The State of the Game

By: Jeff Shelley

The Cybergolf team ventured out of the Great Northwest to participate in the recent Golf Industry Show in Orlando. This expo isn't the same as the PGA Show, where golf professionals get wined and dined by manufacturers in the hopes that their pro shops will stock up on the newest soft goods and equipment. Staged by the Golf Course Superintendents Association (GCSAA) and the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA), the Golf Industry Show intends to attract vendors and services involved in the turf industry and the operations of golf facilities. It also brought together the heads of every major golf organization (except for the LPGA Tour's outgoing commissioner, Ty Votaw, a late scratch) for a State of the Industry Q&A session.

You would think that when Tim Finchem (the head of the PGA Tour), Jim Awtrey (PGA of America), Steve Mona (GCSAA), Mike Hughes (NGCOA), and Fred Ridley (United States Golf Association) got together to reveal their thoughts on the status of golf there'd be a huge turnout. Indeed, the ballroom at the Rosen Plaza hotel was spacious enough to hold 2,000 or so. But, only a couple hundred showed up to listen to the game's czars, who sat on throne-like chairs upon a stage. Golfweek's Dave Seanor served as moderator.

Before the questions were posed and the elliptical responses given, Seanor asked each of the guest speakers to rate the state of golf based on a scoring system for an Olympic event like gymnastics, on a scale of 1 to 10. (Golf has an outside chance of returning to the Olympics.) The ratings were as follows: Mona - 7.5; Finchem - 8; Hughes - 7; Awtrey - 8; Ridley - 8.5. The generally high scores for a sport that has seen dwindling participation and dozens of golf courses being paved over for housing and shopping malls elicited a hushed "Huh?" from the crowd.

The Q&A attendees were mostly hard-working golf course owners who came to the show to learn ways to spare their businesses from going into the toilet. Yet, in the face of these serious concerns, this quintet of Neros seemed to be playing their fiddles while Rome is burning.

The scores were telling. Mona, a cherubic sort who seemed quite pleased to be on the same stage with the game's exalted rulers, said his score reflected the great interest among exhibitors at the show. Well over 21,000 superintendents attended the event, while 830 exhibitors showed their wares to a record 8,099 "qualified buyers" roaming the cavernous Orange County Convention Center.

Finchem, the commissioner of the second-most-watched sport on TV (after the NFL), said the PGA Tour was doing "very good," with the prospects of international expansion particularly rosy. However, he mentioned that expanding the fan base and increasing participation levels could be improved, and that "we're just scratching the surface for the industry working together." Finchem said the latter task would be a four- to five-year process.

With his score being the lowest, the NCGOA's Hughes, as might be expected, seemed to best grasp the realities hurting golf course owners, an industry segment that he said was "under more pressure." But instead of outlining some of the major issues facing the golf facilities and outlining some solutions, Hughes placed a great deal of hope in Play Golf America and Golf 20/20, two initiatives that most golfers know nothing or care about. (The first program was begun by the PGA of America, while the latter has industry-wide support. Since it started five years ago, Golf 20/20 has virtually failed to lure new players.)

Awtrey's high score can possibly be attributed to his organization's membership, now numbering over 28,000 around the U.S. Despite my personal opinion about how the PGA of America seems to treat its members as mere revenue sources, I found the native Oklahoman, and Finchem, the most engaging speakers on the podium. Awtrey, who grew up playing on a rural nine-holer, is quite aware of the game's current low state. He feels golf could be improved by increasing diversity and affinity groups, and that the current down-cycle could ultimately be good for the sport as new opportunities may develop.

Ridley's ridiculously high ranking of 8.5 reflects his position as the president of an organization often classified as being out of touch with golf's realities. The Tampa lawyer (who maybe was just out of his element) struck me as tight-ass - kind of a cross between a severer Kerry and a sober Kennedy, a silver spooner who views the high-handicappers plodding across local dog tracks as de classe bourgeoisie. That the number of rounds played by that important segment of the golfer population is dwindling didn't seem to concern Ridley. After all, he has a U.S. Open and 12 other national championships to run. Ridley's answer to bringing back golfers is for the USGA to continue working with the PGA of America, the aforementioned initiatives and the First Tee. If those efforts are pursued, golf will heal itself.

