on a beautiful hillside above Lewisburg the evening before his induction, my wife and I had the delightful opportunity to just sit and listen to Campbell, a former USGA president, and his good friend and presenter Sandy Tatum -- also a former USGA head man and Tom Watson's longtime mentor -- spin tales about the funny experiences and rich friendships they've developed through the game.
The next night at the beautiful Greenbrier -- which itself was recently saved from a corporate fate by being purchased by a native son who vows to preserve the timeless charm of the place -- there wasn't a dry eye in the building from either laughter or crying as Campbell and Snead were enshrined.
Among other delightful tidbits I picked up: Bill Campbell was so doggedly frugal during his 18 Masters and 15 U.S. Open appearances, he may have been the only competitor to actually wash his golf ball before teeing off.
"Oh, Bill keeps sacks and sacks of awful old balls," his wife, Joan, confirmed with a robust laugh. "He believes he is bound to find a good one in there somewhere."
"This game has given me far more than I have given it," the humble honoree confided to me with visible emotion as we said goodbye after the ceremony. "It's given me the finest friends and memories in life -- many of them made down in the Sandhills."
Keeping It in Perspective
I was still thinking about his words late Tuesday afternoon while sitting with friends at the awards luncheon after the 20th anniversary edition of the Sandhills Community College summer golf tournament, enjoying the food and fellowship of the most enjoyable charity golf tournament I've ever played in.
Owing to strong local sponsors like the Moon family's Coca Cola bottling firm in Aberdeen and Unilever from nearby Raeford, not to mention the scores of local teams that annually support the event and local restaurants and shops that donate goods and services to it, the SCC event has become a powerhouse of charitable local fundraising, directly benefiting thousands of folks in Moore County. Ditto the Bell family, whose generosity over the decades has been a model of enlightened civic support.
As for the latest U.S. Kids event, it is impossible to know what the young and impressionable participants -- or their parents -- may have taken away from their time this week in the Sandhills. Some of them appeared a trifle obsessed with producing the next Tiger Woods. Others seemed to keep it nicely in perspective.
Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned or simply addled by the full August moon for saying so, but I hope for the sake of future golf generations that they remembered, while here on the grassroots level of the game, to have a little fun on the ground.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence with The Pilot, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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