Golf’s decline


Colleague Jon Gordon pointed out an interesting thing to me the other day. On the day that the John McCain story appeared on the New York Times’ Web site, the most popular/most e-mailed story on the site was this one. Three days later, the declining popularity of golf is still a more popular story on the New York Times site than the story which, if you listen to some people, threatens to upend the election for the leader of the free world.

The “most blogged about” Times story, however, is the McCain story.

From this we can draw only one conclusion: the reason golf is declining in popularity is that bloggers aren’t interested in golf and that golfers — in great numbers — are giving up golfing and starting blogs.

The irony of the situation is inescapable. If golf is declining in popularity (and it is), how can a story about it be more popular than the biggest political/journalistic story of the year (so far)?

Golf courses in Minnesota have found the Times article to be true; fewer rounds of golf are being played. In the suburbs, this is particularly distressing because of a tactic developers used to gain favor for the construction of McMansion neighborhoods. The developers would, in exchange for a city’s permission to build the neighborhoods, build a golf course for the city in the middle of it, and turn it over to the city to run. A McMansion on a golf course was an easier sell. Now, the cities have golf courses to maintain and less revenue coming in.

The Times documents the problem when the communities try to diversify the benefits of having a golf course by, for example, using the property for weddings:

One neighbor, Dominique Mendez, whose home is about 600 feet from the 18th hole, said, “We bought our house here because we wanted to live in a quiet place, and we thought a golf course would be nice to see from the window. Instead, people have to turn up their air conditioners or wear earplugs at night because of the music thumping.”

During weddings, she said: “you can hear the D.J., ‘We’re gonna do the garter!’ It’s a little much.”

Unfortunately, for golf courses, the article never really explains why golf is becoming less popular. As a person who loves golf — and who has never broken 100 — let me take a couple of whacks at this:

1. People don’t like meeting people as much as they used to. Go ahead, walk in any skyway in the Twin Cities and note how when a stranger approaches, the carpet becomes a much more interesting thing to study. In golf, unless you’re already a foursome, you’ll get paired up with people you don’t know, which brings us to…

2. People don’t like embarrassing themselves in public. Golf requires embarrassment and we are genetically predisposed to believing that we aren’t as good as the people we are likely to be paired with. Thus, we elect not to play or we seek times when we can get on the course when nobody’s watching.

There is but one obvious solution: Play when they “do the garter.”

  • What about expense, Bob? I can pursue all of my chosen sports: frisbee (Ultimate and disc golf), basketball and running for a fraction of the cost of membership at a golf club, plus the cost of clubs. Even public courses are quite expensive in comparison to the sports I enjoy. For the price of 18 holes at many public courses, for example, I can buy a decent pair of running shoes, and I’m good for another 4-6 months of hitting the streets.

    I’m not saying my sports are “better”, only much more fiscally sensible. I like most sports, and I like golf. I’ve played a few dozen rounds in my life, but expense is definitely an issue for many people.

    There are also some significant “cultural” issues with golf. Fairly or not, it is still viewed as a bastion of upper-class, white and male privilege, trailing maybe only polo.

    I’m guessing that it’s also been hit hard by environmental concerns – excessive use of water, fertilizers, “monoculture” grasses, extensive upkeep – and ecological consciousness in this country has risen greatly over the past 15 years or so. I don’t think golf, as an organized sport, has really risen to that challenge – though I’m sure some courses have made adjustments in light of increased fuel costs or out of their own sense of environmental stewardship.

    Certainly, the other issues the Times article highlights – less physical activity in our culture, more indoor alternatives – are factors, but I thought it odd that they ignored these issues.

  • Dianne

    Golf courses require too much water & fertilizer….& are hard on the average person’s pocketbook. Contrastingly, bike paths take no water or fertilizer & can offer an alternative fossil free-free form of transportatiion. Unlike golf courses, bike paths are free, thus available to rich & poor, old & young, able-bodied & disabled, etc. Gold courses have become culprits in the golbal warming challenge. Let’s use the water from golf courses to water trees in cities & plant gardens. Our post-modern era really needs to assess this !

  • Bob Collins

    Brandon. You do what I do re: clubs. You use the Fischer-Price-like set the spouse gave you 15 years ago when he/she was sure you’d drop the sport after one year. Oh, sure, maybe you’re down to only a 3 wood and maybe a 9, 7 and 3 iron and a putter, but what the heck.

