Faced With Perilous Decline, Golf Adapts To Survive And Attract New Players

August 13, 2014

“Every macro-indicator that we’ve been looking at for the past 20 years — rounds played, number of minorities playing, women coming into the game — all of these things that we tracked says that there’s less people playing. Young people entering the game after high school, 18- to 30-year-olds, are down 35 percent in the last 10 years. So I don’t like where the game looks like it’s going.”

The quote above is attributed to Mark King, former president of golf company TaylorMade and new president of Adidas North America (TaylorMade’s parent company). King was recently featured on HBO’s “Real Sports” as part of a story documenting golf’s rapid and depressing decline. When was the last time you heard an executive speak so openly pessimistic about the very industry in which he/she does business?

Mark Twain once said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” Trouble is, the current generation of would-be golfers can’t even enjoy a good walk, much less one spent plodding through trees and tall grass trying to find a little white ball. This may be why reports of golf’s demise — to put a twist on the old Twainism — are no exaggeration at all:

  • In July, ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported that Dick’s Sporting Goods fired all the PGA professionals that it employed in the golf sections of more than 560 stores.
  • During its second quarter, Adidas reported an 18 percent decline in its golf business, including sales of TaylorMade clubs and balls.
  • This past weekend at the 2014 PGA Championship, the game’s most recognizable star, Tiger Woods, missed his second cut in the past four tournaments. Tiger once went seven years and 142 tournaments without missing a cut and/or showing signs of fallibility. Also, American families used to routinely gather at the table to enjoy dinner together.

It saddens me that golf is in such a bad way right now, but as someone who’s played the game since age 11, I totally get it. Weekends are too damn short to spend five-and-a-half hours at the local muni for $45 with nothing but a farmer’s tan and bug bites to show for it. Pair that with more kids specializing in a single sport at a younger age, and it’s hard to expect golf to ever re-attain its past popularity.

But here’s the good news: Golf will be the first to admit it has a problem. In fact, titans of the game like Jack Nicklaus are the first to embrace the new forms in which the game is attracting new players. It just so happens newcomers aren’t playing golf as we knew it.

Some are playing foot golf — a variation that swaps out clubs and dimpled balls in favor of foot and soccer balls. As many as half-a-dozen golf courses in the Twin Cities alone now offer foot golf.

For those hung up on the obstacle of finding a tiny hole after several fruitless putts, there is Hack Golf, which offers a 15-inch hole. That’s three times the size of a regulation golf hole — a freaking canyon by comparison.

Another alternative is Topgolf, which takes the traditional driving range experience and turns it into a gonzo game of skee-ball. Score is kept via digital scoreboard based on how close a player can hit their ball to a flagstick. Think: bowling alley meets nightclub meets driving range meets arcade meets OH MY GOD THIS IS BRILLIANT AND I WISH I OWNED THE TOPGOLF FRANCHISE AND I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I’M DOING FOR MY 30TH BIRTHDAY PARTY.

As a longtime golfer and a traditionalist of sorts, am I sad golf has come to this? Myriad sideshow versions of itself? Not in the least. I’m actually quite impressed at how the sport and its torchbearers — long too stubborn and elitist — have responded by willfully evolving golf into several unique forms to become more appealing to the masses. Rebranding the game wouldn’t save it. Changing the game itself? Pretty forward-thinking for one of the world’s oldest sports.