Golf Under Repair

Quicker than one could yell ‘fore!’ another Australian golfing summer of diminishing returns has whistled past.  Whether inspired by Bears, Sharks or Tigers, or as a means to opening all manner of doors, it seems like yesterday golf was THE sport to be associated with.  Surprisingly, golf shanked it well before the economy struck yips worse than Bernard Langer.

According to Australia’s annual Sweeney Sports Report, the bible for companies looking to extract the biggest bang from their sponsorship buck, interest freefell 8% in just one year – down to a new low of 23%.  Twenty years ago golf was the fifth ranked sport.   Now at nineteenth, despite a bunch of world class pros, it’s just ahead of ten pin bowling.

Paradoxically tennis, where our talent stocks have hit rock bottom, is numero uno.  With just 19% carded for viewership, less than half that of the early 1990’s, no wonder Channel 7 has bailed.  A rain affected one-day game against the Kiwis garners more interest.

In the halcyon days there were no Daly sideshows contrived to promote Australian events, but sadly the years of Nicklaus, Watson and Norman-esque fields are gone with gutty balls and wooden drivers.   At worst, our best would always make the effort to haul themselves around for some beer money and prestige.  Next generation stars such as Adam Scott seem as indifferent as the media.  Coverage of Aaron Baddeley’s 2007 Australian Masters play-off victory was cut for the nightly news and this season cheap publicity over substance was par for the course (Robert Allenby rightly teed off at GolfAustralia’s complicity).  Barring routine novelties such as (mostly failed) attempts to cut it with the men or the calendar girl dynamic, women’s golf is nigh invisible.

Unlike basketball, holding firm amid a shambolic NBL, golf’s raw participation and club membership figures have mirrored a flagging pointy end.  When the Australian Sports Commission reported a participation rate of 8.2% in 2001, many of us would cop six hour long hackathons to get our fix.  Swankier clubs demanded a small fortune, an approved old school tie and five glowing references in triplicate espousing one’s upstanding character.  With the latest figure at 5.6%, clubs and public courses that once made hay are now pushing the bi-product uphill just to pay growing maintenance bills.   Drought and water restrictions render some courses virtually unplayable and golf’s core market has become increasingly time poor (and just plain poor).  Indications are that golf’s ill health is global.  More courses are closing than opening in the US and just 10% of English clubs have waiting lists.

Purists point to the scourge of technology and though NASA engineering has its price, it’s doubtful a less frustrating game for the unhappy hookers and the wow factor provided by the pros is to blame.  More so, spending a day trudging after a little white ball is no way to earn husband/partner points, nor a means to shed unwanted poundage.  As the new golf for over-40’s, cycling has picked up the slack; done in a fraction of the time and cost, with whomever, whenever and wherever.  It’s très chic apparently, though lumpy men in Lycra sipping lattes is a poor unsightly substitute for the 19th hole.

That OJ Simpson is the next most famous black golfer behind Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh suggests golf has scarcely become any more accessible to broader ethnicities and socio-economic groups.  Discrimination may not be as rife here as parts of America but many clubs are still exclusive by constitution and cost.   An opportunity so far lost, golf needs to find ways to overturn time honoured conservatism and economic barriers that deter youngsters, people from culturally diverse backgrounds and younger females.  Furthermore, golf’s intrinsic ideals – honesty, integrity, self-respect and sportsmanship, are rare commodities in sport (and general society) and worth preserving.  Mind you, a little more diplomacy from the sock length and etiquette police towards Happy Gilmore types wouldn’t go astray.

Clearly a more resourceful approach is necessary to survive the 21st Century and the darkest hour could demand a new dawn.  Through the modified at-school program Go-Go Golf, an indigenous program and a sizeable Australian Sports Commission grant for women, Golf Australia is at least being proactive at the grassroots, but state and national bodies can only lead clubs to water.

Golf is somewhat hamstrung by a concept affording little scope for reinvention.  Skins was hardly ground breaking but it entertained golfing heathens and filled pay TV schedules until overtly rewarding the rich became passé.  Plans for six hole Twenty/20 stylised matchplay are possibly a bandwagon worth jumping on, as shock therapy for a tired format.  A quick game is a good game and slothful play should be properly punished by forced repeated viewings of Caddyshack 2.  Additionally, a little more love and animation for spectators would engender greater warmth for the majority of pros whose demeanour is as robotic as their swings.   If Old Tom Morris rolls in his grave, so be it.

A resurrection may also entail going back to go forward.  Six PGA tours house 172 tournaments, the European Tour runs 52 weeks a year and the Seniors Tour must be the last of the profitable super funds.  Perhaps the current economic climate will hasten a leaner, more sustainable calendar with less humdrum events.  Even a unified World Tour, as proposed by Greg Norman in the mid-Nineties (swiftly quashed by the PGA), is worth revisiting.  Complacent sports are ripe for takeovers and the burgeoning Indian and Chinese golf industries loom as potential revolutionaries.

Externally, golf battles growing criticism as an extravagant misuse of precious land.  If cricket is seen by some local councils as profligate in accommodating twenty-two participants on an oval, how can golf justify such huge expanses for a dwindling clientele amid the unworkable urban sprawl?  Remaining relevant in a society that’s increasingly obsessed with matters green actually opens the way for golf to be on the front foot.  After all, courses serve as vital urban oasis for natural habitat, prevent erosion and preserve topsoil, rehabilitate degraded landscapes and grass is every bit as effective as trees at eating those troublesome black balloons.  Whilst copious water is required, many courses have implemented effective recycling measures and utilisation of sewerage and storm water.  Government support has kept the ailing PGA, Open and Masters alive but ensuring courses are green, physically and metaphorically, is just as important.  We don’t have resident Sheikhs to facilitate green fairways where the landscape resembles Dubai.  A three billion dollar industry in Australia, golf has every right to seek assistance in its hour of need for it employs over 80,000 Australians (directly and indirectly), generates substantial tourism and contributes to the community’s health and social capital.

Despite the alarming statistics, a million Aussies still partake in the good walk spoiled A measure of the level of delightful absurdity inherent in any activity is to envisage what visiting aliens would make of what they see.  Golf is truly out there but the core product is true and has stood the test of time.  That said, golf’s enormous history won’t secure its future, unless it can adjust to a changing world not so accommodating of the game’s idiosyncrasies.

Jeff Dowsing, February 2009

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