Social Progress in Golf? (commentary)

Less than 2 weeks ago, I wrote about the proposed (progressive) rule changes by the USGA and R & A.  About two months ago, I wrote about how golf clubs and courses need to welcome (not reject) high school and college teams and to encourage the “3 M’s” (Millennials, Minorities and Moms) into the game.  Earlier this week, it was announced that The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield) club in Scotland had voted (after a failed vote last year) to admit women as members of the club.

This is great news!  Our game is shrinking.  Players are leaving golf in favor of other (often more inclusive) activities and golf courses are disappearing at an alarming rate.  How do we, as an industry and stewards of the game use these encouraging signs to build on progress and make the game strong?  Many say there are programs, like The First Tee (which is terrific) and that organizations like the USGA, PGA and Augusta National all have initiatives to promote golf.  These programs are positive, but they’re simply not working.

I’ve felt for many years that golf has resisted progress in many ways.  The game shouldn’t be “aspirational” it should be inclusive and diverse.  Sure, we now have advanced equipment which allows us to hit the ball farther, make mishits not so bad and putt better.  We have courses that are in better condition than ever before, and golf has values that are unique and special that truly make it the greatest game in the world.  BUT, golf has not advanced socially nearly far enough.  And it’s hindered our games economic progress.

I’m thrilled that Muirfield and Augusta National now have female members.  It’s great to see a little (not nearly enough) diversity at private clubs and more and more junior golf programs. BUT, with college and high school teams finding it more difficult to get course time and many clubs choosing to preserve some of the traditions the “3 M’s” find oppressive golf is going to continue shrinking.

Two major areas where clubs can encourage flexibility are cell phones and dress codes.  If you tell a millennial he or she can’t bring their cell phone, that’s a deal breaker.  They’re attached to them and more importantly, being connected may be the key to unlocking that chain that keeps them at their desks.  For sure, some cell phone users can be disruptive to an enjoyable round of golf.  But if you take away the cell phone of an inconsiderate person, you still have an inconsiderate person and he’ll find a way to be annoying.  When a club gets to the point of specifying the length of socks to be worn or the type of collar on a shirt, someone (especially new to the game) is bound to be offended and discouraged from jumping in.  Hold on, I’m not suggesting an environment of anarchy at clubs, but the length of someone’s socks?  How would you like to be the golf pro who has to go out and enforce that one? Why should valuable and talented staff members be wasting their time and expertise on such trivial matters? 

We need to ask our kids why their friends don’t play golf.  We need to ask our friends why they resigned from the club and left the game.  The answers will be enlightening.

Historically, golf organizations have worked to overcome the objections that golf was too expensive, took too much time and was too difficult.  It’s my observation that the “3 M’s” (especially millennials are willing to spend the money to play, because of our mobile & connected society have the time to play and that they are willing to invest the time to learn how to play.  Unfortunately, many clubs have discouraged them with rules that impact the “fun” factor.  Go check out a TopGolf facility.

Just a few years ago, Golf Digest did an article on the “Best Damn Clubs” which profiled a number of clubs, some expensive, some not so much.  The key here is that these clubs, recognized as follows;  (So here we’ve identified places perhaps lesser known, but whose special atmosphere is tangible—almost hits you in the face the moment you drive in. Though members of the typical country club might share geographic proximity, similar financial health, a penchant for golf and maybe tennis or swimming, members of Best Damn Clubs share much more. The French call it esprit de corps, or the strong pride, fellowship and loyalty of a like-minded group) are known for their camaraderie and atmosphere more than their facilities.  Many clubs today are considered “stuffy”.  These Best Damn” clubs aren’t stuffy but are still considered highly desirable, by a much broader group of prospective members.

If golf is to turn the tide and experience economic growth, the top clubs should lead the charge to making golf fun.  If the USGA and R & A can turn 34 rules into 24, there’s no reason all clubs shouldn’t review their rules and streamline them.  Golf’s hierarchy has taken some small steps forward.  It’s now up to the leading private clubs to take the ball and run – for the good of the game.