Golf's In A Hole – Can It Ever Recover?

With memberships down, equipment sales in a hole and sports like cycling taking over, Tim Lewis asks whether the “good walk spoiled” can be resuscitated as a participatory sport, or is it the end of the fairway for golf?

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At the 2005 Open at St Andrews, before 300 rowdy athletes, models and drunkards, Paul Casey cut the ribbon on the Golf Punk Clubhouse, while Ian Poulter — he of the bottle-blond hair and Union Jack slacks — clowned around behind him.

The Golf Punk Clubhouse was not really a clubhouse; it was a pub called The Gin House that the delinquent magazine — staffed by ex-Loaded journalists and backed by Premier League footballers — had repurposed with the addition of a jukebox and two-dozen Bunker Babes. Golf Punk had been denied accreditation to the tournament by the Royal & Ancient, the governing body of the sport in Britain, but for that week it didn’t matter.

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Everyone important, interesting or eccentric came to them. Sophie, the in-house “Golf Nurse”, offered advice on sports psychology to Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood. Adam Scott, a future world number one, hung out on their tour bus. Yes, they had a tour bus, too.

The Golf Punk Clubhouse brought to life the scenes in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack where Bushwood Country Club is taken over for Caddy Day. “I don’t like the term, but it felt completely rock’n’roll,” recalls Tim Southwell, editor of Golf Punk, then and now. “There was a mezzanine level and we looked down on this fucking mental scene below us: the Golf Punk Clubhouse at St Andrews! Seeing the celebrities and the amount of energy, enthusiasm and passion made us think we could change golf in a really significant way.”

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Southwell’s optimism in 2005 was understandable: Golf Punk was winning awards, its circulation was growing and the sport itself was on a streak. Tiger Woods, on his way to an emphatic victory at St Andrews, was at the unstoppable peak of his powers.

He was the most famous athlete on the planet. The way Woods played it, golf was a vigorous physical endeavour, not the outdoorsy cousin of darts and snooker. It could even be a stylish pastime now, thanks to the drainpipe pants and vibrant tanks of Swedish designer J Lindeberg. A celebrity-golfer list in days gone would have featured Tarby, Terry and Brucey; now the ambassadors were Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Jack Nicholson and Jessica Alba.

Ten years ago, it felt like our futures spooled in front of us. From here on, we would take business meetings on the golf course and spend the weekends with our Lindeberged wife and kids drinking Arnold Palmers with our friends at a private club up a snaking, crunchy-gravel driveway. During the week, we could brush up our skills or go for work outings at Urban Golf, state-of-the-art simulators that had recently been installed in London by a dashing 24-year-old professional called James Day.

In a disused print works in Soho, all exposed brickwork and Danish leather sofas — and soon in Kensington and Smithfield — we could play St Andrews or Pebble Beach with no handicap card while wearing jeans, flip-flops or in our boxer shorts, if we so chose.

What? It didn’t turn out like that for you? Me neither. Maybe you have a wife and children these days, but I’m guessing they would not be whelmed if you announced you were nipping down the golf club, and that you might be gone for some time. Whether you’d call it modern life or the emasculation of the British male, the laid-back indulgence of golf has begun to seem quaintly anachronistic. Fathers have, on average, about two-and-a-half hours a week to take part in sport — mothers typically half that — which is scarcely enough for nine holes.

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So, you’ve changed, but also golf’s fortunes nosedived. Tiger Woods admitted to sex addiction and on the course he now projects a rheumy-eyed fallibility, even mortality; TV audiences have sunk with him, down in the US by up to 45 per cent. Neither Casey nor Poulter backed up their promise, or in the latter’s case, his gob. Golf Punk ran out of money in 2006 and was resuscitated by Southwell as an online magazine in 2012. Urban Golf survived the economic crisis, but “it wasn’t fun” admits Day with a pained smile. Corporate memberships of golf clubs have all but disappeared.

But these are superficial markers of the problems the sport faces. Golf really is in a hole. Young people — “millennials” aged 13 to 30 — are not taking up a game they regard as costly, elitist and time-consuming. Equipment manufacturers report devastating returns as golfers lose faith in the promises made for super-size, longer-than-ever drivers. Prestigious golf courses, especially in America, are being redeveloped or lie derelict. In the early 2000s, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had 120 courses, one for every 200 residents; now many are overgrown jungles where police have found crystal-meth labs.

Golf has to change but no one believes that the cronies who run it — the men who wouldn’t recognise Golf Punk a decade ago — are capable of the overhaul it needs. After all, it took 260 years for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews to admit women; can they really take the dramatic measures to arrest the sport’s decline before it’s too late?

On a recent Monday morning, at an hour that feels ungodly but is technically 7:30am, four men arrive at North London’s Highgate Golf Club. Three — James Day, David Ford and James Chappell — work for Urban Golf; the other is investment banker David Meacher, a Highgate member for 30 years, more than half his life. On the way in, Radio 4 notes it is “the coldest 27 April on record” and the chill and the early hour means they have the course to themselves, as they hoped.

