Golf’s Identity Crisis

Many middle-aged men go through something called a midlife crisis. I'm still in my 20s, so I am a number of years away from it happening to me. From what I hear, though, a number of men become disillusioned with the path their lives have taken and the opportunities that they left behind in the fray of getting their life to what it is. Some just make small changes to cope with the problem — change jobs, do some traveling, or take up a new hobby. Others make absurd changes like divorcing their wives, ditching that practical sedan for a convertible, or getting hair plugs. Regardless of the response, it seems like the midlife crisis is a man's response to not really knowing where he has been or where he wants to go.

Golf does not have a pre-determined life span and, even if it did, it would probably be considered to be well past its midlife point. Despite that, though, the game is exhibiting signs that it is clearly struggling with the same problems of someone in a midlife crisis. On lots of fronts, golf is not really sure where it is heading or what it should do. Lots of voices of influence cannot seem to come together to decide where the next evolution of the game is or if it even needs evolving. Running down the list, though, it becomes apparent that the game may be in trouble if it does not find some direction and clarity soon.

Amateur Woes

The number of Americans actively participating in the game is lower than its peak at the turn of the century. According to the National Golf Federation, the number of Core Golfers (those which play more than seven rounds per year) peaked in 2000 with 14.1 million golfers in that category. As of 2005, that number was 12.5 million. Economic differences during these two years are fairly minimal, so it is a valid claim that there are fewer diehard golfers out there by about 10% in the past five years.

Interestingly enough, though, there has been a modest increase in the number of casual golfers (1-7 rounds per year) and total golfers over that time period. This means that while there are fewer people playing the game with a high frequency, there are more people at least trying the game and playing every once in a while.

This impact can be seen in the decline in the total number of round played. From 2001 to 2005, there was a decrease of nearly 20 million in the number of total rounds played — nearly a 5% decrease. The recent small surge in the number of casual golfers, though, has driven a slight increase year over year in the total number of rounds played in the United States. The NGF recently reported a 0.8% increase in total rounds play from 2005 to 2006. While that is good news, total rounds played is not necessarily a solid indicator of the health of participation.

More importantly, the increase in the number of casual golfers speaks to two negative potential trends concerning participation. One, the numbers seem to indicate that golf is currently relying on curiosity about the sport to generate rounds played, but is not managing to maintain the interest of those players. They either leave the game or remain as casual golfers. Two, the reduction in the number of core golfers means that the players of the game are probably skewing older and are having to reduce the frequency with which they play. This can be further demonstrated in that the number of minority, junior, and female golfers have largely remained static in all categories in the past five years. Thus, the traditional white male golfers that play frequently are engaging the game less.

Recognizing the trend, the golf industry has tried to respond for several years. In 2000, various elements of the golf industry came together to form Golf 20/20. According to its website, the mission of the collaborative is "to align the golf industry behind a plan that addresses the future of golf in a strategic manner, with an emphasis on accelerating growth and participation, and creating new avenues of access into the game." Golf 20/20 was born out of the industry's recognition that its future success relies on the interest of the amateur golfer.

As part of the Golf 20/20 program, the PGA of America created the Play Golf America initiative to encourage curious potential golfers to learn about the game. The initiative features celebrity endorsements, free lessons, and other teaching programs designed to grow awareness of and interest in playing the game.

In its 2006 report at the annual Golf 20/20 Conference, PGA of America President Roger Warren showed that the Play Golf America program may be achieving its goals. Website hits were way up, the number of participating facilities increased, and there was a 21% in the number of people utilizing free lessons during PGA Free Lesson Month. The American Express Women's Golf Week saw a 159% increase in the number of female players participating. Among those participants in those events, 23% and 52% of each described themselves as new golfers. Among all participants for both programs, 41% and 22% respectively then went on to signup for a tee time at a golf facility afterward. Play Golf America also claims a 79% one-year retention rate for its new golfer participants. In all, this is very striking data in the face of NGF data that may indicate a contrarian trend before (and maybe during) Play Golf America.

The First Tee is a program that is dedicated to growing the game among youth, especially in urban environments where participation is very low. The First Tee has opened 274 facilities in its history and has definitely expanded its ability to reach young golfers through affordable access to the game and promoting golf's virtuous qualities and their relevance to life.

Through 2005, over 675,000 juniors had participated in First Tee programs. This was nearly one-third higher than the initial cumulative goal of 500,000 since the inception of First Tee in 1997. The ethnic breakdown of the First Tee participants is also encouraging. 26% of participants in the First Tee were African-American and 10% were Hispanic-American. As compared to NGF ethnic data, only 6% of all golfers are African-American and 5% are Hispanic-American. In the next five years, First Tee hopes to expand the number of facilities and affiliates it has while reaching a total of 3.5 million kids.

