Challenges for the game of golf

My views on challenges of golf.. posted on to the Golf Monthly forum on 25th Feb 

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Interesting issue.  As someone who recently took up golf at the wrong side of 35, I can tick off all the boxes that Martin King, Mike Harris and Beu are referring to. I always wanted to play it, but did not know where to start or what to do – needless to say, the cost associated (both perceived and real) with golf is a real downer. So here is my journey. As they say it is a bit long as I did not have the time to write a short one.

When I started playing, I did not know anyone else who played. It took me some time to find a friend who wanted to try it out. We bought an entry level Dunlop clubs from Sports Direct and headed off to my local par 3. Soon got the courage to ask the pro for some lessons and a lot of YouTube-ing later, started to understand what the pro was asking me to do. To an ex-cricketer, golf is different, but I was happy to make a fool of myself to learn the game – believe me I got laughed at for my cover drives (still do).  For over a year, it was just two of us hacking around a Par 3 and getting frustrated.  Finally, I chanced upon a 9 hole improver competition with relaxed rules that my Pro runs that invites ‘golfers of all ability’ to participate and get a handicap. It took me a while to convince my friends to participate, as everyone was afraid of looking stupid.  The competitive element helped bring a lot of starters into the game without the risk of looking silly.  The Pro also handed out (unofficial) competition handicaps that would help people improve. Soon a few more friends joined in and we were ‘into golf’.  It also helped the Pro, because all those who participate, end up taking lessons from him. Moral of the story.. the game is difficult to get into – psychologically and financially.

Over the last couple of years as I climb the golfing ladder, I have seen people of every shade. While most of the people I play with or interacted have been very good company and we have shared stories and pints together, I have come across some characters that sometimes make you wonder about the game’s future. I once played with a matchplay with a very low handicapper who walked off the 12th hole after he beat me and went and sat in the bar!! At such times, you wonder if you chose the right sport. There is a lot of resistance to change within the game and often we blame ‘old guard in positions of power’.  While there is an element of truth, but if I look around, I don’t see the young blood volunteering their time to be on committees. The committee members are doing a thankless task and get beaten up for it.  When I signed up to my club, I struggled to get a game as I did not have a handicap. So I sent a note to the Captain with some suggestions on how new members can gain handicaps (happy to dig it out if needed).  Kudos to the Captain, they discussed it at the committee meeting and implemented a couple.  Don’t forget, Golf can be a very lonely sport too, so it needs to be sociable.  This is where the GM Forum has been very helpful for me.  It has kept me connected to the game and I have learnt more about it on the forum than anywhere else.  Moral of the story.. Play your part – contribute your ideas or time and make people welcome.

Cost is a big barrier to the game.  This is both perceived and real.  My first set of Dunlops cost me about £150 for the set & bag. These days I won’t get a ‘proper’ driver for that money. We all slag off TaylorMade, but if it was not for TM, I would be still be with Dunlop.  Then there is green fees and membership.  After I started playing 18 holes, I had to reduce my cost by playing twilight golf or some other off peak variant. I would ring around to see if the pro shop would make a deal and we would get there. I am surprised the number of course that would rather stay unused than give a 50% off to someone to use it.  Luckily there are a few good courses that would happily let you in during off peak hours. What an awesome way to experience a new course and for the course to make some money. Courses should think EasyJet rather than BA when it comes to tee bookings.  Finally on membership fees – my course charges about £1100 i.e. considering the national avg salary of 24K, it would cost an average Joe 5% of his salary to indulge in a past time!!  There are a bizarre number of offers, but none that target people like me i.e. the weekend hack. I don’t need a 7 day membership and I cant use a 5 day membership.  There is an equal amount of ‘perceived cost’ of golf.  When I signed up, a non playing friend who loves the elitist feel of golf, asked me if it costs 6k to join a club!!

Time: After the cost element, I guess the time commitment is perhaps the biggest stumbling block in the game. In a family where both parents work, it is very difficult for Dad to be out most of Sunday playing golf.  I am a ‘car park golfer’, but even then I don’t expect to be home before lunch on Sunday.  As a public course, we have to budget upto five hours on a bad day to get thru.  Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about slow play other than follow good etiquette and keep pace. This is where ideas like not looking for lost balls come handy.  While playing in the US last year, I was shocked when people hook their drive, simply call a mulligan and then reload. It was a culture shock, but it kept the game moving. While I don’t advocate doing that in a competition, I can’t see a reason why you can’t do it in a social round? Similarly, in India, they recently experimented with a 14 hole competition with Darren Clarke taking part.

What are we doing: At my club, I think we are making a lot of inroads into entry level golf. We are lucky to have a 18 hole P3 pitch and putt, a 9 hole intermediate and a 18 hole championship course. In Dec we opened a Pirate island crazy golf. The car park is usually full with Chelsea tractors and in the club house you can see kids playing Scrable while on a break. It seems to host birthday parties ever weekend and it is not uncommon to see three generations of a family trying to hit a ball down the snake’s throat.  Not everyone is happy with the noise and we have seen our club membership coming down over the years (cant be correlate).  However, most of them have either left the game or have moved to more private members clubs. On our driving range, we now have a bin with old clubs, so people can rock up and hit a few balls.  Last week, while I took the young one to a kids event, I went down to the range and hit a few balls while waiting for him.  Clubs need to do more and not everything costs money. However, both the club and the members need to understand and buy in to the market they are trying to tap into. I would never dream of taking kids into a private-suit-and-tie-clubhouse.

HackGolf.. As a management consultant, I see a few of these hackatons. While the name might put people off, I think it is a great idea to open source this. There will some nuggets that will come out of it that will be useful. I will surely login and put some thoughts too.  This year, I have three friends who want to join the game but are sitting on the fence for different reasons. I have offered to take them out on the pitch and putt and give it a try out.  I will also scan hackgolf to look for some ideas.

Now that I am hooked onto the game, I would like to go to the next level and get closer to 80, get custom fitted, play tougher courses and at some point join a private member course.  While that journey has similar challenges and it will take time to get there, I think I am converted and wont leave in a hurry.  With my consultant hat on, to summarise – Given the financial, time and family commitments required to get into golf, the game needs to understand that the competition is not between different golf courses, but with different lifestyle choices e.g. football, new TV/Car, holiday, time with kids etc. The ‘upper end’ of the game i.e. those with the single figure handicap is a relatively safe and stable market. The middle ones will come and go and come back.  As Mark & Martin mention, the challenge is the bottom (entry) level.  As someone going thru the process, I think I can say, it is one hell’uve of a challenge.

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