Time for golf to change course and embrace family values
Most indicators of game’s overall global health appear to be in decline
The real priority isn’t the state of Rory McIlroy’s swimmers but how to keep the golf industry’s revenue juices flowing. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Even Thursday’s start to the 2016 British Open probably won’t be enough to curb this obsession with the reproductive ambitions of a tiny group of its elite players. Eventually, though, this silliness will fade to curio status, leaving golf with a more existential reproductive problem than the Zika virus.
I’ll spare you a statistical blizzard but suffice to say, apart from the TV deal which sees Sky take over coverage from the BBC this year most other indicators of golf’s overall global health right now appear to be in rapid decline, including playing rates, membership and, most crucially of all, spend.
So the real priority isn’t the state of Rory McIlroy’s swimmers but how to keep the golf industry’s revenue juices flowing. And the twist for a sport which doesn’t do irony is that golf’s economic future is tied up in cultivating the very thing it was originally designed to allow the vast majority of its customers escape from – family.
OK, maybe it wasn’t the original design; but like the Incredible Hulk being green only because Marvel’s printers were crap, golf’s accidental consequence has been a lucrative behemoth designed as much to keep undesirables out as keeping its mostly white, male, middle-aged membership in. And a sizeable chunk of them have long viewed the clubhouse as a wall from their shrieking, cash-burning, attention-seeking responsibilities, those nearest and dearest who can make sharing five hours in the wind and rain with other white, middle-aged males seem like snatches of sanctuary.
Admitting to having five hours spare for anything bar extra unpaid overtime is downright decadent these days, never mind spending it mooching around a fancy field with Brendan from ‘morkoting’ while being babysat by various ‘rangers’ possessed of the ‘tut-tut’ clout to tell you what to wear before telling you where to go. Practically only those luxuriating in intact pension plans are able to afford such indulgence these days: everyone else is so ‘teched’ they’re afraid to steal out for a five-minute coffee in case of giving away their location to whatever GPS gizmo is monitoring their productivity.
So golf is a tough sell to those ‘millennials’ creaking under the stresses and strains of massive debt and jobs that either barely meet minimum wage or demand 80-hour weeks spooning hard-drives which will ultimately make the scrapheap a lot later than those frantically servicing them.
Apart from the dodgy politics, the bad taste and even worse clothes, not to mention that needy, regressive desire to fit in and all that insufferable snobbery, there simply isn’t time anymore.
Not that golf is going to disappear. There will always be enough rich men – and it is still, mostly, men – prepared to plough billions into the development of resorts where Donald Trump gets to be an aspiration rather than a punchline. And there will always be an industry devoted to servicing those flush enough to be able to afford to worry about the unpredictability of their backswing and purchase the vast amount of snake-oil crap which will supposedly remedy it. But golf is surely cutting the ground from underneath its longer term relevance if it doesn’t take more radical steps to be a lot more relevant to a lot more people. The argument that millennials too will convert once they start spawning their own little heirs to the overdraft is too flip. Instead, people worldwide appear to be increasingly ignoring a sport which can seem hopelessly dated, time-consuming and often just plain weird. It’s vital plus point remains that a lot of the weirdness has nothing to do with the actual game. And there are those who recognise that change is required, including its most recognisable face.
“Everything’s so instant now and everyone doesn’t have as much time as they used to, so you maybe try some way of speeding the game up,” McIlroy said last year. “People enjoy watching the game but gone are the days that you could spend five or six hours on a golf course.”
So it is surely in the interests of all golf hierarchies, from the local course to the R&A, to factor in how their future is inextricably bound up in making their sport more accessible to families and young people, in particular. Not because some golfing Messi is going to emerge from the barrio – although you never know. But the increasing working reality is that if there’s escape going on it is towards family rather than from it.
Shouldn’t it all lighten up more? Because it’s a tough life that doesn’t allow skiving off for a walk sometimes and that could be golf’s big sell, if it wants.