Clem Sunter

The uncertain future of golf

2014-12-19 08:37

Clem Sunter

One of the points I make in my presentations on how to decode the future is that a foxy person realises how different the game of business is to the game of sport. The rules of the former can change dramatically in a period of five to ten years, whereas the rules of the latter normally stay virtually unchanged. For example, rugby, tennis, soccer and golf are played according to much the same rules as they were one hundred years ago. Dress code can change, but the game remains fundamentally the same.

By contrast, a particular business game can overnight be turned on its head by the introduction of a new technology like the internet; by the arrival of new competitors with a fresh approach; by new laws governing the conduct of business in your sphere; or by changes in your customers’ taste.

To remain in business, you have to have the eyes of a fox to spot the flags changing your game and the agility of a fox to adapt your strategy ahead of the crowd in order to optimise your results in the new game. But what happens when a game of sport played in an unchanging way starts to decline in popularity among the public and begins to fade as a business?

Golf at the crossroads

In this regard, the flags are beginning to flutter in the breeze for golf. I watched a video while I was in London last week in which the statement was made that two golf courses a week are closing down in America and are slowly reverting to their natural state. You can see the odd one in South Africa doing the same. Jack Nicklaus was asked in the video how many new courses he was developing in America and he fashioned his thumb and forefinger into a big fat zero and flashed it at the camera.

Rory McIlroy followed in the same vein after he lost out to Lewis Hamilton last Sunday for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He had a spectacular year with a couple of Majors under his belt and is now the number one golfer in the world. Nevertheless, he was forced to admit that golf is no longer the force it was among young people who no longer have the desire to allocate the time required to play a full round of eighteen holes.

They would rather be on their mobile phones learning some new application which gives them instant gratification. Moreover, golf is a relatively expensive game in terms of equipment and membership/green fees and we live in a world of economic hard times for all but the super-rich.

Simply put, golf is proving to be too time-consuming an experience for many potential newcomers and at the same time is pricing itself out of the market. Cycling has grown massively in popularity as has jogging and walking. In these sports, you decide on how much time at the weekend you want to pursue the activity and how much time to reserve for your family and other pastimes. 

Cricket has changed its format, and rugby and soccer do not involve too many hours either as a spectator or as a player. I guess also that contact sports still provide a thrill that wrestling with the contours of Mother Earth cannot offer. As someone once said, golf is a game involving one large and one small ball and the object is to hit the smaller one!

The fall from grace of Tiger Woods may have contributed to golf’s decline in popularity as a spectator sport as well as to the smaller galleries at the big tournaments- much to the growing concern of the major sponsors. The stars are not like they were. Equally, there is a stilted sameness on TV when the camera tilts upwards to track the invisible trajectory of a ball before it lands on or off the fairway and green. The commentators seem to come up with the same old tired remarks; and anyway there is too much sport shown on TV to keep the interest of viewers locked on one channel for five or six hours.

Possible solutions

In the aforementioned video on the future of golf, various solutions were put forward. One was to make the cup on the green larger so that putting would become easier and quicker. Another possibility is to lower the number of holes per round from eighteen to twelve. One can imagine how these recommendations would be greeted by your average golf club member, namely with absolute horror.

A traditionalist will say that it is not the same game and that any fiddling with the format or the rules is out of the question. Yet, cricket did just that in order to survive and has become a huge business in India.

Ironically, shops in cities in America offering computerised golf where you hit the ball off a mat at a picture and a computer calculates where your ball went and sets you up for the next shot have become a flourishing business. As someone who played golf for most of my life with a handicap in single figures, I have to say that I would get no pleasure out of this kind of indoor experience at all.

Moreover, I loved the close relationships and humour of a regular four ball at the weekend together with the nineteenth hole afterwards in the pub. For every missed putt, there was always the thrill of landing the ball close to the hole from off the green or sinking the ball from a bunker alongside it.

However, one has to deal with changes in the real world over which one has little control except in terms of response. So where to from here for golf? I would give anything to facilitate a strategic planning session with the US PGA and help them explore their options to reinvent the game.

Gary Player said the more you practise, the luckier you get. I would change the quote to the more you think in a flexible way, the greater your chances of survival providing you follow through like a fox.

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