Technology, the Golf Economy, and Golfers

While it appears that golf participation trends are in a slightly downward cycle, there has never been greater spending in terms of golf equipment. According to Golf DataTech, the golf industry has seen 10% and 6% year over year growth in the past two years and an upward trend in the past five years. Golf equipment sales now total in the area of $3 billion annually.

The most important part of that increase has been the sale of metalwoods. From available data between 2005 and 2006, the sale of woods increased by 13%. (Interestingly enough, there was no change in the sales of golf balls.) The evolution of hybrid technology has skyrocketed sales of these specialty clubs. In 2004, hybrid sales were in the area of $50 million. By 2006, that number was estimated to be approximately $200 million. In other words, players want to hit the ball longer and straighter and are willing to spend a significant amount of money in new technology that may deliver that ability.

Industry datapoints, though, say that sales of other equipment items like balls and gloves are largely dependent upon the total number of rounds played. While sales have increased in both areas in real money terms, when controlled for inflation, the growth must be limited because of the decrease in the total number of rounds played annually over the past five years.

Most important to this discussion is that the growth of the industry, according to Golf DataTech, is largely reliant upon the development of new golf technology that will appeal to the golf consumer. From all appearances, casual and diehard golfers alike will flock to new technology and give it a try if they perceive that it could make them play better.

The economic data seem to suggest that the golf industry is developing technology that appeals to the golfer's pride and desire to shave strokes off of their handicaps. The actual scoring data seems to suggest that the industry is not delivering on the hopes created by new technologies, though. Golf scores, on the average, have remained stagnant for years.

In fact, some measures seem to indicate that golfers as a whole are getting worse. This could be happening for a host of reasons. The reasons may include that: people have less and less leisure time as they work more hours; households in the middle-class are more pinched for expendable income for golf (especially during the recent real estate boom); and that people may simply be less interested in developing their games than they used to be.

Whatever the reason is, the bottom line is that technology is not helping to get more people interested in playing the game at all or more often, or improve scores. Despite that reality, the golf economy has probably never been healthier in dollar terms. It is a dichotomy that haunts the game — fewer people are playing less often in the past five years, but sales of technology have seen a significant increase.

Meanwhile, the professional game is causing a grassroots backlash against technology because it has dramatically changed the professional game. The evolution of increasingly spectacular golf technology in recent years has allowed a number of professional golfers to forge a tremendous gap in the game that amateurs play and the game those same amateurs see on television.

Professionals on the PGA Tour have seen a near 25-yard increase in average drives over a decade. Driver and ball technology have combined to make this possible. Powerful golfers are now able to hit driver and a wedge to many average golf holes that an amateur might find very challenging. Light rough is hardly the penalty it used to be due to groove technology, the new physics of energy transfer from club to ball, and the ability of new golf balls to minimize the impact of off-center and less-than-optimal contact. Wedge technology has made bunker shots routine and almost preferable to chipping around the greens for many professionals. In short, technology has allowed the strongest of golfers to be able to make mockeries of once-venerable golf courses.

In response, tournament organizers and sponsors have often conspired to doctor up (and potentially ruin) many courses in an attempt to maintain some level of difficulty in the professional game. Major championships have become boring, painful marches all in the name of trying to keep par in check.

Manufacturers have responded in many ways to deflect blame for this problem being focused on them. They have claimed that it is better golf course agronomy, including seeding and grass choices, that has contributed most to the dramatic alteration in the way the professional game is played. Many golf manufacturers would even go so far to tell you that what is happening with golf technology and its impact on many golf courses is just a part of the natural evolution of the game.

There is a counterattack to that perspective, though, and it seems to be growing in strength. Passionate conventionalists are lobbying in the media and in private for increased regulation of the same golf technology that equipment manufacturers tells golfers will improve their games. Rolling back the potential of technology, they argue, would bridge the gap between professional and amateur golf, align golf strategy to its more classical roots, and increase general interest in the sport by golfers and casual fans. That debate is still being waged and there appears to be no resolution in sight. Any answer, though, will have to address the burning desire of golfers to improve and their perception that technology will help, the problems facing courses and players at the professional level, and the bottom lines of industry players.

Creating a Global Professional Game?

While the professional tours and golf's governing bodies cannot seem to answer how it will respond to technology yet, the PGA Tour has been attending to other business. The PGA Tour is slowly closing the door on the global experiment that was supposed to be the World Golf Championships — even in the face of data that suggests the game is dramatically growing in China and India. Initially, the WGC was billed as golf's only global series of tournaments. Even if that tag line was a cover-up for the tournaments being guaranteed paydays for the best on Tour, at least the WGC held several of its events overseas. As recently as last season, the WGC American Express Championship was held just outside of London, England at an up-and-coming venue called the Grove.

