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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Grow The Game From The Ground Up, Not From The Top Down

At some point in the late eighties/early nineties, the National Golf Foundation declared that to keep up with the demand for the game of golf, one golf course every day for the rest of the century needed to open. That bold prediction was actually achieved beyond most people’s expectations. In the middle of this mass opening, though, the NGF quietly added the idea that maybe we don’t need as many courses as originally predicted.

What happened? Many golf courses were built to keep up with new golfers entering the game, but just as many golfers were leaving via the back door. One reason for the solemn exodus of core golfers was that the game was too difficult. See, the majority of golf courses built over the past few decades were built with little consideration toward not only the beginning golfer, but the average golfer, the 95% of all golfers who had yet to break 100 on their scorecard.

In order to gain that 40% premium for golf course frontage, one had to sell sizzle, not subtle. Sizzle in the form of golf course design comes in an emphasis on aesthetics, not strategy. The only way to create that aesthetic sizzle is to sell a pretty picture chock full of interesting landforms and an abundance of contrasting colors such as green, white, and blue. In golf course design, that translates to lots of sand and water, two design features which are not very friendly to the 95% who are still in triple digits (and many more that have broken that scoring barrier).

The golf courses that fit the above description are good examples of building not for the average golfer, but for the average homebuyer. The average homebuyer sought out the high-end developments that make their home equally high-end. Picture a golf course which can be best described as an “advanced” playing field. With all that sand and water balanced by narrow golf course envelopes bordered on both sides by homes, few but the most advanced players could negotiate a round of golf without losing their mind (and all their golf balls). These advanced courses are more popularly known as “high-end” developments which only work for the top end of the golfing talent spectrum.

This style of golf course is not the style that attracts new golfers or converts the majority of casual golfers to core golfers. The golf courses that could accomplish that goal are ones that are more playable, less expensive, and more fun. A golf course which matches these criteria are more appropriate for growing the game from the ground up. In other words, create a facility that will cater to the masses (the bottom of the pyramid) rather than the few golfers (tip of the pyramid) who can negotiate the tour-calibers site most real estate developers would rather sell as backyard.

The health of the game would not be in such critical condition if more golf courses were built from the ground up rather than the top down. If golf courses had less forced carries and penal hazards as a result of trying to create a dramatic landscape and the promise of living along the toughest golf course on the block and more opportunity for a new golfer to advance his or her game properly, less people would be walking away from the game.

Creating a playable venue for beginners does not mean that the advanced golfer would be forced to play a cow pasture. The pure fact of the matter is that the truly exceptional golf courses are layouts which challenge the expert and novice alike according to each golfer’s own abilities. Anyone can create a difficult golf course, yet the gifted designer can design for all talent levels. Basic philosophies such as utilizing hazards to challenge the golfer and not penalize help to achieve this goal.

I will cite two of the most famous golf courses in the world and point out their basic attributes which back up my thesis. Course number one is called Augusta National Golf Club. With just forty-four sand bunkers on the whole course, one can be sure that those hazards perform the job of challenge, not penalty. Example number two is Pinehurst No. 2. A golfer can putt literally from the first tee to the eighteenth green. There are no forced carries on the course whatsoever. In fact, the only water on the entire course is a small pond in front of the sixteenth tee, easily carried by most golfers playing from the correct tee box.

Growing the game from the ground up can certainly move beyond the regulation course. The concept can be applied to par-three courses or executive golf courses as well. In fact, these are the type of golf courses which should be built more often to promote the game from the ground up. Ironically, the same concept of challenge over aesthetics will help attract these facilities to the better golfer as well. In addition, more nine-hole layouts in the world will serve those who may not want to commit the time it takes to play a full eighteen.

One country which has grown the game quite well from the bottom up is Sweden. One can see the correlation between up and coming Swedish players on the international scene (both men and women) and their efforts to create all-access golf courses that are playable. The same can be seen in South Korea, which despite having a dearth of golf courses has put a development program in place that is paying dividends on both the LPGA and PGA Tours.

There are initiatives underway by many golf organizations that help to promote the game of golf such as the First Tee Program, Play Golf America, and Take Your Daughter To Work in addition to growing the game by building the correct type of golf facilities. Providing more accessible facilities that can accommodate the full promotion of these marketing efforts will only enhance the game and lead to sustained growth.

One last thought on how to grow the game from the ground up concerns the PGA Tour and its sponsorship efforts. I was intrigued by the fact that the Texas Open (one of the oldest events on tour dating to 1922) was sponsored by Valero Energy Corporation. At first glance, I thought it was odd that a company which owns many convenience stores across America would sponsor a tour event. I am used to the plethora of financial institutions and consultants I was not aware of as the commercial break for much of my Sunday viewing. As I thought harder about the Valero Texas Open, my simple mind finally recognized a company that I encounter every day being heavily involved in the promotion of the game. I don’t know what UBS does, hardly was familiar with ING until their lights burned out a few years ago, and still have no clue what FBR does. But I fill my gas tank often. So do many other average people in the world. Valero’s involvement in the promotion of the game is a great way to grow the game from the ground up. I am sure there are more non-golfers who patronize a Valero store than there are existing golfers who listen to Charles Schwab. If Valero and other companies for the masses promote the game, maybe the game can attract more future players.

In conclusion, by growing the game from the ground up and not the top down, more potential golfers will be exposed to the game and be more liable to stay with the game. Providing the right facilities is a major step toward growth. What is in it for existing golfers: Maybe a facility which isn’t so expensive to patronize and is a little more fun to play. Sure, let’s throw in the buzzword of 2009 as well: More SUSTAINABLE to boot! This is the last of my series of five ideas which the golf industry can adopt as a means to help balance the game and the business of golf.

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