The baby-boomer rocket that propelled golf to new heights in the 20th century — and made Minnesota one of the world’s hottest golf markets despite its short season — has lost altitude as frugal millennials balk at a game they see as too expensive, too difficult and too time-consuming to play, and, save for the company scramble with a well-stocked beer cart, not all that much fun.
And even though the sport was “democratized” as cities and towns built affordable public “munies” that brought postwar masses to golf, surveys show the game is still seen as “elitist.” That’s partly because exclusive country clubs remain in full view. But a larger issue is men who saw (and often still see) golf as their domain and have discouraged others, especially women and sometimes kids, by shunting them to less desirable playing times, or worse.
The result is that golf courses are closing, retailers are clearing golf merchandise, and sales of ugly slacks are way down as the game and the industry struggles with sagging interest that has persisted for a decade.
As more are coming to realize, golf’s warts have been long ignored by tradition-bound “keepers of the game,” including course operators and members of the U.S. Golf Association who stubbornly resisted changing anything as long as tee sheets were full.
“The USGA is out of touch with what’s happening,” said Tom Abts, one of the metro area’s most respected course managers, at Deer Run in Victoria.
Neglected blemishes are, to be sure, only part of it. Golf’s decline may be a metaphor for today’s economic reality of a stressed middle class and income-pressed millennials. There’s also a shifting of focus among many young couples who prioritize parenting over time-consuming recreation away from family.
Golf’s ill health is the stuff of cracker-barrel chatter. And after more than a decade of coming to realize the obvious, a worried USGA is only now trying to somehow rekindle interest. Last fall, it awarded a five-year grant to the University of Minnesota to examine how to revive the golf market by making courses more player-friendly, by making golf more welcoming and by figuring out ways to energize the game’s social appeal.
It’s a tough assignment, and we’ll see how they do. Doubters point to USGA’s clumsy dealing with the scourge of slow play through costly TV and magazine ads. The campaign had little effect on golf’s pace while giving potential players still more reason to stay away.
Golf’s player core remains at 23 million nationally, down 24 percent from its peak in 2002. And even though some 25 courses in Minnesota have closed, experts say the region still is overstocked with golf venues.
Still, some are betting on beating the odds. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is advancing an ambitious makeover of its famous venues. Out in Lake Elmo, golf impresario Hollis Cavner is sinking $20 million into a major face lift of Tartan Park Golf Course, which he recently bought from 3M. That worries east-side course operators who fear that Cavner’s promotional genius will carve a big share out of golf’s shrinking market.
While golf is far from dead, participation has flat-lined as graying boomers leave the links without being replaced by the young adults who are golf’s future. Of the few millennials who try golf, few return, seeming to prefer handheld i-things and more affordable recreation over whiling away a sunny day on a frustrating game.
So, what went wrong here?
One difficulty is the game’s, well, difficulty. And here was a self-inflicted wound in an industry that built courses to mimic the monster layouts seen on TV and played by the world’s elite masters— ignoring that most golfers can’t break 100. Ridiculously long holes, thick rough and cruelly placed hazards conspired to make golf unnecessarily frustrating and not fun.
Golf’s high cost, meanwhile, is only partly due to rising course fees. A larger problem is club makers who falsely tell golfers they’ll play better by spending gobs to buy their stuff, especially tricked up and preposterously long drivers that cost more than your first car.
True story: Ads have long claimed that branded clubs hit the ball farther, as “proved” by ball-hitting robots. In reality, the industry incrementally tweaked club length and loft so that, yes, perfectly tuned machines could hit balls farther. But all that tweaking made today’s 7-iron, for example, close to what once was called a 5-iron, and today’s pitching wedge close to an 8-iron.
The tweaked sticks were harder to use (people, not robots, play golf), and the industry’s “fix” to its own market-driven gimmickry was new lines of still more expensive “hybrids.” Former USGA technical director Frank Thomas said his myriad tests flatly disproved claims of improved distance with “new tech” clubs.
Those new to the game are also intimidated, and endless debates are started among players, by the USGA’s absurdly complex rules that stump even golf pros (26 pages of small type just for the rule book’s index). Along with the USGA, traditionalists have pretty much quashed an ambitious effort by TV’s Golf Channel to encourage “relaxed” golf with just seven very short, common-sense rules.
Golfers themselves can pare costs. Rather than carrying the allowed limit of 14 clubs in a massive bag, most would play just as well with five or six clubs in a rig one can sling over a shoulder — which also means you can skip renting a power cart and enjoy the bonus of splendid exercise by walking the course.
You don’t need designer golf shoes; comfortable sneakers may be the best golf footwear made. You can pay 50 cents for a used ball and play just as well as with a brand ball costing up to five bucks.
Some courses prop income with things like “foot golf” (kicking a soccer ball over grassy knolls to a distant 23-inch hole), and others promote enjoyment by enlarging the size of the golf cup. There’s also the soaring popularity of “Topgolf,” featuring multi-tiered ranges where players mingle and munch with friends and take turns hitting balls at range targets with results read, and scores kept, by computers. Like bowling, it’s good social fun.
But it’s not real golf, grumble the purists. That’s true, but recall how snowboarders were derided when they first showed up on ski slopes.
Meanwhile, golf gobbles time. Playing an 18-hole round takes more than four hours — more if you get behind the ever-present slow group. Add travel, warmup, and maybe a celebratory pop or two in the pub, and there goes the better part of a day.
“Why not shorter golf courses?” asks longtime pro Joe Greupner at Edina’s Braemar. He’s among a growing number who advocate six-hole loops that could be played affordably in 90 minutes.
Some pioneering architects like Richard Mandell of Pinehurst, N.C., are designing courses that emphasize enjoyment: few trees, short or no rough, no penal hazards, aesthetically pleasing and easy to walk. Mandell won praise for his restoration of Ramsey County’s legendary Keller Golf Course, and he’s now engaged to give Edina’s aging Braemar a friendlier makeover.
Deer Run’s Abts thinks the industry should focus on serving a niche golf market.
“Sort of like restaurants,” Abts said. “When I see a menu with seafood, Mexican, Italian, ribs and gourmet French, I know it’ll be bad because you can’t be everything to everyone.”
Plenty to chew on.
Ron Way, of Edina, taught golf for 20 years as Dr. Golf in community-education classes throughout the Twin Cities.