Good Track, Bad Track?

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to play more golf courses than usual.

Through travel, assignments, a few tournaments and one of the courses at my home club being closed for renovation, I’ve had the chance to play (and rate for Golfweek) some interesting courses, old and new and begun to define what (for me) makes a golf course enjoyable or not.

As golf enthusiasts, we all aspire to play those courses that are highly rated or that have hosted professional tournaments. Many of them are quite good. However, I’ve come up with my own criteria for what makes a golf course special.

One characteristic that I look for is walkability. As one who enjoys walking a golf course, those that were designed for carts seem to change the pace and flow of the game. Certainly, there are some great courses where carts are needed because of terrain or distance, but walking is a big part of the game and many players are willing to pay the same fee to walk. The visual aspect of golf is sometimes forgotten when courses have lots of blind tee shots or approaches where the player can’t see much or any of the green surface. Blind hazards are somewhat annoying and where possible should be eliminated. Basically, if a golf course can be walked, is visually pleasing, has ample room to play and presents interest through a variety of well-placed hazards and shots, and is in good playing condition it’s usually fun to play. Many players simply judge a course by the quality of its putting surfaces.

There’s a point, however where economics enters the discussion with golf course design. As my good friend, Brad Klein (Author of Wide Open Fairways)says “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. golf industry was based on a constitutive myth of difficulty and championship quality. Unfortunately, this represents an infinitesimal share of the actual golf market and has nothing to do with who actually plays golf, enjoys golf and pays for golf. The clubs that do well in today’s highly competitive, over-supplied golf market (especially on the private club side) are those that have a unique design identity, an active women’s program, thriving junior programs, have flexible courses and good practice ranges.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenge of a difficult and demanding golf course. It’s fun to see what you can do, but the game is hard enough and we need new players and need them to stick with the game. It needs to be more fun, right from the start. If that happens, more clubs and golf courses will achieve economic success.

A few months ago I wrote that we in the golf industry need to invite new golfers out to play. This past weekend, I took my daughter (who plays very infrequently) and her boyfriend (Ran, who’d never played) to a short, nine hole course. Ran is a good athlete (basketball) and even then, struggled with the game. He had fun, but looks forward to a trip to the practice range now. Imagine what it would’ve been like if I took him to a 7,300 yard monster and said “let’s play the tips”! I know of a few clubs that either failed or struggle because they were unwilling to develop practice and learning areas and don’t have forward tees for beginners.

The statistics and the logic is clear to see. The number of players is flat or declining and the game needs to make learning more fun and easier. Even those championship courses can be easily converted through more teeing areas, and bigger, better practice areas that will encourage people to take up the game. We only need to explain how to move along at a good pace, how to take care of the course and make it more fun. A couple years back, I wrote an article about dress codes and cell phones, among other areas where rules could be revisited. Many of these issues can be reconsidered and modified without compromising golf’s rich traditions as “a gentleman’s game”. If we can make more people comfortable in our game, more will try it and more will stick with it. That would be good for everyone.