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Day has devised an experiment in “speed golf”, something he believes has never been tried before. The four will split into two pairs and see how many holes they can play in 90 minutes; they carry 10 clubs instead of the 14 allowed, no trolleys. The winner will be the team that scores the most “stableford” points — a system that awards points (from zero to six) for the number of strokes taken on a hole — in that time. It is an intriguing premise: the more holes you play, the more points you can potentially accumulate; but, if you rush too much, the quality of your play will likely deteriorate and your score will suffer. On the first tee, the two teams synchronise iPhones then Day blasts off with a tinny clunk.

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The most common explanation for the recent decline of golf is the financial crisis. The sport is expensive, so in the squeeze the first luxury to be sacrificed was the club membership (think from £5,000 to upwards of £200,000 per year at some name courses). Day shakes his head. “People link golf’s problems to the recession, but that’s way out,” he says, as we scuttle down the first fairway. “The major thing is the game takes too long. If you’re an average working man, you work pretty hard, you’ve got a wife and kids, the bloke doesn’t go out at the weekend for an entire day anymore. On Saturday, leave the wife; it just doesn’t happen. The issue is golf doesn’t fit into modern life.”

We reach his ball, Day pulls out a pitching wedge, no practice swing, lazily loops the ball onto the green. “The number of rounds being played is going to go down — that’s done,” he continues. “That’s a modern life thing. You’re not going to change the world. The challenge is how do you stop that from being a slide into absolute nothingness.”

Day has good reason to talk in such absolutes. Between 2004 and 2013, one-in-five golfers in England gave up their club membership; in the same period, membership dropped in Scotland by 14 per cent.

The number of people playing golf at least once a month has declined by more than a quarter in the UK since 2007. The story is similar in Australia and Japan — which has lost 40 per cent of golfers from a peak in the mid-Nineties — and is especially pronounced in the US, which has almost half the world’s players and courses. Each year for the last 10 years, more 18-hole facilities have closed down in America than have been built; that trend is expected to continue for at least another decade. (And, because of the brute power of the pros these days, the rare courses that do open are often long and nightmarishly hard.)

The languid pace of golf is clearly a problem. The final pair in this year’s Masters took more than five hours to complete their round — and that’s two experts, rather than the four hackers who play together on most courses, spending what feels like days looking for a speck of white in the long grass. For Day, professionals set the worst possible example: “People play their weekend game now as if they are playing for a million dollars and they’ve got television cameras on them.”

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Again true, but it’s not the whole picture. As golf’s popularity has declined, cycling has become the “new golf”. While almost 200,000 English golfers deserted the game in the last decade, cycling has seen its ranks boosted by 270,000 in just the previous 12 months. Research from 2013 found that 20 per cent of British golfers who gave up the sport did so explicitly to ride a bike. One of those is Peter Chipchase, the 37-year-old group communications director of the Soho House members’ clubs. Chipchase — his name even sounds like a pitching technique — played golf every other weekend throughout his twenties, whittling his handicap down to 16, but four years ago he started cycling seriously and he is about to ride his third L’Etape du Tour in France.

“Golf is a very male-dominated, old-world pastime,” Chipchase says. “I’m quite competitive, but I found with golf you’d turn up and it would be all about the competition. That undermines and overwhelms for me any social aspect to it. Whereas, there’s more of a shared culture around cycling between the people who do it. It’s just a bit more relaxed and conducive for conversation.”

The golf course was meant to be the office of the future, but Chipchase never found that. “I’ve built up a network of people much quicker through cycling: film-makers, writers, designers… and tailors,” he says. “The guy who made the suit for my wedding I met cycling. Golf tournaments always seemed to be organised by financial institutions and things like that.”

Confusingly, in some key ways golf and cycling are not so different. Neither sport is cheap: a road bike can easily cost the same as membership of a prestigious golf club. Both can take a long time: riders think nothing of disappearing for six hours at a stretch. And both sports are currently awash with exceptional home-grown role models for amateurs to emulate: for Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in cycling, golf has Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the world number one, and Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion and runner-up at this year’s Masters.

Golf’s problem really is one of image: while cycling evokes freedom and wind-in-your-helmet vitality, golf is uptight and governed by rules that haven’t changed for centuries. “Most clubs are still entrenched in a tradition and a committee behaviour,” says Tim Southwell. “So when some kid comes in, 20 years old, who wants to have fun, he’s confronted immediately with about 55,000 things he can’t do. And he’s supposed to be paying for the privilege. Compared to any other service industry — which is what golf is at the end of the day — you don’t really get that anywhere else. Someone telling me to tuck my shirt in when I’m 40 years old or whatever? I just don’t need it, do I?”

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***

In April last year, the day after the Masters, two of the world’s best players, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, went head-to-head in a less traditional event. On Reynolds Plantation, Georgia, the cups — usually 4 1/4in — had been widened to 15in. Tests projected that most players would shoot 10 shots lower over a full round, sinking putts from all over the green; in the event, Garcia scored 30 for nine holes and beat Rose by three strokes.