Then the PGA Tour — supposedly with the support of the International Federation of PGA Tours — decided to restructure the series. American Express ended its sponsorship of the lone medal play event held out of the United States with any kind of regularity. To take its place, the PGA Tour selected Doral as the host site for the next WGC event, called the CA Championship, and ended the Ford Championship at Doral in order to do it. Then, by abolishing the World Cup from the series in January, it became official that all of the WGC events will be held in the United States. Throw in that golf's largest payday is now tied to the PGA Tour and year-long participation in the FedEx Cup and it has become apparent that the PGA Tour is making a power play when it comes to sustaining its position as the number one tour in the world. That is certainly the antithesis of global.

At the same time, the European Tour arguably has never been stronger and is demonstrating real signs of a global tour. There has been a surge in the number of well-known American players that are leaving the ranks of the PGA Tour to participate in a host of events on the European Tour.

Certainly, economics has something to do with it. After all, European Tour events are likely to pay huge appearance fees to American players that they cannot receive from PGA Tour events and their sponsors. This probably inspired Tiger Woods to agree to appear at the Dubai Desert Classic for the next five years. (His design venture in Dubai with a high price tag probably also worked to secure that deal.) But even other Americans are basking in the glow of the European Tour. Tom Lehman has agreed to play in the Italian Open, just one week prior to the PLAYERS Championship. Apparently, there is at least some genuine interest in escaping the high purses available on the PGA Tour in order to experience some more exotic venues.

Also, the Europeans themselves are renewing their commitment to the European Tour after straying to the PGA Tour in recent years. Last year's Euro Tour Order of Merit champion Padraig Harrington has publicly made a commitment to defend his title in earnest this season in Europe. After playing so well in the United States for the past few seasons, Harrington has made a vow to not abandon the defense of a career highlight in the face of millions more available in the United States.

Taking a look at some PGA Tour mainstays, their schedules seem to indicate that there may be growing backlash against Americanizing the professional game. Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have increased the delays in their PGA Tour season debuts over the past few years. Traditionally, Ernie had participated in at least half of the Hawaii swing to open the season. Without the benefit of a win last season to get into the Mercedes Championships, Els decided to skip the Sony Open in Hawaii and participate on the European Tour instead (in support of his home country, South Africa). In 2004, Retief Goosen began his non-Hawaii PGA Tour schedule with the Hope. In each of the seasons that have followed, the Goose has started at the Accenture Match Play — one month later. Neither has a PGA Tour start in 2007 and, as a result, any FedEx Cup points either.

Changing of the Professional Guard

For their part, the LPGA Tour has experienced a surge in top players that hail from foreign countries. Their best players, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, are not Americans. American legends Juli Inkster, Beth Daniel, and others are entering the twilight of their professional careers. Young Americans like Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis are improving, but are still not quite at the top of the sport. The next generation of young American female pros is competing with an influx of golfers from Europe, Japan, and South Korea.

In response, the LPGA has made a commitment to hold official money events outside of the United States. Events in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea highlight an Asian swing of the Tour that was not even conceived, much less plausible, even a decade ago. Lorena Ochoa's home nation of Mexico hosts two LPGA stops now. It is because of the dwindling dominance of American female golfers that the LPGA Tour has made this response. While it has largely been successful for the Tour and its business model, the move is an indication of the current lack of dominance by the American female golfer. Only three Americans are in the top 10 of the Rolex Women's World Rankings and only six yanks are in the top 20.

This is not a phenomenon limited to women's golf, though. The Official World Golf Ranking has never had more international players in its top ranks than it does at present. Though the world's top two golfers are Americans (Woods and Furyk), there are only three Americans in the top 10 of that ranking — Phil Mickelson being the other. Like the women, six American men are ranked in the top 20 in the world. One in five golfers in the top 50 are American. Golf is not dominated by Americans like it used to be. Whether that speaks to growth and development of the game worldwide or stagnation of the American game remains to be seen.

Fewer U.S. Professional Fans

Fewer people are watching PGA Tour golf on television — even if Tiger Woods is in the field. It is extremely difficult to pinpoint a reason for the problem. It could be any of the issues facing the game that have already been discussed. It may be something else entirely contributing to the downward spiral. Or, most likely, it is some combination of reasons known and unknown.