    If you’re lucky, you can find an old beat up Ping bag somewhere and put the Fischer Price clubs in there and maybe fool a lot of people.

    The big expensive stuff? Hey, who wants to swing a golf club with a head the size of a Volkwagon Beetle anyway.

    I’m not TOO far away from getting the senior discount so the cost is less than 4 hours at the mall. (g).

    One thing — in all seriousness — I will point out…. the golf courses that are actually out in the woods are a bit away from it all are few and far between. In my neck of the woods, you’re basically playing between McMansions.

    I can have as much fun just driving up and down the street stealing their recycling.

    Re: Bikes. Hey, I just bought my wife a bike and protective gear last fall. Don’t talk to me about bikes. (g)

  • Strangely enough, playing Wii Sports has made me want to play real-life golf and tennis.

  • Bob Collins

    One serious reason I can dabble in for a second, for why more younger people don’t play golf. Course rangers really treat kids like trash. Heck, as a society we treat kids badly; we always think they’re just vandals waiting to strike.

    I recall one of the last times I played with both my sons, when they were teens. We went out to Battle Creek Golf Course (a course I like; it’s maintained by the workhouse), and the ranger sat on a hole and watched one of my boys hit… it wasn’t that good a shot. And when he hit it the second time…. the ranger — and old retired guy who obviously didn’t like kids much — told him to hurry up.

    My son didn’t say anything but then I heard the ranger said, “don’t give me THAT look.” That’s when I got into it with the ranger.

    Of course the problem was a group of 5 — 5!! — OLDTIMERS was in front of us. But the “golf Nazi” (as he became to be known at my house) wasn’t interested in belittling them, I guess.

    I certainly complained to the club management — and it is a well managed course — and he made the guy apologize, but when I said “you shouldn’t talk to kids like that,” he went right back into it, so it was one of those phony apologies.

    I never saw him again… but I know at least one young man who didn’t grow up to be a golfer because of him.

    I will say, though, that for a father and sons to have some time together, golf is a good vehicle. Especially when you have teenagers. you hve something to talk about, you’re walking together…. and when you hve teens…. THAT’s a big deal a REALLY big deal.

  • Jon Gordon


    First of all, let give me you about 10 hours of instruction, and I can get you to break 100. But you have to give yourself to me completely.

    One further explanation for the decline of golf is the bursting of the Tiger bubble. Mr. Woods brought a ton of new people to the game, but slowly they’ve all realized how difficult the sport is, and are giving it up in frustration.

    Some solutions:

    1. Golf is too difficult, so make the hole about three times the size it is now for recreational players. Relax rules for amateurs to allow more technical innovation in clubs and balls.

    2. Golf takes too long, so break it up into 6-hole chunks. If you still want to play 18 holes, fine. But let me play, and pay for, 6 or 12 holes if that’s what I want to do.

    On the environmental concerns, many courses are quite environment-friendly now. They use recycled water, minimal herbicides, and provide habitat for native plant and animal species. My home course was built on top of an old landfill — by providing a space to rehab the land, it is more of a plus than a minus for the environment.

  • Bob Collins

    Seems to me the last time we played, Jon, my level of “stink” had rubbed off on you. The law of physics being what it is, if you and I spend 10 hours together, you’ll never see double digits again.

  • Jon’s #2 is why I quit, although #1 had been nagging at me for years.

    Before I quit, I was paying for 18 (required) and leaving after 9, and even then it was taking anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the crowd. Waiting 5 minutes while a guy lying 6 plumb-bobbed his 35′ putt (and the next three putts as well to seal his 10) finally wore me out. A full 18 was an all day ordeal, followed with the inevitable “where the h3ll have you been??” when I got home. When I got an airplane and it start taking a lot of my time, golf was easy to simply give up on.

    Of course, then I got the “it’s a good thing we bought those $400 golf clubs, [/dripping sarcasm]” so you really can’t win in that arena.

    While I was still playing, I long considered winter to be the best kept secret of municipal course golf. Anything in the 30’s is tolerably warm if there’s some sun, and even the frigid cold days brought the benefit of taking water out of play. When you have the course to yourself, you can play at a much better rhythm, and play the entire 18 in 3 hours.

  • bsimon

    “The “most blogged about” Times story, however, is the McCain story.”

