Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is The USGA Killing Golf?

From what I've read, most golf analysts think the Open at Oakmont was a fair test. I agree, but only because everyone played the same course under the same conditions. It was not the intelligent test of golf it was meant to be. The U.S. Open is the greatest golf tournament in this country and, as such, it sets the direction of the sport in general. With its handling of the Open, the USGA is turning golf into an Extreme Sport, killing what's it's supposed to be preserving.

Brad Faxon and Billy Andrade just finished hosting the CVS Charity Classic at the Rhode Island Country Club. It's held Monday and Tuesday after the U.S. Open and is one of the best golf fund raisers in the country. (It's a great venue. The players are relaxed and the spectators can see some of the best in the game up close and personal.) One of the all time greats played this year - Lee Trevino. And Lee had a lot to say about the state of the sport that has provided him a wonderful life. He's upset by it's continual decline. Bottom line for Lee; it's too hard and too expensive for the average player - the one that's the lifeblood of the game.

I couldn't agree more with Mr. Trevino and I think a lot of the responsibility lies with the USGA, particularly with how they set up courses for the Open. Oakmont was a big mistake. Unfortunately golf architects take their clues from this tournament. It seems a new course can only be among the best if it's over 7000 yards and is so difficult that you and I will lose at least a six pack of balls, shoot well north of 100 and spend over $100 (or maybe a lot more). Sounds like fun, doesn't it? As the cost of living and gas skyrockets like our handicaps, we'll still be happy to spend big bucks for five plus hours of torture, won't we. Yeah, right!

So what's wrong with the setup of the Open? It's that it misses the point of what golf is all about. It was never meant to be an Extreme Sport. The way things are going, in 10 years the rough at the Open will be stocked with man eating crocodiles. Or how about adding wind machines to every hole to simulate playing in a hurricane.

If you watched the Open you probably heard the quote from Mr. Fownes who was the course architect; 'a poorly played shot should be irrevocably lost'. Compare that philosphy to Alister MacKenzie's, the architect of Augusta and Cypress Point to name a few - a great golf hole should be able to be played by the amateur and the professional alike and be challenging to both. Maybe Mr. Fownes should have just said 'the player who hits a poor shot will be summarily removed from the course and beaten within an inch of his or her life'. Teach you to make a bad swing I will! Golf is about finding salvation from our mistakes, not about being hit over the head for them.

I've heard commentators get on Phil's case for blaming the rough for injuring his wrist. Hold on a moment, Phil wasn't the only one to be injured while playing and have to withdraw. At last count at least 6 players were injured. Is golf a full contact sport now - miss a shot at Oakmont and be prepared to take a blind hit from a Steeler's linebacker? I'm not a big Phil fan, but I'm in his corner on this one.

I believe golf was meant to be mostly a mental challenge. The great architects design courses with numerous routes to the hole, all with differing risk/reward profiles. The visual layout of the hole is meant to challenge and deceive the mind. Great golf is more like chess and less like a WWW Smackdown.

After watching the Open at Oakmont, I'm sure there will be architects and their customers planning the next 'top 100 course' where the fairways will be no wider than your sidewalk and the rough will look like a Kansas wheat field just before the combines arrive. It will cost you at least a month's spending money to play and you'll say 'never again' when you're finished and bleeding in the clubhouse.

I'm not against tough courses. I've been lucky enough to have played some of the great ones both in the U.S. and in Scotland and loved them. But it's wrong when their are only two shots possible; 1) a great one that gets a lucky bounce and 2) every other shot where you lose at least one stroke. Because of the setup at Oakmont, there were virtually no chances for great recovery shots. Yet, recovery shots are very much a part of the game and often what is most memorable from tournaments of old. Miss a shot at Oakmont or get an unlucky bounce and your only option was to take an extra shot and try again. Hit a bad shot and you should be challenged to make a spectacular shot for a recovery. There was no such option at Oakmont. Your only choice was to take your wedge and gouge it out 90 degrees. This is not exciting golf, it's actually painful to watch. If every course was setup like this, there would be no place for the Seve Ballesteros's of the world.

In the coming years, the people who are supposed to be promoting this great game will sit in their offices, scratch their heads and wonder just what went wrong. My advice to them is to go back and read how golf began, why it prospered for centuries and what was on the minds of the great course architects. And start promoting a game that a normal working family can enjoy. The professional game has to dramatize the allure of golf and, believe me, it's more about the mental than the physical. They also need to find better ways to teach the game. Most amateurs fight some kind of slice, which indicates their basic swing is seriously flawed. They rarely understand how to 'let the club do the work'. And they sure as hell aren't going to play a tight, extremely penal course more than once a year.

