One weekend last Fall in 2018 I watched the FedEx Cup Finals at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta Georgia. This golf course is where the great Bobby Jones learned to play golf. Justin Rose won the FedEx Cup for the year but the winner for this tournament was Tiger Woods, a great comeback win after being injured for over 5 years. At the trophy ceremony Tiger was presented with an all silver exact replica of the famous Bobby Jones Calamity Jane Putter. Smiling, Tiger held the putter and gave it a look as if to say "Is this supposed to be a golf club?". How equipment has improved over the years. Tiger has used the same Scotty Cameron Anser Style putter to win 13 out of his 14 major golf tournaments. He's now won (81) official PGA Tour events, second only to Sam Snead (82), and eight ahead of Jack Nicklaus's (73) wins.
This reminded me of a wonderful experience I had many years earlier in New York City. In 1957 I was studying speech and drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on 52th Street in New York City. One Saturday in the fall of the year I thought I would like to visit the museum at the United States Golf Association. I heard a lot about it and it was close to where I was on 38th St between Park and Madison Ave. I was staying at the Grosvenor House on 39th Street between Park and Lexington Ave, just a couple blocks away. Anyway, I walked over at about 9:30 in the morning. The USGA building, Golf House, was an imposing five story townhouse in the middle of the block on the downtown side of the street 40 East 38th St. The front door was made of full length glass with a wrought iron frame. I pushed it open and walked into a small lobby with a marble floor that faced an unattended reception desk. There were no lights on, but the room was not dark with natural light coming into the lobby from the building's glass door and windows.
Off the lobby to my left was a nicely furnished room with golf pictures on the wall. The place was very quiet as I called out "Hello, anyone here?" and got no answer. I proceeded to walk up the stairs to the 2nd floor landing.
Once there I saw a replica of a 19th century work room used to create and repair golf clubs. A large wooden bench, an anvil, a huge vice attached to a plank floor, and all sorts of supplies that you would need to make or repair golf clubs. Wooden shafts, forged iron heads, saws, lead for weighting wooden clubs, a ladle for melting lead, whipping used to attach wooden heads to wooden shafts, ram's horn to protect the sole of wooden clubs, and cotton listing and strips of leather for making grips. I was fascinated by all of this. Again I called out hello, but again no one answered so I thought I better leave...and was about to go down the stairs when I noticed another room by the workshop. There in this room was the USGA golf library, with many books, it looked like over 1000. I looked at a few of them and some were very old, even 19th century.
On one side of this room was a fire place. Above the fireplace I saw a mahogany plaque mounted on the wall with what looked like a small wooden shafted putter. As I moved closer, underneath the putter was a brass rectangular name plate, it read Bobby Jones Calamity Jane Putter. "What?!?, Bobby Jones Calamity Jane Putter!" This is the most famous putter in the world! "Wow" here I was, now i knew I was all alone looking at Bobby Jones' putter. Unbelievable! I walked back down the stairs to the reception desk and called 911. It took the police about 10 minutes to arrive, I told them my story. Apparently someone forgot to lock up on Friday night. Everyone thanked me, that's the story. Some years later in 1972 Golf House moved to Far Hills, New Jersey.
I did some research on the putter. Bobby Jones donated it to Golf House in 1938. He used 2 Calamity Jane putters in his lifetime. This one was number two. He won his last 10 tournaments with it, including the Grand Slam. His number one Calamity Jane was used between 1920-1926, and he won his first major championship with it. He retired it because it became too worn and light from the caddies continued polishing with emery cloth. Today this putter is at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Rand Jerris, curator of the USGA, tells us this putter is priceless, well worth over $1,000,000.
Has the game of golf lost its way? Isn't playing golf supposed to be fun? The National Golf Foundation tells us over six million golfers between 2003 to 2014 have stopped playing the game. Since 2011 golf courses are closing at the rate of 137 per year with more closings than openings. Over 35% of our young golfers between the ages of 18 and 30 in the last 10 years have stopped playing. The major golf companies are scaling back their production on new golf clubs. Nike stopped manufacturing golf clubs altogether. What's happening, why is this? To quote the great Jack Nicklaus "golf takes too long to play, costs too much and it's hard."
Okay, so why is golf so hard to play? Let's start with the golf courses. Very simply I think they're too long and the layout makes it too hard to play and score for the average golfer. The internet tells us a male golfer who plays golf, not a beginner, averages 210 yards off the tee with a driver. They go on to say, that to be able to reach the holes in regulation you should be on the green in one stroke on a par 3 hole, on the green in two on a par 4 hole, and on the green in three on a par 5 hole. In order to have a chance to par these holes they recommend a golf course not longer than 6,300 yards. Where can you find a golf course today in the U.S. with men's white tees playing at 6,300 yards? You could say the new high-tech golf clubs, especially drivers, have made shorter golf courses obsolete. No, obsolete for whom? The new equipment favors the low handicap and professional players with high club head speeds, not the average players.
Let's talk about the ladies. The USGA tells us the average woman's drive off the tee is 140 yards. The length of the golf course she should play in order to reach greens in regulation should be no longer than 4,200 yards. The average lady's yardage for golf courses in the U.S. is 5,600 yards. That's 1,400 yards longer than it should be. Lady golfers really don't have a chance to score the way the tees are set up. Why would they want to play and keep score when they can't reach the greens in regulation to par the holes? Over the past 25 years new golf courses have been made longer and harder, and the courses are watered more with the ball rolling less.
