Girls' Tourney: Bright Spot in Dark Golf World
In case you haven't noticed, golf is in a rather peculiar state.
Owing to a variety of factors ranging from the tsunami effect of the Great Recession to Tiger's expensive tastes in bottle-blonde cocktail waitresses, the game has taken some hard licks of late.
By some estimates, the related industry at large has contracted by almost one-fourth from its high-water mark of 10 to 15 years or so ago.
Back then, if you recall, many so-called "industry experts" were saying America needed a new course to open every day just to keep pace with the public's insatiable and growing demand for places to play.
Golf course construction was booming, celebrities were building their own super elite golf sanctuaries, and top resorts were adding spas and designer courses like there was no tomorrow - much of it funded by hedge funds and offshore money that saw the game principally as a golden investment opportunity.
Old-line clubs tore up perfectly fine traditional layouts, foolishly trying to make them "Tiger-proof," and even public course green fees went shooting through the stratosphere. Corresponding to the much-ballyhooed "golf boom" of the middle 1990s, the golf equipment industry exploded as well - rocket-fueled by out-of-work aerospace engineers who pushed the game to unprecedented lengths.
About that time, the PGA Tour became principally a marketing platform for major corporations that saw golfers as the ideal demographic for peddling anything from luxury automobiles to financial services, storm windows to male impotence drugs.
Once this segment took control of golf and stamped their logos on venerable tournament names, purses exploded and star players began traveling like medieval royalty with personal entourages of swing gurus, sports psychologists, fitness trainers and financial advisers, becoming generally as remote from their fans as the former planet Pluto with each passing year.
Tournaments - once a pure expression of a community's interest in expanding the game's appeal among locals and raising a little money for charity to boot - enjoyed huge windfalls from TV revenue, making live local fans in many instances irrelevant. Have you checked out the grandstands of half the PGA events on TV this year? Most appear about half-full - or, as it were, half-empty. What a difference just a year or two makes.
Growth Arc: Women's Golf
This year, if we're lucky, perhaps 20 golf courses will open in America - while roughly one a day is shutting down operation because of declining patronage. Old-line clubs everywhere have lost members and undertaken serious belt-tightening, while searching for new members to keep their fairways vibrant. A worrying statistic I recently saw points out that since Tiger Woods entered the pro game in the late 1990s, more American have actually quit playing golf than have taken it up.
The only significant growth arc is among young women and executive females. Myrtle Beach - not so long ago the sunburned Mecca of American golf buddies - has been plowing up golf courses right and left to make way for middle-income housing.
In Moore County, meanwhile, home to 43 or so really fine layouts, almost every public and private course is struggling to some extent. A few have either sought bankruptcy protection or are simply hanging on by the fingernails, hoping the economy recovers in time to save them from becoming turf farms or horse pastures.
Meanwhile, this year alone, China will reportedly open more than 100 courses - maybe upward of 200 by next year.
"The Chinese know little or nothing about golf," an official for the booming HSBC Shanghai event told me earlier this summer. "But they have so much money, and they're throwing up clubhouses the size of the Taj Mahal simply to bring the PGA Tour there. It's a matter of national pride for them. They want golf badly."
This same official told me he fully expects the PGA Tour to stage several events in China in the coming years, abandoning several venerable if financially struggling events on American soil to chase the money in the Far East. "America," he jokes, "may be the new Scotland."
So what does all of this have to do with the 2010 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship that kicks off play Monday at the Country Club of North Carolina? In a word, plenty. But before I get to that, some good news:
With or without Tiger Woods, the game of golf probably will go on as it has for more than 500 years, growing in times of plenty, contracting during moments of social disruption or economic crisis, changing and evolving with every new generation - pretty much reflecting the tastes and social attitudes of people who love to play the game at any given moment.
In 1960, when Arnold Palmer captured his second Masters, no less a visionary than Clifford Roberts warned that too much corporate money and domination of the game would eventually work against the game's better interests - echoing Dick Tufts' belief as far back as the mid-1950s that players who teed up for dough instead of trophies would eventually ruin the game.
That's why he ended the North and South's professional championship and stuck with the amateurs. (Quick question: Does anyone out there know exactly how the Fedex Cup works? Or, for that matter, really care?)