And if the USGA isn't going to rise to the occassion and address the problems they're most responsible for creating, then the stars and future course designers will have to. I guess this means you, Tiger. You are probably the one person who has a shot at single-handedly changing the game. When I was a kid, I played at a course that had dirt tees. My friend Robby used to bring a hammer - yes the kind you drive nails with - so we could pound our tees in. We played because it was cheap and we had a lot more fun than if our parents were members at Oakmont. Tiger, maybe you never played a course like that. If not, go out to a few local dog tracks and see what's going on. You're a charitable guy and have helped thousands of people. Why not help 10's of thousands learn the game by designing some cheap challenging courses that the average family can afford. Help us get back to the great game that golf has always been.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

US Open, There's Drama Lurking

There is no better championship in organized, adult sport than the U.S. and British Opens in golf. What other championship is open to anyone? Just win your sectional and then the regional and you're in. You can be 80 or 13, makes no difference. Anyone who thinks they have game is welcome to step-up and give it their best.

The Opens are also great because they are played on different courses each year - traditionally the oldest and most revered. To win more than one you can't have a game that's suited to just one course, you've got to have an extraordinary game.

Which is why it's rather surprising that Tiger Woods has won only once, back in '02. I was sure he had already won twice. I guess I got confused with green jackets. I'll go so far as to say that this is a watershed event for Tiger. He's 30 now and almost a parent. How many really good years does he have left? only 6 or 7 if he's like most other human golfers. That's not to say he won't win some tournaments after 37, but he's not going to reap hand fulls every year like he does now.

I don't know the stat, but I'll bet money that Nicklaus had more than one Open championship at 30. After all, it is the national championship. Tiger won 3 US amateurs in barely as many years. And he's only got one US Open championship in 10? tries. What's that about? If Tiger pulls this one out - responds to all the press and hype that Phil is getting and ignores all the guys within 5 years of his age who are figuring out how to win - then my money is on him to beat Jack's numbers when it's all over. If he doesn't win.....

Monday, June 11, 2007

Are Private Clubs The Next Dinosaurs?

More golf courses are built every year, but the number of golfers stays the same. To me that means more supply for the same demand and that equates to more courses competing for the same number of rounds. The fact that more and more private clubs are scrounging for new members seems to support that conclusion.

In New England, where I live, many (maybe most) private golf clubs are having to deal with shrinking membership. They have three choices; 1)raise rates to the remaining members, 2)try to find new members to replace those that die or leave or 3)sell the place to their local real estate developer. The problem with choice 2 is that private clubs are not on the cutting edge of marketing, having been spoiled in years past when prospective members had to literally beg to get in. Those days have been gone for a number of years now.

Today, during 19th hole discussions one often hears about local private clubs trying to actively market their memberships, particularly with rumors of reduced or eliminated initiation fees. Initially these offers sound tempting until you do some simple math to see what you're getting.

For example, one good quality local club is offering to wave the thousand dollar initiation fee. Here's what it would cost for my wife and I when you look at what's left; $7000 for golf and lockers (with some restrictions on player 2), $1000 for mandated cart fees (whether you use them or not) and $1000 for mandated food expenditures. That adds up to $9000 for a season of golf. If money is no object that may be a good deal, but for the middle class it just doesn't work. My extra money is going to increases in gasoline, home heating, health care and property tax to name a few.

My wife and I can play all season at fair to excellent courses for under $2000. That includes at least a couple of rounds at the area's best public course. How can I justify paying 4 times that for golf at one OK course? And by not going for the private course we'll have money to spend on golf if we can get away somewhere warm during the winter.

To my way of thinking, the private clubs are missing the mark big time. They have to come up with new and innovative products to sell or they are going to eventually die. There are only so many upper class golfers out there who can afford traditional private course memberships. And most of these, being older adults, already have their membership somewhere. Apparently today's younger well-to-do players don't think about private clubs the way their parents did. They don't seem interested in joining the old boys and girls clubs. Maybe because after buying the obligatory McMansion and SUV, they don't have enough left for the private club. Or maybe the value isn't there for them when they see how many good local courses they can play for a lot less. Who needs the locker room, wants to pay for carts you don't use or buy food that's not as good as most of the local restaurants.

