Long Overdue

By | June 7th, 2011

Some courses that continue to see their rounds dwindle should seriously consider repurposing some of their property to strike a more proper balance.

When Jack Nicklaus talks, people may finally start to listen. Nicklaus raised some eyebrows—and hopefully opened some eyes—when he expressed his opinion last month that participation in golf will continue to decline unless those involved in the sport, and the industry, get serious about finding ways to shorten the time they are asking people to invest when playing the game. Nicklaus even went so far as to suggest that the PGA Tour could take the lead in promoting a solution by endorsing 12-hole golf rounds and perhaps even adopting that format for some of its tournaments, to help the concept take hold.

This of course prompted a lot of protest from “purists” and other old-schoolers, with some even accusing Nicklaus of rank hypocrisy, since his company isn’t now taking the lead in designing shorter courses, and no doubt wouldn’t want to settle for the reduced design fees that would come with such work.

But Nicklaus was dead-on in saying that “the kids are all playing soccer or lacrosse or basketball,” as he made the point that especially in today’s instant-gratification era, getting the next generation interested in golf, or any other single activity that requires long stretches of time, is nearly impossible.

As someone who’s been a lot more involved with baseball than golf over the years, I’ve seen the same kind of issues also chase a lot of kids away from the diamond. Baseball was losing a lot of kids coming out of Little League, not only because of slow play and slow action, but also because of the extreme difficulty many encountered when trying to make the jump to a bigger field. Baseball great Cal Ripken took a bold step to try to respond by setting up transition-sized fields for the youth leagues he created—and while Ripken also encountered a lot of criticism for the concept, it’s clear from the growth of his organization that he’s played a major role in helping to keep a lot of players in the game.

The major barrier to the Ripken concept really taking hold, in fact,   has just been lack of space for carving out a whole new set of baseball fields with pitching mounds at 55 feet and bases at 70. Golf wouldn’t have that problem. Courses that still have adequate demand for play could just set up 12-hole fee and time structures, as many have already done for 9 holes or other reduced-play packages.

But there are other courses that should really be honest with themselves, as they watch their rounds continue to dwindle, and admit that the portions of their properties that they continue to devote to golf are way out of kilter with what their members or guests are now coming there for. These courses should seriously consider repurposing some of their golf holes for the kinds of new, family-oriented activities that Bill Donohue mentions in his column (“A Time for Kids”), or just to strike a more proper balance between golf and other club-related activities (tennis, swimming, fitness) that are showing more promise, especially for younger members and children.

Taking this kind of approach could also lead to operational savings and more-focused maintenance and better quality of the golf holes that do remain. You could even take some of the space to put in a “Field of Dreams,” where kids could shag flies or play pickup baseball. Anyone who does that, send me a membership application.