Thick rough

As I’ve regularly discussed in this column, golf is currently experiencing difficult times. But how exactly did we get here?

In examining our present, we must quickly look at our past.

Prior to the 1990s, golf was generally considered a boring, elitist game for retirees. But with the entrance of Tiger Woods into the professional ranks in 1996, everything changed. Tiger made the game exciting for the masses. People of all ages hopped onto the golf bandwagon. Soon, landowners rushed to get courses built, manufacturers went into overdrive, the media took a new interest in golf, advertisers came on board…it was a “golden age” for the industry.

Around this time, golf technology (and improved player fitness, etc) had advanced to a point that players like Tiger, John Daly and others were hitting the ball into the stratosphere, making courses seem shorter and easier. The immediate response by the industry was to simply make the courses longer and more difficult. Instead of designing courses that placed a premium on accuracy, the overwhelming mentality was to add “Tiger tees”, ultra-penal fairway bunkers and super-thick rough.

The USGA then took the “difficulty’ factor to the next level. They soon demanded longer, tougher courses, maniacally presenting layouts with knee-high rough, ultra-slick greens and ridiculous yardages. They put golf’s gladiators into the arena and set the lions loose.

As players made quick work of these obstacles, the media began to glamorise these “David and Goliath” triumphs. Ultra-difficult, long courses soon became the Holy Grail.

Course owners and designers then followed suit.  They wanted to host a US Open. They wanted the prestige of having the longest, toughest courses in the world. But in the process, they largely ignored the social or club golfer’s abilities altogether.

The average player was not able to keep up. In their attempt to “be like Tiger”, they wanted (and needed) to hit the ball further. Equipment manufacturers responded with a focus primarily on “Distance distance distance!”  From drivers to balls to shafts and everything in-between, weekend golfers soon bought into the “grip it and rip it” mentality

The problem, however, was that the average golfer didn’t have the accuracy required to benefit from this extra distance. They just hit it further out of bounds (making the game harder, and slower). The pros, however, were now getting even more distance, thus furthering the cycle for even longer courses, etc.

Now, while many in the industry are quick to state that golf’s woes are due to the “ball going too far”, keep in mind that, from the dawn of the game, there has always been a race to improve golf equipment. Otherwise, we’d still be playing with featheries and hickory shafts.  And manufacturers are simply responding to what the public wants, and, far more importantly, what they will pay big money for.

And that’s, I believe, the key to golf’s current woes. Money.

At the height of the Tiger boom, golf became less of a pastime, and more of a commercial juggernaut.

Chasing the almighty dollar can often lead to problems for any business or company. When an organisation’s main goal shifts from making great products (i.e. keeping customers happy) to instead making great profits (i.e. making shareholders happy) then trouble can often follow.

Cars, toasters, TVs…they used to last a lifetime. Now, you’re lucky if they last a couple of years, as manufacturers pursue profits from repeat sales or engineered obsolescence.  Banks, airlines, hotels (the list is extensive) all tack on “service fees” at every turn to maximise profit.  This angers customers, and can force them to look elsewhere.

Golf is no different.

Some manufacturers are introducing new products every six months (good for shareholders, bad for the average cash-strapped golfer). The governing bodies like the R&A, USGA and even country-based bodies currently seem to focus more on their profitable national championships, and seemingly less on grassroots golf.  A push for profits from TV, for example, has seen golf sold to the highest bidder, thus moving the Majors from Free-to-Air TV (i.e. the masses—golf’s preferred target market) to Pay-TV (cashed-up sports tragics who are likely already fans of the game.)

This is in stark contrast to almost every other mainstream sport in the world.  Tennis, Cycling, Cricket, Footy, Baseball, Basketball (i.e. sports which are taking participants away from golf) ALL have their major championships/events available to the masses on FTA. Their governing bodies realise that TV is still the omnipotent medium to draw people into the game.

Yet golf (at least in Australia) stays hidden away on Foxtel (out of the limelight), seemingly for the sake of short-term profits.

Even more worrying: when the masses DO see golf on TV, we regularly bear witness to reports of “carnage on the course”.  It’s hardly the image we want to portray of our fine sport.

This year’s US Open at Chambers Bay is a perfect example. The USGA’s continued push for difficult courses resulted in a complete disaster.   In hindsight, letting the USGA give input into the design of the course was, in my opinion, like asking a fox for his opinion on designing a henhouse.

When we go to a sporting event, we don’t want to see struggles and strife. We want to see excitement and excellence. We want to see players draining long putts for birdie, not three-putting on an ice-skating rink.  We want to see long-iron approaches stiffed to tap-in distance, not hacking out of knee-high rough or ridiculously deep bunkers (like Chambers ‘Basement’).

So who is to blame? It’s easy to point fingers, but I believe that we are all equally at fault. From the governing bodies, to manufacturers, to the media to the golfers themselves, we must all accept some of the blame. The key, however, is to all work together to get out of the rough.

As always, I welcome your comments.