The USGA, PGA, Club Owners Association and the like had better start to figure out how to sell rounds in new ways or a lot of golf courses are going to be left out to dry or be turned into housing tracts. Groups like the PGA, that feed off amateur golf, should put some of their creative talents into selling the game and not just making a few pros multi-millionaires.

I have a couple of suggestions for any groups that want to address the issue: 1) Focus on teaching the game. One reason that the number of new golfers each year just about equals the number who quit is because they find the game too hard. 460cc square head drivers don't seem to be the answer. All the new equipment in the world won't make up for terrible technique. 2)Make the game easier to sample in small bites; consider selling regional passes that allow a couple of rounds each at a group of local clubs, even if you have to limit tee times to low traffic periods. Sell range passes. Club pros could offer special small group lessons on weekday mornings instead of spending their free time trying to adjust member handicaps who can't quite get their scorecards correct.

Somebody, in a position of leadership, had better step-up to the problem or there will be a lot of hand wringing about the state of the game in the not too distant future.

Monday, June 04, 2007

CBS, Fed Ex, Faldo and Finchem

I love Jack Nicklaus and it was great to see K.J. Choi win the Memorial in sterling fashion - fabulous bunker play and putting on the last holes. Congratulations Mr. Choi - well done and well deserved!

Why then, did the whole thing leave a bad taste in my mouth? As I've written in this blog before, this year's CBS coverage of golf is troubling. It's not just CBS of course, but a combination of Tim Finchem, the FedEx Cup and Nick Faldo as color commentator. Here's how I see it.

The FedEx Cup has an insane amount of money at stake for the players. From a player's perspective this is where the big dollars are. That's not to say that winning a million dollar first place check isn't good pay, but you'd have to win 10 of those to earn what you can get for first place in the FedEx Cup. I think there's a limit to how much sports figures can make before the fans get turned off by excess. The game is in danger of losing some of it's appeal when so many players can earn millions in any given year and not even win. It takes away from the integrity of a sport where you got paid only if you earned it - no million dollar salaries for bench warmers.

I believe there is even a darker side to this. Most golf fans watch the sport on TV. It's the medium that creates our view of professional golf and determines if we enjoy watching it or turn on Major League Baseball instead. Many golf fans have never seen a professional tournament. Most baseball fans have been to at least a game or two and it's that live experience that colors our view of it on TV. When your watching at home it's easy to smell the hot dogs and feel the peanut shells under your feet.

Golf relies much more on the TV broadcast to set the scene and feed our imagination. How can CBS do this if they have to devote more time to advertising than to actual coverage of the competition? They're in a hole before coverage even begins. Add to this that with so many commercials they can never provide more than a few uninterrupted minutes of golf. The result is no flow, no sense for the viewer of what's happening on the course. It's just a few random shots and putts interspersed among a lot of commercials. This same approach killed the winter Olympics where you need to see a slalom heat or a ski jumping round from beginning to end to get emotionally involved. Even baseball has protected the sanctity of the half inning.

Golf has to be sold to us as drama, and it's the networks job to do this. Pro golfers are not a flashy bunch in the first place and today's young players seem to have all worked hard to take emotion out of their game. Maybe this makes them play better, but it certainly makes for a less exciting viewing experience for us. They keep to themselves with their emotions tucked neatly into their golf bags.

If there's any hope for this recipe for disaster to succeed, it falls to the commentators. They have to somehow create drama where it's all but invisible, help us forget the constant interruptions and keep us on the edge of our seats. They only seem able to do this when Tiger is in contention because of the larger than life drama that follows this era's greatest player everywhere he goes. Otherwise it's a bit ho hum, or maybe a lot ho hum. While Nick Faldo is knowledgeable and makes insightful comments they never come together enough to describe the drama that's unfolding. The great English golf commentator Peter Alliss makes few comments, but it works when the BBC pretty much lets the cameras role without commercials. Johnny Miller is much better than Nick in this department, even when he comes across as a bit superior to everyone out on the course. Don't downplay that he's helped immensely because NBC doesn't break up the coverage like CBS.

In the end, the whole ball of wax falls on the Commissioner's shoulders. After all, he dreamt this thing up, created the format, determined the purse and then negotiated the deal. While the FedEx Cup may be a terrific idea, it's execution ultimately dooms golf fans and the long term outlook for the sport. Did someone forget that you're not supposed to kill the golden goose?