The folks who took the microphone to pose questions to the game's exalted rulers were, for the most part, from Michigan, a state that has seen more than its share of golf courses transformed into parking lots and tracts of four-bedroom split-levels. One Wolverine State operator asked how golf's leaders would deal with the increasing losses of mom-and-pop courses. (Of the 63 courses that closed in 2004, 91 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation, were public facilities and, often, par-3 or executive layouts.) Nearly all the leaders felt that the First Tee program, which recently launched its 200th facility, would bring higher demands for courses with lower green fees. Finchem reaffirmed that Golf 20/20 "might be the forum to generate affordable courses."

The lustiest cheer came when a Michigan woman, the owner of a 27-hole course, lamented how the new balls and space-age equipment were rendering her 1960s-built course obsolete. "You need more acreage, and maintenance costs are higher (when managing more turf) for both accurate golfers and high handicappers," she said. She added, "One guy with a hot club and a hot ball will slow play for everyone else." She mentioned liability problems; when her course was built, the homes lining its fairways were platted when 250 yards was the longest drive. She directed the question at Ridley, wondering how the USGA will marshal technology.

Ridley said the issue has been going on for 100 years, and that the USGA has done more in the past seven years than the previous century combined. "Many people feel we should go back to the '70s and '80s," he said condescendingly. "But it's the USGA's job to regulate the game based on good statistics and science. ShotLink (used on the PGA Tour to track the pros' club selections and distances) has helped. We have created many scientific tests to determine ball and club performances," Ridley said, adding that if "things get out of hand, the USGA will step in and take steps."

Besides high-tech equipment and meteoric golf balls, Awtrey and Finchem attributed the added distance off the tee to today's players being more athletic and in better shape. "Even the juniors and girls are hitting remarkably further today."

Yet another Michigan course owner complained about the perfect conditions and fast greens seen on the PGA Tour, remarking that average golfers expect the same playing fields upon payment of their $35 green fees. He noted that such high maintenance standards are expensive, and asked why the Tour doesn't use courses with less-pristine conditions so that skill levels become more important in determining the winner. To his credit, Finchem commented that during his next meeting with the Tour's superintendents he'll tell them that the "sites don't need to be green." He wants the superintendents to "push the envelope" for under-watering, while varying fairway widths and heights to alter the challenges. Finchem believes that Tour venues are "too consistent," and that the USGA sets a different standard for difficulty. But then Finchem remembered that he was the sport's commissioner and enthused about the winning 35-under-par scores at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic as "okay too."

Perhaps the most cogent comment came from a course owner from Montana, who wondered why the PGA Tour and PGA of America didn't get out of their ivory towers and become more active in growing the game at the local level. Finchem didn't even bother to tackle that issue, saying that "(the PGA Tour's) reality is about the competition - they're playing at the top of the game. We need to focus on that element, though it's fair to say we should give back to the game. What we're saying is that golf is the official sport of giving back (through the First Tee program, fund-raising for charities and public service announcements.)

"I've got to believe that when Phil Mickelson won in Phoenix (at the FBR Open) and his family came to greet him, that (gesture) reached the common man," continued the Commish. "Honestly, we've got to focus on the intensity, drama and competition seen on the PGA Tour." Finchem cited an example, "Going back 44 years to Arnold Palmer at Augusta, there's been a lot of excitement generated by the game's best players."

Ridley readily agreed: "As Tim said, the competition and excitement seen on TV is good for the game." Thank you Fred.

So there you have it - the summation of one man's notes taken during the 2005 State of the Industry session. To review:

The First Tee, Golf 20/20, Play Golf America and other initiatives spawned by the industry's captains will bring back the game's heydays.

The organization that dictates of the rules of golf in America - the USGA - will remain uncommitted to quelling the development of more high-tech drivers and balls until critical mass is reached (or houses are woven into the field of play).

And don't expect any magical wands to be waved over all those Michigan golf courses on the verge of closing. Apparently, its leaders believe that golf shares the Darwinian nature of business: only the strong will survive.

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