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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