Tigermania is alive, but certainly not at its peak. Conventional wisdom says that when Tiger Woods is in contention, or even entered in a field, that the ratings for the event will go up significantly. While that still holds true, Tiger does not even appear to be enough anymore to attract viewers. In 2006, Woods' victory at Torrey Pines attracted an 81% over the prior year's rating for that tournament on Sunday. His victory at Doral, though, produced a 16% dip in ratings from the year prior's telecast. In 2004, the L.A. Times reported that ratings declined year over year for 17 of Woods' 30 televised rounds. Granted, that statistic covers his winless streak of 10 majors, but the appeal of Woods has noticeably faded.

As a result of ratings declines during the 2003 to 2006 television contract, the PGA Tour had to engage in a drastic overhaul of the season and its television partners in an attempt to reposition the game for the future. ABC, ESPN, and USA Network removed themselves as PGA Tour broadcasters. The Tour engaged the Golf Channel in an unprecedented 15-year contract to broadcast 72 (or 90) holes of some events at the beginning and end of the year, as well as Thursday-Friday rounds for every event. The spin on this move was that despite the Golf Channel's limited reach compared to ESPN and USA, there would no longer be confusion about where PGA Tour golf would be on Thursday and Friday.

While that may have been true, ratings for the Mercedes-Benz Championship were down 44% as compared to ESPN's 72-hole broadcast in 2006. Ratings continued to lag behind last year for the Sony Open in Hawaii and the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic (which was broadcast on network TV last year). Casual channel-changers that tuned into the networks and ESPN and stuck with golf probably just did not do so with broadcasts on TGC. All told, the PGA Tour's influence in the American sportscape in economic terms and in numbers of committed fans is declining.

Add in the recent well-publicized sponsor turmoil facing PGA and LPGA Tour stops, and it becomes apparent that the popularity of American professional golf among corporations and fans is stagnating. Perhaps, it is even returning to just a tick above its pre-1998 levels.

What to Do About It

The most frustrating thing about this identity crisis is that there appears to be few answers in sight. There is a litany of reasons why people have stopped playing the game. Some of them are economic, others center on time constraints, and a number of them are caused by the game and its culture. There is some data to suggest that the industry may be beginning to effectively address the problem, but it will be a few years before those efforts can be evaluated against other determinants that the industry could never control.

New and better facilities are available and those that remain core golfers are spending more than ever in the golf economy. Despite innovation and development, the game is becoming more difficult and divisions between pros and amateurs have become greater. The governing bodies of golf must find regulatory solutions that do not cause irreparable harm to the industry and address technology concerns that impact whether or not purists watch golf in person and on television. That solution is likely to take years and probably will still not stop the trend in golf course tightening at the professional level.

Even if people do not have time to play golf and are not impacted by regulation, they still are not spending their time watching as much golf. According to the Pew Institute, only 2% of respondents in a social survey said that golf was their favorite sport to watch. That means that people are finding entertainment elsewhere when it comes to outdoor and indoor activities. How the golf industry can find a way to attract attention in a crowded world of leisure is yet to be seen.

With so few answers, maybe there really is little to be done about the game's health and identity. Perhaps the game is actually very healthy in its niche status and true golf fans must resign themselves to that fact. What Tigermania's development may have done to raise expectations about the potential popularity of the game, its resurgence (or lack thereof) may have brought those expectations back in line with reality. Regardless of what golf is to society or where it is in its evolution, it is still a game to love and enjoy. To end on a positive note, if there are fewer people involved in the sport, that just means there is more room out there for you and I — and that's something I can certainly appreciate.

Comments and Conversation

February 22, 2007

Peter Steward:

Here in the Uk ,despite the fact that wereceeive The Golf Channel as part of our satellite tv provider, Sky TV, we get a the Golf Channel UK which does not show live PGA Tour golf. This has for many years been shown on Sky Sports package but now we get only European tour, 2 majors and the world golf championships(we do get the Masters, The Open and some tournaments on “free to air” BBC)
The only way we can receive PGA Tour events is by subscribing to an Irish firm, Setanta Sports, who get there coverage via TGC.
We can not pay for Setanta Golf as a stand alone channel but have to pay a further £180 ($350) per year to subscribe to an Irish sports package on top of our existing Sky sports package and general subscription charges plus our UK TV licence fee, none of which have been reduced as a result of us now not receiving PGA Tour coverage.
I do not want to pay for a miriad of events in which I have no interest.
One big advantage the PGA Tour coverage had in the UK was that due to the time zone difference we could see live golf in the evening when golf fans were not at work or on the golf course..
The change in host broadcasters by Mr Fincham and his colleagues has narrowed the range of the viewing public in Europe as well as in the USA.
This week we have seen The International pulled from the 2007 tournament schedule due to loss os sponsorship and I would expect this to be the start of a trend.
Many people worldwide feel that they have been short-changed by the PGA Tour this year.

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