Golf World Needs to Recover Its Soul
Two weeks ago, I was invited down to the Eagle Point Golf Club near Wilmington for a gathering of wise heads and well-connected folks from various corners of the golf world.
The idea of the retreat was to play a little golf, enjoy some quality fellowship of the game, and share thoughts on the current state of golf, hopefully generating ideas that might lift it from its current malaise.
First, the bad news: Since the start of the New Millennium, golf participation across America has been on a slow but steady decline. Events of 9/11 basically propelled the booming resort travel business into the tank -- and golf publishing into a state of depression.
Even before last autumn's Wall Street follies and the global collapse that followed, golf courses were closing at a clip of about one per day as more people left the game than took it up. Many old-line private clubs, meanwhile, are scrambling not just to keep members, but to keep their doors open and the lights on. Television ratings continue to decline, and many equipment companies, facing the flat-line balance sheets, are either on the threshold of folding or merging, thereby stifling future innovation.
In the wake of Wall Street's meltdown, by some estimates a third of the PGA Tour's major sponsors essentially vanished overnight, many of whom accepted federal bailout assistance.
The most damaging effect directly to golf's public was not Northern Trust's sponsorship of the venerable L.A. Open, per se, but the bank's extraordinary indifference to public sentiments by accepting $1.5 billion worth of public funds one day -- and entertaining its clients in lavish hotels, free jet service, and private concerts by Sheryl Crow and Earth, Wind and Fire the next. In doing so, they gave Barney Frank and his ilk a natural stage for blasting anyone and everyone associated with the game of golf.
For reasons a little unclear to me, the genial host of the Wilmington gathering, Gordon Dalgleish, the president of Perry Golf, asked me to speak first -- possibly because I have a new book out in which, among other things, I cite the corporate success of the PGA Tour as a major reason the game of golf is in popular decline.
"Slow death by prosperity" is how I chose to describe this phenomenon. In a nutshell, as the pro game has boomed, becoming more of a merchandised product with each passing year, producing stars that have all the natural appeal and personalities of chartered accountants at play, the roots of the game are withering from neglect. Whether we intended to or not, we've made golf in America into a wealthy corporate game -- best used to make deals, woo customers or flog real estate.
Tufts Was Right
If I sound as if I'm channeling the ghosts of golf curmudgeons past, so be it. In the mid-1950s, Pinehurst scion Richard Tufts chased the pro game out of the Sandhills when the tourists demanded more prize loot to go with their free hotel rooms and French mineral water at the swank Carolina Hotel.
At that time, the vaunted North and South Open -- long considered just a whisker below major championship status -- paid out exactly what the U.S. Open paid its champions. Rather than joining the escalating purse money arms race, however, crusty Richard Tufts, the author of the celebrated "Amateur Creed," canceled the professional segment of the North and South altogether, citing the damaging effect on the game's real purposes. No less than Bob Jones hailed Tuft's decision.
On this same logic, a few years later, Masters co-founder Cliff Roberts warned his new young champion Arnold Palmer that the only thing that could ruin the game of golf was having too much money and corporate influence around the game. If the day ever dawned when tournaments relied more upon large corporate interests and big sponsors than the fans who paid to see the game's stars perform, Roberts -- the essential Wall Street banker, no less -- reasoned that the imbalance would eventually result in players performing for money, marginalizing fans and escalating the loss of popular interest in the game.
I think of this every time I see a venerable championship renamed for a corporate entity that has its logo plastered on everything from corporate hospitality tents to port-o-johns. My favorite example of this cultural hijacking is the Cialis Western Open, though I suppose their sponsorship gives a whole new meaning to that timeless golf maxim "Never up, never in."
Tellingly, only the Masters, which still has no dominant corporate sponsor that calls the shots, and to a lesser extent the U.S. Open, seem overly committed to giving the ordinary fan a good time at the tournament.
The Connection to Fans
If you look at what created the postwar golf boom of the 1950s, undergirding the largest popular growth in the game's history -- setting the stage for today's prosperity -- was the presence of colorful, iconoclastic characters who played the game with eccentric style and visible passion.
Many, like Snead, Nelson and Hogan, were veterans of pro golf's leanest years, former club pros who learned the value of pleasing sponsors and fans alike by playing public exhibitions and pro-ams. Hunger made them heroes. Those who followed, like Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Trevino, understood that their soaring popularity was good for the game. Each, in his own manner, became a distinctive performer and thus a superstar.
