Two Weeks Off and a Little Perspective

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I took the family on vacation recently. Two weeks plus out of the office (amazing how those vacation days pile up when you work a lot), polite-but-firm I cant be reached message on the voicemail, and a conspiracy to disappear. Didnt even pack the clubs. (And my wife plays too, so that was a big deal.)
 
Yep, as much as I love the game and my job, I made a concerted effort to stay as far away as possible from both for 16 days. And you know what I found out?
 
Theres a whole country out there that can live without golf. Doesnt even faze them to go weeks, even months, without at least putting a few balls on the local courses practice green. Heck, Im not confident that a lot of these people know where the local course is.
 
I knew where they were. From old habit, I peeked around every roadside stand of pine trees to see if there was a fairway hidden behind it. Saw a few. Managed to get around the TV dial with only a few accidental glimpses of golf while I was trying to find the Steelers game.
 
But other than that, I was purposely golf-free. The time away sharpened the old forest-for-trees dichotomy, which anyone deep in a particular discipline would be wise to examine from time to time. From golf writers to course owners to club designers to touring pros and everyone in between, we all take golf seriously because it provides us an opportunity to make a living. Tour pros agonize over three-footers that will, in some cases, make no more difference than to determine whether theyre rich or filthy rich. Marketers present slick videos that make new irons seem like a cross between a spiritual Everest and a Nobel Prize.
 
But the fact is, America does not care about golf, outside of our little club, whose membership is estimated at about 25 million. Add in the non-playing watchers and the estimate gets fuzzier, but Ill bet its still below 50 million.
 
This is not golfs fault. Aside from some irritating vestiges of elitism and a cost problem (see George Whites excellent column on this issue), golfs attractions generally outweigh its flaws, at least to my mind. But in a country whose population careens toward 300 million, in an age when speed and style surpass substance almost every time, its hard to get people to pay attention to anything very long. And as we all know, golf takes patience.
 
Remember, oh, a mere seven years ago, when we were all told the coming of Tiger Woods would herald golfs next golden age? Sure, there are gains to be seen. Purses on the PGA Tour continue to rise, and golf is one of the few sports whose TV ratings arent sliding. But otherwise, theres been a lot more pyrite than gold. If NASCAR is the standard for sports popularity, golf has a long way to go. And everything is transitory: The National Basketball Association used to be hot, but once Michael left, the field was open for NASCAR. And nothing approaches racing for breadth of popularity in this country. NASCAR is what baseball was fifty years ago, before TV and movies brought us everything from Britney and Madonna to Ozzy and Sharon, all the time, unceasingly.
 
So what to do? Its too complex a situation for quick fixes, but certainly golf has to manage its expectations. Maybe we have enough upscale daily fee (read: overpriced) courses. Perhaps we need to consider three- and six-hole courses, to adjust to American lifestyles (instead of insisting they adjust their lifestyles to us).
 
How about a national program similar to the take-a-kid-fishing efforts we see every so often? Every golfer introduces one other to the game. The math: From 25 million golfers, we can draw about 6 million avid players (estimates vary here, but stay with me). If half of those introduce a new player, we have 3 million. If half of the newcomers stick with it, we have 1.5 million. Do that once a year, and you have a 6 percent growth rate. Not bad.
 
Im heading back to the range at my club. Ive had enough time off. Besides, I need to find my swing again if Im going to introduce someone to the game.
 
NowBritney or Madonna?