The initiative was set up by Hack Golf (strapline: “How do we make golf more fun?”), an online forum for offbeat ideas, run by Adidas’s TaylorMade golf brand and the PGA of America. TaylorMade, the dominant maker of golf clubs and clothing, has a vested interest in reinvigorating the sport. Last year, its sales plummeted by more than a quarter. Gloomily, the company projected more “significant negative headwinds” for the sport.

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Tough times call for extreme innovations and 15-inch cups might just be the beginning. The issue they address is that golf is a difficult sport, maddeningly finicky and complicated. It’s said 10,000 hours of practice allows you to become an expert in most endeavours; in golf, you’ll be lucky to break 90 on a par-70 course after that period.

Robert O’Neill, the Navy Seal who put three bullets in Osama bin Laden, was advised to take up golf to treat his post-traumatic stress, but he decided it was “more stressful than combat”. Comedian Larry David found obsessively playing the game forced him to endure the four stages terminal patients go through before death.

One was bargaining: “Please, God,” he wrote in the New Yorker. “All I want to do is hit the ball. What is it You want? Good deeds? Give me a swing and I’ll give You good deeds up the wazoo. I’ll help sick kids, the homeless… well, sick kids. I’ll stop all the mocking. I’ll give up cookies, coffee, coffee cake, cashmere… Just let me hit the ball!”

So, what if there was a golf ball that always flew straight and true? Or a driver that guaranteed an extra 30 yards? Those would be good things, right? Well, those products already exist. Sort of. “Non-conforming” golf equipment — explicitly pieces of kit not approved by the Royal & Ancient, which sets the rules for most of the world, and the United States Golf Association (USGA), which governs America and Mexico — used only to be found in the classifieds of golf magazines or from specialist Japanese suppliers. But now, it seems inevitable they will become more popular with occasional players who don’t want golf to be such a self-flagellatory experience.

One such product is the Polara golf ball; four million have been sold, most in the US but some in the UK. Polara uses smart aerodynamics — shallow dimples along the ball’s equator and deeper dimples on its two poles — to correct slices and hooks by up to 75 per cent.

“It’s a straightforward engineering principle, nothing magical,” says Graham Ballingall, CEO of Polara UK. “But the ball builds confidence and makes for a more relaxing game. It’s faster as well, because you are not spending time looking for your ball. At the end of that round you’re going to want to play another one instead of thinking, ‘Gosh, I’ve had enough of this.’”

James Day sees a definite appeal in non-conforming equipment, even if he wouldn’t resort to it himself. “In the next 10 years we’ll see the emergence of the experiential golfer,” he predicts. “The golfer who has a family and it’s a real treat he or she organises with mates, a real savoured experience. They don’t care about the equipment, they just want it to be fun. They want the ball to go miles, they want it to be easier. Because these guys are experiential — they don’t care!”

At Highgate Golf Club, the speed golf experiment is nearing a tense finish. James Day and David Meacher are playing fractionally more slowly but consistently; behind them, David Ford and James Chappell look like they are falling back on the scorecard until Chappell holes a blind 95-yard pitch on the 12th hole for an eagle two.

Time runs out for Day and Meacher on the 18th fairway, having racked up 36 stableford points; Ford and Chappell complete their round, but Chappell’s putt on the final hole slides agonisingly past the cup and they finish with 35.

It’s not even 9:30am as they catch their breath in the clubhouse; it may have been the coldest 27 April ever, but all the men are in shirtsleeves. Meacher devours a Coke and a Mars bar, a rare occasion where those calories are justified after a round of golf. All of them are surprised their games were not more affected by the time constraint.

“You just think, ‘How can I get the ball in the hole as quick as I can?’” Meacher says. “It takes out a lot of the crap, you don’t have time to think of it.” Ford chips in: “And if you tee’d off at 7am, you’d be in the office by half-nine. Though you’d probably need a shower.”

Best of all for the four lifelong players, the game was still recognisably golf. “Golf needs radical change,” accepts Day, “but when commercial organisations creep in with 15-inch cups, that starts to take away the integrity of the game. That’s the really scary thing.”

Speed golf might be a solution for time-poor golfers, but why would anyone take up golf in 2015? When this subject is raised at Highgate Golf Club, there is a surprising consensus: pitch and putt. From Jack Nicklaus down, everyone agrees knocking a ball round a short course with an iron and a putter is a perfect way to start. It’s cheap, you can wear what you like and there are almost no rules. Day wants to see struggling clubs become 16-hole courses, with the two spare holes converted to pitch and putt for juniors.

On 16 July, the Open returns to St Andrews. Tiger Woods, battle-scarred, is likely to return; even the Golf Punk Clubhouse will be back, taking residency in a pub called The Rule, as The Gin House is now known. Despite the problems it faces, Southwell is adamant there’s still room for a bit of anarchy in golf.

“It’s easy to slag off what’s wrong with golf, but it’s the most democratic sport anyone can play,” he says. “I could play Tiger Woods and, on my handicap, I could actually beat him. And anyone can cheat playing golf, it’s the easiest thing in the world, but hardly anyone ever does. There’s not many sports like that.”

Southwell pauses, tries to sum up his feelings towards this arcane, ornery sport. “Golf makes bad people better people if they play it,” he says finally. “I truly believe that.”