The State of the Game

Despite a rough few years, hope is on the horizon.

As you’re reading this, I hope you can’t see snow or ice anywhere, because as I’m writing this, it feels like things will never warm up. Kind of like the golf industry, warmer days are forecast, but it’s hard to avoid the chill that is still hanging on.

Golf took the same hit that the economy did back in 2008, and has been a little slower than most other business sectors to recover. The dark clouds continued to roll in during 2014. For the ninth straight year, there were more golf course closings than openings. According to the National Golf Foundation, 157 courses closed while only 14 new ones were built.

Dick’s Sporting Goods laid off all 500 of its in-house golf professionals, citing slow equipment sales and smaller margins, while one of the largest equipment manufacturers, TaylorMade, also had extensive layoffs. And television ratings for pro golf events are way down from the late 1990s, early-to-mid-2000s peak audiences (come back soon, Tiger!).

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But before we cry that the sky is falling, let’s look to the auto industry for hope and a template for recovery. You may have already forgotten how badly Detroit took it on the chin back in 2008, especially since the auto industry is now one of the healthiest sectors of our economy. Back then, hundreds of long-time car dealerships were forced to close, products were not that interesting or as tech-savvy as the buyer demanded, and the government was forced to step in to help. (Does “Cash for Clunkers” ring a bell?)

The turnabout came from the strongest dealerships surviving, committing more resources to customers, and from manufacturers re-evaluating their products by listening to customers and designing safer, more fuel-efficient, higher-tech cars. Invest in your business, design better products, create excitement and listen to your customer. The fact that there was record attendance at the annual PGA Merchandise Show back in January is a great indicator that the people who manage golf at all levels are looking for new ways to grow the game.

Internationally, golf will be recognized as an Olympic sport in 2016, with thanks to Malvern’s own Gil Hanse for his miraculous completion of the new course in Brazil (see page G4). It won’t have a Tiger-like jumpstart for the game, but it will help, especially worldwide. Beginning in 2018, the U.S. Golf Association will add the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open to its annual championship schedule: this change should help to grow the game among women. Locally, the U.S. Women’s Open this year at Lancaster Country Club (see page G16) should create buzz among the golf community, while its $4 million purse attracts the best female golfers and young amateurs in the sport.

The courses that will survive and thrive must think outside the box—double-size eight-inch cup events, relaxed-rule days, less dress-code stringent, etc. (See how Deerfield has done just that on page G5.) We can see this turning point in golf as an opportunity to make it better and stronger. Perhaps the most reassuring words of hope came from God himself—well, golf god Arnold Palmer. Arnie has seen many changes in his life, and he downplayed the naysayers in an article he wrote this year for the Golf Channel with these words of assurance: “The fact of the matter is, golf is alive and well.”

Amen, Arnie.

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See you in the fairway.

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