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It can be no shock to see that participation in golf is dipping at the same time that our economy has suffered through historic drops. But can the blame extend beyond the economy, and does golf possess a future that could make it go the way of horse racing? I never thought it would happen.
But now I think it could be. Society wants entertainment that’s easy on the brain and body; it has to be WalMart-easy on the pocketbook; and it must be something that, if it’s not quick to finish, it’s at least something that can be put down and resumed almost with the touch of a button.
Horse racing doesn’t measure up. And neither does golf.
How can I say this? In my days as a reporter for daily newspapers, I covered horse racing on a national level for 10 years. I’ve also covered plenty of golf, but more importantly I’ve played the game as passionately as I could since I was 17. My game stinks, but I love to play and I love to follow it.
And now I’m reading the Golf 2.0 initiative being pushed most heartily by the PGA of America. I applaud them for taking a hard look at the sobering statistics that have been out there now for the past decade and finally realizing that it’s not just the economy that’s pulling down golf participation. Probably what has awakened them is that despite all the technology that’s pushed by golf equipment companies that supposedly make the game easier, the lack of substance of those claims has caught up. The nature of golf, the truth that golf is a difficult game, is a big reason people are giving up on it in my view.
We know the statistics: The story I’ve read in the January 27, 2012 issue of Golfweek cites a decrease of annual rounds played to 475 million from 518 million in the past decade (8 percent). Last year was the fifth consecutive year of declines. There has been a 13-percent decrease in the amount of people who play golf over the five-year period that ended in 2010. Throw in the first 11 months of 2011, the National Golf Foundation claims, and that period shows a 3.5-percent drop from the same months of 2010.
As an interesting aside, the FBI during this same 11-month period reported a record number of background checks that gun buyers must submit, which indicates guns sales increased 70 percent over the previous record from eight years earlier.
I started reporting on horse racing in 1995, and the following year the sport showed an 11.5-percent increase in money wagered on its races (horse racing’s equivalent figure to golf’s number of rounds played). But with every year of the past decade it’s been looking more and more like horse racing is the sports world’s dodo bird. Wagering on horse races has dropped from $14.5 billion in 2000 to $11.4 billion in 2010 (21 percent) according to The Jockey Club Information Services. The decade ended with three consecutive losing years and wagering levels are now just a scant less than what they were in 1996, back around the time when I started covering the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup.
Remember the three things I wrote about earlier in this essay?:
People want entertainment that’s easy on the brain and body. Horse racing is hard. Ever looked at a Daily Racing Form? Ever been to the track and wondered why the favorite, the horse everyone thinks is going to win, loses most races? Golf ain’t easy either. I’m reminded of this every time I’m asked by friends to give a few pointers to someone who is new to the game. Maybe the stroke comes around on the range. What happens when they head out to the course and stare down a hole with even the fewest yards of forced carry? I don’t care if you “play it forward,” the distance is hard to cover when you shank the ball. Playing once a month doesn’t cure it.
It has to be easy on the pocketbook. The people who make golf equipment that is tagged “game improvement” charge $400 for a driver. That is crazy, to me at least (there are enough people out there who are willing to pay, I know, or else the companies wouldn’t charge that in the first place). It‘s a horrid mindset. Think about it: It’s one of 14 clubs we can carry. I’ve not thrown in a bag, shoes, what else? Oh, paying a fee to get on the course when I’m ready. I used to badger horse tracks that charged to park, made you fork it over for a program of some sort, wanted you to pay for admission -- and then asked you to give it up for an “upgraded” seat -- and then expected you to pull out the wallet again and go make a bet. This is an area where the golf lords, the PGA of America and USGA since they appear to be interested, can steer the fiefdom in the right direction. Any effort to generate interest in golf should include a “how-to” on acquiring equipment cheaply. I know how to do it. I call it “Golf Like You’re Poor.”
And, it must be something whose finish is quick to find, or at least stopped and restarted at a button‘s push. At some racetracks across the country this weekend I could view a full card and be done in less that four hours. Others might go longer, but not five hours. And I used to think that sort of afternoon was a drag on my time. Think you‘ll play your round in less than five hours this weekend? If golf wants to change its slow play, it’s like anything else: Change starts at the top. Get serious with these slow pokes who crawl around every weekend on TV on the PGA Tour. Weekend players want to play the same sticks and balls the pros do, so I’d bet if they hear that the big boys are getting penalized for slow play, perhaps they’ll be willing to adhere to an enforceable pace-of-play policy on the municipal courses.
Horse racing is not dead, even if it has been wheeled over to assisted living. In its purest form (and it’s fallen from that with the increased permissiveness of medications, and worse, for horses) it’s an excellent game -- passed as it’s been by the fast-forward change in our society. In some places, where empowering state legislatures have been willing, horse racing has been able to realize life-altering changes. Some racetracks have been allowed to install slot machines and change the face of gambling at its facility.
Two years ago I wrote a story for D Magazine on the slim chances the Texas legislature would allow racetracks to install slot machines. The Texas tracks were getting drilled by racetracks in itty-bitty places like Vinton, La., and Hobbs, N.M., that had the slots and -- in the case of the track just across the border in Louisiana -- had seen business pick up by 500 percent in less than a decade. The people who race horses there are crying all the way to the bank. They have a better chance at making money from their horses, but it’s all been funded by a track where people go to slip coins into a one-armed bandit and hardly care about anything with four legs.
From what I’ve read of Golf 2.0, there are a lot of well-meaning ideas. But they’re so basic and mundane on the face of them, and even with the best implementation I don’t know if those initiatives will hold back the water brought on by a fast-moving society flowing right past a game plenty of people view as dawdling.
If there is to be growth in golf (growth; don’t worry, I’m not forecasting the death of golf by any stretch), the game will need to alter itself -- bring in the slots when you want to also race horses.
Is this done by hooking in to more video games, attaching them to golf shops and somehow forming a parallel business that channels participation in “cyber golf” to the outdoor variety? Does this mean marginal courses are redesigned to be much simpler where water hazards, multi-level greens and out of bounds are ameliorated? Does the “wee course,” the executive course, proliferate? That par-3 thing on an April Wednesday in Augusta, Ga., sure looks fun.
If you think that first suggestion about video golf is whimsical, remember the data showing gun sales may be increasing. There could be loads of reasons for that, if the sales figures touted by the guns lobby are accurate. But think about one possible reason for increased gun sales: when you go to a video-game establishment, or the bank of video games at the mall or wherever, what are most of those games based upon? Guns.
How far does golf need to, want to, go? I’m not clanging away at the death bell, but I’m telling you I’ve seen this before. Golf has been great, right at the top of the list for many, many people looking for something to do. But horse racing once could say the same thing.
And, by the way, we haven’t even mentioned the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Water, or lack of it. Horse racing never had that problem.
Golf 2.0? Perhaps the programmers need to update the language already to 2.5.
Tim Price's "Golf Like You're Poor" blogs also can be read at the Tim Price Sports Books website. You can follow Tim on Twitter @golflikeurpoor. Enjoy your golf, no matter is you're rich or poor.