    8 posts on golf on a weekend at News Cut says a lot about participants here as well.

    Is there a MN connection?

  • tom scheck

    Here are my thoughts.

    1)Golf takes too long and is taking longer. When I grew up as a caddie I learned two things right away “keep up and shut up.” You would complain if your loop took longer than four hours — the quality of the play never really came up. If you stink – don’t take two practice swings – heck don’t even take one. My brother is a 2 handicap and I have never seen him take a practice swing on any shot farther than 80 yards. People spend too much time fiddling with their clubs, their skycaddies, their gps system on their carts. Go up to the ball and hit it. When people start doing those types of things, the round gets to be four and a half hours.

    2) Jack Nicklaus said to cut the rounds to 12 holes in a recent Golf Digest article. It made me sick to my stomach when I first read it but now I’m warmign up to it (mainly because I can finally say I broke 80).

    3) Public and private courses are too expensive. Some courses are really really expensive and who wants to pay all of that money and wait for the doofus in front of you to hit their shot? It also discourages younger people (the very people who you should be attracting) from playing.

    Country clubs are too expensive as well. My dad used to belong to a semi-private course when I was really young but quit after they started calling for monthly food and drink minimums that border on the absurd (we’re talking monthly car payments here). He always said that it wasn’t the membership fees the forced him to quit the club it was the other payments. I like to think that that’s why my brother is a 2 and I’m a 14. He benefited from the course lessons.

    4) The game is hard and it isn’t too easy when a ranger is watching over your shoulder. A regular player in my group typically melts down whenever a course ranger comes driving by. Here’s the reason — the ranger is under tremendous pressure to keep the groups moving and will do any and everything to remind you of that. So my playing partner gets a little bit nervous whenever the old codger comes driving up. It’s a difficult game and only gets harder when there’s greater pressure on you to play.

    Solutions –

    If you’re not very good — play on Friday and Sunday nights until you get better. My pop used to take me to the course with a driver, a seven iron, a wedge and a putter every Sunday night. Not many people would be playing so it was a good time for me to learn, whack some old balls into the lake and play in the sandtraps. Those experiences made me a better player and are also some of the warmest memories of my life.

    Play nine holes instead of eighteen. That cuts the time in half. This is difficult to do on Saturday and Sunday mornings b/c the golf industry wants to get as much money as possible. It works better during the twighlight hours.

    Walk. This sounds counterintuitive but it speeds up play since you don’t have to use one cart to chase two balls. It also can serve as a gentle reminder to pick up the pace. No one likes to be screwing around on the fairway while the rest of the group is on the green.

    Cut the costs — make it more affordable and people will show up.

    One other thing – I’m not so sure the market won’t correct this. Golf course managers in Minnesota keep saying that play is down but I think it has more to do with the oversaturation of courses. There was an explosion in course construction over the past twenty years. I think, like the housing market, people just thought that people would keep coming.


    I don’t think 20 hours of instruction can help Mr. Collins (that’s a joke).

  • Billie

    One or two things guys… I work for a country club. It is the low club on the totem pole in our south east Florida area, built in 1975 but still in absolutly pristine condition. Condos and single family, modestly priced homes all around and we are in that boat of watching our members quite literally die off. Because we aren’t as exciting maybe as the more opulent (expensive) courses, it is hard to get new members to join. Golf membership is only $3500 per year and the food and beverage minimum is $350 per year per individual or $700 for a family. That is not expensive for golf in this area where the average round is $120. We are very environmentally friendly and offer preserve areas and reclaim our water…blah, blah, blah. We have great food at good prices but no spa. We are a very socially active club with parties and dances etc all the time. So what is it??????? Is it the old “variety is the spice” stuff? Guys just want to play every course in the area and not stay at one home course?? Most of these members have been playing this course with the same people for 20 years. Is the Leave it to Beaver era really over??? Maybe we should open a “Gentleman’s Club” and forget the bridge and dinner dances. It beats me.

  • cam

    I used to own a country club. I was able to get out of the business last year…thankfully!

    The golf business is in serious decline…it has nothing to do with bridge or dances. As a matter of fact, without the bridge or dances, your business would be worse.

    Before I sold my club, I (very briefly) thought of opening a brothel. It was actually the joke around the club. That business never goes out of style. I bet the customers would still want the 2 for 1 special, though.

  • bubble gum david

    i LOVE golf!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!