Developers and real estate people want to build prestige type championship golf courses where they can sell their lots and build homes around these golf courses for big bucks. They won't design and construct short executive or par 3 courses. That's okay for them, but the championship type course favors the low handicap golfer and they are in the minority. What about the rest of the 90% of all male golfers who play and struggle to break a hundred? Remember, the average golfer is not a good golfer. They don't have the game for the big courses, its design and layout. You can say, "why not play the shorter tees?". The problem is that the shorter tees are usually still too long for the average golfer, and what about senior golfers? Many golf courses don't even have senior tees.
It's not only length that makes these golf courses difficult, but narrow fairways, high rough, hilly terrain, long carries to the fairway or over water, fairway bunkers, sand bunkers around the green, and out of bounds. It can be a nightmare. It's like going to a ski resort and having only expert trails to ski on. To give you an example, take President Trump's Red course in Doral, Florida. This golf course was popular for many years as a resort course because it was easy and fun to play. The layout was not hard and from the white tees it did not play long. A course where you could say "hey!, I broke 100 or I broke 90." President Trump bought the resort and reconstructed the Red course. He made it longer and the layout much harder. Now he calls it "Tiger Red", this new name gives you an idea of what's in store for you when you play. I don't understand this way of thinking. Are higher scores and pricier green fees good for the game? By the way, he says he shoots in the low 70's. I'd like to know how he keeps score.
What's the answer? Make golf easier and more fun to play. New golf courses should be built with the average golfer in mind, not just for the low handicap player. Have golfers, especially the macho-men, play the tees according to their handicap and not how far they hit the ball with the driver. This speeds up play and makes playing golf more fun. Ironically many of the great championship golf courses in the British Isles, England, Scotland and Ireland, from the regular tees as they call them and even sometimes with inclement weather are much easier and fun to play. The fairways are unwatered and the ball rolls forever. The caddies point and tell you "the other tee is back there, and you can't see it and you don't want too." To name a few of these courses, St. Andrews, Troon, and Old Preswick in Scotland...Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland and Royal St. Georges in England. In the U.S. we have Maidstone, Chicago Golf Club, Rye Golf Club, Montauk Downs, Fisher's Island Club and the National Golf Links of America and the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda. These golf courses are not long and can be fun to play.
Build more executive and par 3 golf courses. Popularize par 3 golf. Some par 3 courses can be lit so you can even play golf after dark. Johnny Morris, owner of the Bass Pro Shops, built a beautiful par 3 course at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri where the Champion's senior tour has a tournament every year. The Fairmont Southampton in Bermuda has a very popular 18 hole short course..I played it, it's fun. Pinehurst in North Carolina has completed a new Cradle short course. The holes range from 56 to 127 yards. Gil Hanse designed the golf course and it opened in 2017. Their motto is "the most fun 10 acres in all of golf.'" They also have a Thistle putting course. This is the way to go.... To be continued
The time factor--Many golfers today don't really have the time or want to spend the time to learn to play golf well enough to truly enjoy it. It's not like tennis where you don't have to be good to play and have fun. By the time you arrive at the golf course, maybe warm up, hit a few practice balls and putt, and then play 18 holes you've now spent 4.5 to 5 hours. Then you have lunch and maybe some drinks and hang out after the round and then drive home, you've pretty much spent the entire day. Your family starts to look for you. It's okay if you have the time and want to do this. It's a great way to spend the day. If you don't have this kind of time, the USGA has started to promote playing 9 holes instead of 18. Great idea! Especially if you're trying to get in a round during the week or if you're busy on the weekend. It can take less than half the time to play--try it!
Unfortunately there are many golfers trying to play with a golf swing that won't allow them to play very well. Their swings are not good enough to play the longer holes, using the longer more difficult clubs to play with. Taking lessons from a PGA golf professional can help a lot IF they practice the drills the instructor tells them to work on. Learning to play golf can be difficult, The problem is for the casual golfer who doesn't want to take lessons, practice and work at it, playing golf at the par 3 level in my opinion is the way to go. It's much easier, takes less time and it's fun. Why has miniature golf been so popular? Because it's easy, fun to play and takes much less time to finish a hole, Playing short par 3 holes, where par is 3 is a big step up. You don't have to be a good golfer to play and have a good time. I'm proposing that more golf courses make tee boxes for par 3 holes by cutting the fairway grass lower and placing tee markers within their regular length golf holes. Call it The Short Course and vary the distances to the green from 60 - 125 yards. We've tried this, it's been successful and golfers seem to like it.
Good things are happening to bring new golfers to the game. The First Tee golf programs for children and young adults is very popular and doing well to promote new golfers. Top Golf, the new phenomenal driving ranges that offer music, food and drinks while you hit balls at targets--it's a party atmosphere. This has attracted new golfers. I've had students just take lessons so they can go to Top Golf and hang out.
Tiger Woods is back! In 2018 he won the FedEx Cup tournament at East Lake golf club in Atlanta, GA. In April 2019 he won the Masters, his 15th major. Hopefully this will renew more interest in golf.