Actually, I feel guilty. I used to play a lot of golf, and loved the game, until I got sidetracked from the game by a book deadline a couple of years ago — and never went back. But little did I realize I was such a trendsetter.
The New York Times, citing the National Golf Foundation, reports that 5 million people walked away from the game of golf over the last decade. Another 5 million, out of 25 million estimated regular players, are expected to abandon the sport in the next few years. And far fewer new enthusiasts are teeing up.
Why? A whole host of reasons. Young people under 35, particularly, don’t have four or five hours to spend on a round of golf. Green fees are expensive. So is equipment. Many courses are snooty and non-inviting enclaves, with nothing but fat, old, white guys, who take the game much too seriously, driving around in silly little carts. You have to wear a collared shirt. And, let’s face it, the game’s not easy. Rules are strict, the ball seldom goes where you want it to go, and you can play for years without greatly improving your score.
Hence, the stampede away from the golf course. The problem is, in an attempt to stem the tide, golf officials are well on their way to making a bad situation even worse.
“We’ve got to stop scaring people away from golf by telling them that there’s only one way to play the game and it includes these specific guidelines,” Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, told the Times.
Under his direction, the PGA’s considering several proposals to make the game easier and more inviting. Some of which, however, would make the game a joke.
Soon, for example, about 30 golf courses nationwide will allow players to punch in and punch out, paying by the minute for how much time they spend on the course, rather than paying for a whole round.
Other changes under consideration include: allowing one do-over shot, or “mulligan,” per hole; allowing players to tee up every shot, not just the first swing off the tee box; and allowing duffers to pick up and throw a ball out of a sand bunker, once or twice a round.
Those adjustments might fly, since most weekend golfers, myself included, already practice them. Much more controversial is a plan, already underway on some courses, to replace today’s standard 4.5-inch hole with a giant, pizza-size, hard-to-miss 15-inch hole. Next step: foot golf, where players kick a soccer ball from tee to oversize hole, counting their kicks along the way. That may sound like fun, but, whatever it is, it’s not golf.
Now, I realize that, as a fallen-away golfer, I may lack standing to criticize these so-called “improvements.” But I still can’t resist. This whole idea is a huge mistake, which golfers everywhere, pro and amateur, should resist. After all, golf is what it is: a tough sport, a mental and physical challenge, with a great history and a long tradition of very strict rules.
If the PGA really wants to make golf more popular, there are better ways of doing so: lower the greens fees; open up some hours of the best, private courses to the public; relax the dress code; give away free beer; invite teenagers to learn the game by playing for free a couple of days a week. But they’ll never save the game of golf by dumbing it down. They’ll just turn it into something else.
And, please, more than anything, don’t let them drill a 15-inch manhole in the middle of every green. Yes, that would make it easier for me to get a golf ball in the hole, even a soccer ball. But so what? Lower the basket and make it bigger and I could play for the NBA. Don’t count strikes, and I could bat 1000. Get rid of the net, and my tennis game would improve overnight. But I wouldn’t be playing the same sport.
Besides, there’s no need to re-invent the game. If anybody’s looking for a Mickey Mouse form of golf, it already exists. It’s called “miniature golf.”
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.