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Golf's battle to stay relevant





Mondays aren’t exactly a beacon of joy at the best of times, so apologies in advance for the somewhat doom-laden comment to follow. But after a raging debate with friends over the weekend, the question – to which I lacked convincing answers – was begged: how long can golf survive?

After a thrilling finish at the Masters, and seeing the game at its very best, it would seem an inflammatory, unrealistic claim to suggest that golf could die a death – or at least fade into insignificance - within decades. The thousands of fans in delirium at Augusta. The relentless office chatter the next morning with people whom you never even thought gave a monkey’s about golf. And a centuries-old sport, which is more established than almost any other.

What could possibly be the problem?

Well, for starters, TV ratings (in the US) for the Masters were actually down on 2016, considerably so over the first two rounds, perhaps as a result of Dustin Johnson’s absence. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

A recent Nielsen study (again, US-based) found that 63 per cent of the PGA’s television audience was 55 or older. An overwhelming 87 per cent were white, while just 12 per cent were below the age of 35. The women's game fared little better. Two thirds of their enthusiasts are over the age of 30, while 84 per cent are white. Ironically, both audiences are around 63 per cent male too.

To make a crude comparison, around half of the NBA’s basketball audience is under 35, with just a quarter being 55 or older. In turn, 57 per cent of those who tune in identify as “non-white”.

In South Africa, the game of golf faces a particularly acute threat: cycling. The value of that industry has absolutely rocketed well beyond the R1 billion mark, with estimates of double-digit growth for most of the last decade. Golf, on the other hand, is haemorrhaging participants, with a drop in club membership around the country said to be around five per cent each year since the financial crisis. An estimated 15,000 golfers have hung up their spikes in that time (nearly 10 million worldwide). Rounds, too, are down across the country, having dropped off year on year, and to the tune of almost 100,000 in 2015 alone.

But it isn’t just numbers and figures that demonstrate how golf is being dwarfed by this insurgent. The push to make cities like Johannesburg more cycle friendly is being ramped up by the day, as an ever-swelling contingent wields more and more clout. More damningly, corporate days – once the golf club’s banker, and the hallowed turf upon which 99 per cent of corporate deals were struck – are now morphing into cycling tours and events.

So why is this happening? Why now?

There a number of arguments, some more debatable than others. Certainly golf can’t lay claim to being the most user-friendly sport in the world. For a corporate day specifically, a minority of employees and clients will likely be able to play golf, but pretty much anyone can ride a bike.

Time, too, is a massive factor in our increasingly fast-paced, instant gratification-seeking society. Five hours to play a round of golf, longer to watch it on TV? In societal terms, it’s a square peg in a round hole.

And then there is the money argument, especially in the post-recession era. “Golf’s become too expensive!” they cry.

That one doesn’t fly with me though. Not least in comparison with cycling. At entry level, the costs of half-decent equipment are perhaps a few thousand rand for both sports. But thereafter, an enthusiast can easily spend up to R250,000 on a bike, and the necessary amenities. Even the most brand-conscious golfer would struggle to spend a quarter of that amount. And the costs of entry to bike races and tours are eye watering these days, often eclipsing that of green fees or even club membership.

Yet still the waiting list for this two-wheeled code grows and grows, while the game of golf increasingly entrenches itself as the preserve of a colonial, dying elite.

And I believe it is precisely that which is golf’s biggest hindrance. This stigma as a white, elitist sport – a reputation affirmed by the aforementioned numbers – is surely a turn-off to potential newcomers who don’t fit the demographic. Yet such exclusion, to many within the circle, is a badge of honour. Honestly, even at individual level, how inclusive and encouraging are we really?

We may enjoy our safe little spaces, playing in our regular fourballs, and seeing the faces a committee allows us to see each week. But aren’t we signing the death warrant of the game we love with such closed mindedness? Leaving the (valid) issue of race aside, how many defenders were there of Muirfield’s woeful decision to continue a ban of female members last year (albeit subsequently reversed once they were stripped of the Open)? More than I care to remember, with the comments below online news reports at that time particularly damning.

It may be just one example (and not representative of everyone, by any means), but it is indicative of a closed-off echo chamber that a part of the game is descending towards. Let us avoid allowing it to come to that. Perhaps just one Saturday a month we can play a round with someone we don’t know. Or take the Mrs down to the range. Offer a bit of time or money to golf development. Volunteer your services in whatever capacity to youth golf. Donate some old equipment to charity. We can all do more.

Otherwise we’ll all end up shaking hands one day, lauding the fine tradition and history of the game we love, patting ourselves on the back, cackling away with familiar faces, while going down on a sinking ship. Let’s not let it come to that.


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