The State of the Game 2019

A year ago, I started my blogging adventure with three weighty volumes on the state of golf in England in 2018. This year I will condense my annual evaluation of the game in this country into a single tome – albeit split into 3 key areas. I will also introduce grades for each section to put into layman’s terms where I believe the sport currently stands and the potential for improvement.

Entry Level

For many years, golf had rested lazily on its laurels, relying on the huge reach of Tiger Woods to inspire young players into the game. Golf had slowly become uncool, old-fashioned, pedestrian and boring.

Last year we began to see the roots of recovery in attracting new players to the game. Technology is helping – golf simulators have begun to pop up in holiday parks and the like, a fun way to introduce the IT generation to the sport. TopGolf has used the Bowling model to bring a fresh and social dynamic to the driving range. Adventure Golf courses have been created in spectacular settings whilst retaining a traditional putting challenge. New schemes have been developed and cleverly marketed to make introductory lessons more attractive – particularly for women.

So all of these positive developments have now begun to bear fruit – but in 2019 there is still much to do. The next huge area required to bridge the gap between taking up the game and joining a Club are fun and creative short and municipal courses.

For too long now, the conditioning and design of ‘pitch and putt’ and council facilities have been poor, bland and just boring. It is time for talented course architects to help the future of the game by creating a sustainable and fun model for short 6 or 9 hole courses. Great design does not have to be expensive and the market is crying out for such tracks.

PGA Professionals also have a part to play. Many of these are hard-working, talented people but their system is churning out heavily technical based tuition models. There is much more to golf than the technique and it is time that introductory lessons got players playing the game rather than just the swing. Who wants to spend their leisure time learning about the intricacies of the Vardon grip? Lets make it FUN.

Entry Level Grade: C

Club Level

In England, Club golfers are the backbone of the game. They are some of the most passionate, knowledgable and dedicated students of the game anywhere in the world. But golf club membership in this country has been in decline for a number of years and most golf clubs have resembled a drunk at the bookies, stumbling from one desperate offer to the next looking for the magic answer.

In fairness, Clubs have been let down by a staggering lack of leadership and guidance from County Golf Unions run by out-of-touch old men in blazers and a National Golf Union so bloated by its poll-tax style funding that it seems to act purely for its own justification and forgets its key purpose.

The Club Game is going through the midst of a re-balancing at the moment, with courses closing across the country at a regular rate. In the harshest sense, this process needs to happen. There has been an over-supply of poor facilities since the boom of the 1990s and some facilities closing helps to make the strongest Clubs even stronger.

There is room in the market for all different types of Clubs – 9-Hole courses, Hotel based resort courses, top 100 venues and ultra-exclusive Private members Clubs. The key for the individual venue is to know its place in the market and orientate itself accordingly.

Clubs need to market themselves much better and more appropriately. The trend for 2 for 1 vouchers and lowering Green Fees has ripped the middle out of the market and this process must be reversed. The good news is that I have seen at first hand how many talented Managers, Greenkeepers and leaders there are in the industry and if Clubs trust these people they will be in good hands.

Club Level Grade: C-

Professional Level

As the only true needle mover in the game, the resurgence of Tiger Woods in 2018 has offered a huge fillip for the game at elite levels. Sights of the huge and passionate crowds at the conclusion of his Tour Championship victory brought back memories of Arnie Palmer and his army in his pomp.

Below Tiger there are enough ‘good’ characters like Rory, Rickie and the Justin’s and enough ‘bad’ characters like Reed and Bubba to keep the game and its players engaging.

A breed of new athletes, led by Cameron Champ looks to be the trend of the next generation. This offers a challenge to the sports leadership, as trained players mixed with forgiving technology combine to make many classic courses obsolete and the traditional skill of using long-irons a thing of the past. Limiting the ball seems the best way to maintain the architectural principles of the greatest courses that are such an important part of the game’s history and future.

In Europe, the finances of the Professional game are more of a challenge and the European Tours foray to Saudi Arabia to attract investment and a stellar field has probably backfired in a raft of bad publicity this week. In a more general sense however, Keith Pelley is an innovative leader who has helped to modernize the offering and try new things, which could filter down to help grow the game.

The Ladies game still struggles to attract the media coverage it deserves and needs to embrace different formats and act as a leader in this respect. The ladies could certainly compete with the men if the teeing areas are appropriately spaced and this could be a great way to gain attention.

2019 has seen a modification of the rules and the early signs are mixed but probably mostly positive. A key aspect of the changes is an attempt to quicken up the game. They will be of very limited benefit in this respect and until the Professional Tours start to take this topic seriously and penalize the serial offenders then slow play will continue to be a huge turn-off at all levels of the game.

Professional Level Grade: B

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