Why golf grows
Stopping the leaks
Let’s make “retention” part of this subject, because we have to stop the leaks in the pool, as well as top up the water. “Growing the game” is a worthy ambition – and many people around the world are working hard at that, with great programmes already in place – but are we really tackling the issues that have caused the decline over the last decade? And are we yet, as Mr. Nicklaus suggests we should be, “thinking outside the box” ?
Evidence of decline
First of all, what is the scale of the problem? We should always be cautious about statistics, but the USA ( http://www.ngf.org ) and Canada ( Navicom survey ) have some solid evidence to show of a game in decline. Similar concerns can be found in Australia and New Zealand. Europe has a few current success stories, such as Germany, the Netherlands and France – but Britain, Ireland and much of Scandinavia have suffered greatly in recent years.
Economics will, of course, have played a part in all this. But the slump first noted in the USA a decade ago began long before the demise of Lehman Brothers.
Why golf grows
There are essential lessons to learn from history : golf grew rapidly from 1890 in Britain and Ireland because land for courses was cheap to buy or rent and equipment was affordable to a middle class with enough discretionary income to pay for it all. And enough time to play it, coupled with good railway links to the courses.
This expansion took place with no help from TV or Tours, although there weren’t so many competing leisure activities in those days. But the point is made : if you can’t afford to play golf, or you don’t have time, or you can’t get there, then you won’t play golf. And that is still true in any country in the world, however much we aspire to growing the game.
Don't be fooled
We should not be fooled by the success of TOP golf. It is commonly held that REAL golf only grows in a country because recruits are attracted to the game they see on TV. This cosy assertion must be challenged. Describing a recent event in China, one of the organisers said “This is going to be the beacon to carry the game into this continent for many years to come.”
Tour golf does no favours...
Yes, but which game please? In truth, he is describing TOP golf, which doubtless has many opportunities to bring in new sponsors/advertisers on the back of the game as TV entertainment. But our game, REAL golf , is very hard to find in China, except perhaps at driving ranges. It’s still hugely expensive and time-consuming on actual courses, many of them far too difficult. It is hard to see that replicating the same defects found in established golfing countries is the right way to "grow the game" in newer ones. Around the world, Tour golf has done the REAL game no favours by endlessly showcasing costly stadium courses.
Seventh Rule of REAL golf : always be wary when officials or pundits mention “the game”. Usually they refer to the TOP game, which is where they focus so much of their attention.
Once - if - we get past the distractions of showbusiness, we can pay attention to the three needs of REAL golf, so neatly summarised by Mr. Nicklaus:
- What is being done to make the challenge more suitable and enjoyable for different levels of recreational golfers?
- What is being done to make the game less expensive?
- What is being done to make it quicker?
Until or unless these points are being addressed effectively - by today's golfers, clubs and authorities - we think that “growing the game” initiatives run a serious risk of failing over the coming decade.
A voice for the REAL golfer
One of the main objectives of the REAL golf campaign is to amplify the voice of the REAL golfer, so that clubs are not unduly influenced by the demands of TOP golf.
As pointed out at the start, there is much urgency about this, given that retention rates – never mind recruitment rates - will continue to slide unless the three underlying needs are tackled. Thinking and action, in the box or out of the box, must speed up.
Finally, on a positive note, here are some links to a selection of great enthusiasts who have already made a start. We wish them well :