Make no mistake: The pros of golf's golden age were out to make dough and plenty of it. They were, in many respects, the ultimate independent contractors. But they also understood the intrinsic value of being showmen and entertainers, roving Everyman ambassadors of the game -- Johnny Appleseeds, if you will, spreading the associated pleasures of a game that hasn't fundamentally changed all that much in almost 400 years of evolution.
Not surprisingly, in tournaments to this day, in vivid contrast to the modern and typically unrecognizable Tour player, most of these venerable stars still prefer to walk along the ropes of the fairway so they can make eye contact and interact with the galleries.
"I loved pulling off a great shot and hearing people cheer," Arnold Palmer flatly confided to me a few years ago. "It gave me such a thrill to make the crowd go crazy. That's really what golf tournaments were about back then -- hitting great shots that pleased the fans. It's not an exaggeration to say we were all entertainers. There was an intimacy with fans that made this very emotional for many of us. The connection to fans was real."
Future at Stake
Today, pro golf seems about as intimate as a General Electric stockholders meeting. The big galleries follow Tiger Woods because he is playing for history, Phil Mickelson because he's the closest thing we have to Arnold Palmer, and Big John Daly because he's a walking country music ballad.
As I suggested to my friends at Eagle Point, if PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who is rumored to be on the cusp of retirement, wanted to leave a great legacy and the game better than he found it, he would call a great big tent meeting of his employees at the end of this year and insist they leave their agents, sports shrinks, and swing gurus at home. The game did pretty well for almost 400 years without them.
In a gathering closer in spirit to an old-fashioned tent revival than a corporate board meeting, he would remind Tiger and Phil that what they do really isn't all that critical to the future of the Republic. Golf is a game, not a growth industry -- though the industry will grow once we get back to treating it like a game we'd like to pass along to our kids.
If the commish were smart, he'd advise his players to loosen up and appear more human, have some fun, display some emotion, play to the galleries, temporarily forget their big endorsements deals and Gulfstream jets.
In other words, play their hearts out as if they love golf and the future of the game itself were at stake. Because it bloody well may be.
Some Innovative Ideas
Over the course of the weekend in Wilmington, some really innovative ideas came from the folks gathered at Eagle Point -- like the idea of opening up the leading private clubs to outside play by visitors who would relish the opportunity to play a legendary course like Winged Foot or Riviera, a system of access the British have had in place since Old Tom was in short pants. They call it a "visitor's day."
There were shared ideas on new kinds of mentoring programs and innovative teaching approaches -- already being done in places around New York City -- to make the game not only more accessible to kids and newcomers, but also more fun.
Others mentioned the need for golf to take a dominant position in the environmental movement -- pointing out that the vast majority of courses being built these days are actually a boon to wildlife and the natural world. Golf tournaments could also be made models of working sustainability and showcases for green technology.
"If ever there was a place to show off green technology," as one of the Wilmington participants, a vice chairman of a major financial institution that pumps millions into sports marketing, said, "that place is a golf tournament. Talk about sending a major message to America."
Needed: Rebirth of Spirit
My major contribution to the discussion was to suggest something I proposed almost four years ago in this space, something I called the Great American Golf Festival -- a grassroots celebration of the game modeled after country music's highly successful Fan Fest that would connect virtually every aspect of the game today.
What better place than Pinehurst and environs, the so-called Home of American Golf, ground zero of the amateur game, to create a grassroots revival of the golf that would bring together everything from Tour stars past and present to equipment manufacturers, golf collectors to golf-loving rock groups, for a three-day celebration of the game that would provide fans unprecedented access to the game they love.
Those who could never somehow wrangle a ticket to the now-foundering PGA Merchandise Show could try out the latest equipment and get custom-fitted at individual manufacturers' tents.
Over a long weekend in the late fall or early spring they could learn about golf art and collectibles, attend symposium lectures, meet the world's top golf teachers and authors, play in the ultimate pro-am with a living legend or a best buddy, take in a screening of golf movies, hear a live concert, chat with a budding star, and collect autographs to their heart's content -- all in a place that symbolizes the very best values of the game.
My friends really liked this idea, and I came away from my weekend in Wilmington feeling considerably more optimistic about golf's chances of getting back to basics -- and a much-needed rebirth of the spirit of the game.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic.
Jim Dodson, The Pilot's Sunday essayist, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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