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Golf is in a mad scramble

The sport is losing appeal, partly because of tough economic times and tougher courses, and for the first time it is taking stock of itself.

May 30, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Matthew and Lauren Lee check their scorecard while playing a round at Griffith Park's Wilson Golf Course, one of Los Angeles' oldest venues.
Matthew and Lauren Lee check their scorecard while playing a round at Griffith… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Golf is a disease that invades your blood cells and usually becomes incurable.

The people who benefit from its trappings — golf course owners, equipment manufacturers, cart girls — count on that. Their assumption has been that you may shank and you may chunk and you may throw your driver farther than you can hit it, but you will come back.

Well, maybe not. It appears that there is trouble in River City, and it has nothing to do with billiards.

Tiger Woods is declining, and so is the game he plays. There is probably a connection, but the decision makers in golf are choosing to see it as more complicated than the simple fading of one superstar.

The National Golf Foundation recently released survey numbers that said 3.6 million people took up the game in 2010 and 4.6 million quit it. A study by the PGA of America said that there are 90 million former golfers in the United States, and 60 million of them still have an interest in taking up the game again.

That 60 million seems to be a nice target, just as the 90 million seems to be an embarrassment.

What to do?

For the first time in recent memory, it appears that golf is taking stock of itself.

For years, it shrugged and looked the other way when four guys, all who swung like Charles Barkley, would pay their greens fees and march directly to the back tees. That meant a six-hour round for everybody else on the course, and it meant that a handful of people, while waiting for Chuck and his friends to search in high grass for errant shots, would deem it their last round. Ever.

That handful grew to 90 million.

—For years, green fees have been out of proportion to the quality of the course and quality of the experience. Hey, $75 for an afternoon at Whispering Sewers? Come on down.

—For years, the accepted thing was to have your course designed to compete with Pete Dye's railroad ties. Pete, who apparently had an unhappy childhood and has been taking that out on golfers ever since, would include a hungry crocodile on every green if he could. Golf's mantra, adopted by course owners and other designers, was to make it longer and harder and a challenge to the scratch player. The problem is, there are several thousand of those and 150 million who are 20-handicappers.

—For years, there has been little or no consideration of the disproportionate length of the women's tees.

Finally, the perfect storm has hit golf. The economy has dictated that people have to decide between greens fees and milk. Many courses are hurting, especially in Southern California, where there are so many to choose from. If there are 90 million former golfers in the U.S., that's about a billion golf balls going unsold.

While the main national golf organizations are suddenly responding with programs to, among other things, encourage players to play from forward tees, one course in Ventura County has taken direct action.

Tierra Rejada Golf Club is generally too long and too hard for the average player. So it decided to do something. Tierra Rejada now has what it calls the Players Course, playing at 5,600 yards from green tees. The tees weren't just moved forward. They were placed in such a way as to open up landing areas and get the average player in the same spot as the scratch golfer, playing from the tips, to hit short irons in.

Other courses have a selection of forward tees, but few have done it as formally, or as thoughtfully, as Tierra Rejada. Nor have other courses changed local rules, as Tierra Rejada has, to allow golfers to take penalty drops on the green sides of water and ravines into which they have hit errant shots.

Co-owner and course developer Ted Kruger says his course is the first to do something this extensive, and adds, "We aren't just doing this for Tierra Rejada, but for all of golf."

If that sounds sell-serving, Kruger would be the first to admit he'd like to bolster business. But he clearly has thought this through.

"Who plays golf most these days?" he says. "It is not the 35-year-old with two kids. No, it's people retired or near retirement. And they don't want to have to grip it and rip it. They don't want to go home after every round, feeling beaten up."

The movement is not just one course in Ventura County. No less than the former chief executive of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, has formed an organization called AGA, the Alternative Golf Assn. Part of that is a set of alternative rules in a program called Flogton (not golf), where beginners putt to a cup six inches in diameter, rather than 41/2, and toss their ball out of bunkers after one failed swing.

McNealy, like Kruger, wants the game to be fun, not torture.

McNealy also wants to sell Flogton to TV, which might work, since television shanks most of its programming now, anyway.

All this, of course, will make the accomplished golfer crazy.

But there is little question that golf as we know it, and as Pete Dye and his thumbscrews like it, is trying to become warmer and fuzzier.

As in, a good walk, unspoiled.

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