About Richard Fellner

A four-time winner of the Australian Golf Media Awards, including Best Photojournalism, Best Opinion, Best Column and Best Photographic Presentation, Inside Golf Group Editor Richard Fellner is the quintessential Golf Tragic, having played the game for over 50 years (but has never gotten any better!) He has played and reviewed courses all over the world, and has interviewed many of the great players of the game (including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman). Richard is a member of both the Australian Golf Media Association and the Golf Society of Australia, and has been a featured guest on many Australian "sports talk" radio shows and networks, including ABC Grandstand, SEN 1116, Melbourne Talk Radio 1377, 2GB and others. Follow Richard Fellner on Quora


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3 Responses to "How golf got into the rough"

  1. Rod Christopher  August 18, 2015

    I disagree with your comment about how golf was “a boring, elitist game for retirees” until Tiger Woods came on the scene.

    I would suggest that the opposite is true. Golf in Australia – particularly from the Peter Thomson/Kel Nagle era onwards – has been played by people from all walks of life with great passion.

    The great golfers of that era played a style of golf that handicap golfers could relate to. There was an enormous interest in golf.

    In the ‘50s and ‘60s, at public golf courses, you had to be at the course long before dawn on a weekend morning to join the queue to get a game. Nothing elitist there! I played during the ‘70s-‘90s at Federal Golf Club and members who were retired would have been the smallest group. The same could be said of clubs around the country.

    There were waiting lists for membership at clubs around Australia – unlike in recent years when prestigious clubs are advertising for members at greatly discounted prices.

    There was as almost as much interest among golfers in the pre-Tiger days in the exploits of Nicklaus, Palmer, Ballesteros and others as there is in Tiger Woods.
    Perhaps it is the advent of Tiger and the style of game he and his fellow professionals play that has made the public lose interest in the game? The primary emphasis in golf today seems to be distance – how far players can hit the ball. It would be fair to say that few club golfers can relate any part of their game to anything that Tiger, Bubba or Rory does on the golf course – even though we have access to the same technological advances in ball and club manufacture.

    If the game is to blossom again perhaps the answer lies in a new type of golf course design where everything BUT distance matters.

    I recently visited Gympie and played at Gunabel Homestead. It is 18 holes of par-3s ranging in length from 90-160m. There were bunkers, water hazards and tricky greens. It took just over two hours to play a round and the variations in the hole designs made it very satisfying.

    Struggling clubs might consider changing their layout by subdividing some of their course into housing/unit lots, selling them off and converting the remaining land into 18 par-3s. It would give the members time to mow the lawns on Saturday morning, play 18 holes of golf and spend most of the afternoon with the family!

    Rod Christopher

  2. Barry Cooper  August 18, 2015

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Today I played in the midweek championship. The tees and pins were in positions that would suit the British Open. On one hole, the carry over two ponds was 180m. The average age of our members is 50/60. We have gone from fields of 200 to 100 and we’ve had members of many years who have just agreed to play nine holes amongst themselves socially. I have no problem with young people hitting the ball 300m but it is the core of the club that we need to concentrate on.
    Barry Cooper

  3. Chris Graham  August 18, 2015

    That is the best article I have read for a long time. As the Head Professional at the Ocean Shores Country Club I can’t agree enough with the issues you have raised with our game. In an attempt to be more profitable each year, many clubs are taking over the pro shop and hiring a PGA member like myself to run the shop, provide lessons and fulfil all the roles of a contracted pro.
    I struggle to convince the board that we needed to have hardware in the shop to accommodate the needs of the members, let alone trying to make a profit out of the stock we have on hand. There are a number of brands that I refuse to stock because of their on-going marketing war to win over the golfing public by bringing out new products every six months. We don’t need them to bastardise the industry by chasing the dollar. At my club, the average age is about 65. If the golf companies haven’t realised it yet, these golfers really don’t like change, particularly when they can’t see value in it.

    There are so many reasons why the golf industry is struggling, and I agree we are all to blame.
    This year’s US Open is a great example of golf gone mad. Do the USGA really think that they inspired people to play our wonderful game with that course at Chambers Bay?
    As a coach of the game I spend a considerable amount of time with the next generation of golfers, mums and dads learning to play the game as well as grandparents still trying to improve what they do. We’ve got it so wrong when it comes to new course designs. Yes, the ball may go further but it is more relevant to the athlete than technology. Greg Norman was hitting it over 300 yards 30 years ago with wooden drivers and balata balls.
    I can’t think of another sport where we are making the game harder, particularly for the average player. I play tennis and the new racquets are great; you can hit ball off the frame and it still goes in. So have they made courts smaller? NO. Have they made nets higher? NO. Is there anything really different about Wimbledon to what it was 100 years ago? NO. What about Usain Bolt; are we going to make him run 110 metres next year? NO, he will just run faster over the 100.
    We’ve lost the plot with modern course design. I know we all like a challenge but let’s keep the game fun and achievable for all golfers, particularly the average club golfer and social player who loves the game for what it is.

    Chris Graham

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