This year, at any rate, in Tiger's understandable absence, it's great to see a host of appealing young players like Rory McIlroy, Camilo Villegas and others winning with a visible passion that seems to match their outsized talents - providing a nice glimmer of hope, if you will, that this new generation of promising young guns might understand the market value of being showmen as well as walking ambassadors of the game.
Tom Watson nearly captured the Claret Jug last year at Turnberry. Phil Mickelson stole a page from Arnie Palmer's script at this year's Masters. Grizzled and gently unbowed John Daly chased his own path to glory at St. Andrews this weekend. Watching them did wonders for both TV ratings and those of us who love a comeback kid dressed like he's going to his own fifth birthday party.
In women's golf, Paula Creamer put on a show last week at the Women's Open at mighty Oakmont that will have folks talking for years - and can only inspire a generation of young girls to take up the game with the same class and charm.
'Top Young Players'
Which brings us to the opening tomorrow of the 62nd U.S. Girls' Junior Championship on the Dogwood Course at CCNC, one of three prestigious golf championships the USGA will conduct in North Carolina this summer.
Last week, Greensboro got to show off its stuff with the U.S. Public Links Championship at Bryan Park. Next month is Charlotte's turn with the U.S. Women's Amateur at Charlotte Country Club. But starting at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow at CCNC's Dogwood Course, a championship that began in 1949 and helped launch the careers of stars like four-time U.S. Open champ Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez and Hall of Famer Joanne Carner will provide a spectacular glimpse of the champions of tomorrow.
You'll probably see many of these same gals at the 2014 Women's Open at Pinehurst. To judge by an international field bulging with talent and experience, which hails from virtually every state and at least a dozen countries of origin, tomorrow may not be that far away.
The field of 156 includes a number of teen phenoms who've already made appearances in the heat of a national open. Will the eventual winner of the grueling 36-hole qualifier and four rounds of match play be Ariya Jutanugam, a quarterfinalist from last year's championship - or perhaps Alison Lee, one of the top ranked AGJA players in the nation?
Last year's surprise champ, sunny 17-year-old Amy Anderson, was largely unknown outside her hometown of Oxbow, N.D., until she took the field by storm at Trump National and claimed the beautiful Glenna Collett Vare trophy.
Looking for an intriguing dark horse to follow? Adorable Tiffany Lim of San Jose, Calif., recently scored 2210 on her SATs and is reportedly considering either Duke or Harvard for college. As for me, I'll definitely check out Cherokee Kim from Dupont, Wash., and Bailey Tardy from Norcross, Ga., simply for their sweet-sounding names. Bet their games are a perfect match.
There are several players from Colombia, which may be the new Korea, and no doubt can hit their ball and do the "spider" at least as well as their national heartthrob Camilo Villegas.
"Maybe the most exciting thing about this event," says CCNC director of golf Jeff Dotson, "is the chance people around here will have to come out and see some of the world's top young players in a very intimate setting - walking along with them with no ropes. Hosting the Girls' Junior is simply a continuation of the club's longstanding commitment to perpetuating amateur golf."
Dotson points out that CCNC was the site of the 1980 U.S. National Amateur, won by Hal Sutton, and has hosted six Southern Amateur Championships, seven North Carolina Amateurs and three Carolina Amateur Championships.
Not unaware of what hosting the U.S. Girls' Junior means to the club's national profile, championship general chairman Steve Coman points out that the club raised more than $260,000 to cover the expenses of hosting the prestigious event and has help from more than 200 volunteers on the ground. Any revenue left over from its fundraising will directly benefit co-sponsor First Tee of the Sandhills.
"We look at having 156 young players come to town with their parents and grandparents and friends to compete on our golf course for a national championship as a nice exposure for the club and a showcase for the Sandhills in general," says Coman. "Our members have been excited and enthusiastic about hosting this championship since we learned the good news."
The good news for golfers like us everywhere is that - coming in the wake of economic collapse and Tiger's ongoing follies - 2010 is panning out to be one of the best years in memory for championship golf. Don't know about you, but I'll be out early tomorrow morning with my sun hat on and the ghost of Richard Tufts by my side, following the future of golf here in the new Scotland.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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