Us Them and The Future of Golf

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We were shooting at a golf bag company the other day. I watched one of the pattern experts laying out the pieces of a new bag design. She referred to plans and drawings, paused frequently to ponder the intricacies of the design, tried changes, made decisions. Clearly, this woman knew a lot about golf bags and enjoyed making them as functional as possible.
 
When she came up for air, I asked her if she plays golf.
 
Oh, wellyou knowpar 3 and all that, she said sheepishly. Once Im on the green, I like it a lot better.
 
Well, thats still golf, I answered reflexively.
 
I suppose so, she said. And she returned to considering how to expand the ball pocket.
 
On the plane ride home, I thought about the conversation and wondered: Is the bag ladys golf any less worthy of the name than the play em down, count em up kind of serious competition I enjoy? Does the tank-top-and-cutoffs, all-the-mulligans-you-can-eat crowd play the same game as the traditionally dressed, but-O.K.-to-roll-em-in-the-fairway clique (or any other group you can dream up)?
 
And why does it matter?
 
The simple answers: Yes. And it matters because if we want golf to live up to its potential in the U.S. and beyond, we need to be as inclusive as possible.
 
Now, before you start stringing your bows and firing arrows, hear me out. Im not suggesting that anyone re-engineer his or her idea of what golf is and should be. But I am suggesting more tolerance for people whose notion of the game diverges from your own. In the long run, that will make for more golfers, better solutions to the games challenges, and a happier golf populace.
 
Its not just the purists who get militant about this sort of thing. Weve all heard of certain members of upper-crust clubs who are fond of pontificating about certain golf practices they consider beneath the games dignity. The attitude seems to go both, or all, ways. The kind of player who is more comfortable putting his ball in line with the others in the steel-wire rack at the city course can sometimes be heard decrying the allegedly stuck-up customs of the private-club (and often wealthy) golfer.
 
But as long as those who hold differing golf views arent interfering with your game, why get your bag towel in a knot?
 
Rounds in the U.S. have declined in three of the last four years (the only increase, in 2004, was just 0.7 percent), and the trend continues ' through June, the last month to be measured, rounds are down 1.1 percent nationwide compared to 2004, says the National Golf Foundation.
 
Considering that, and the competition golf faces for a slice of Americans limited leisure time, it would be best to treat anyone who plays the game ' or plays at it ' as a golfer. This might not provide the best business metrics (how much can you learn from the buying behavior of a guy who plays once a year?), but it might provide the welcoming environment that impels someone to play more often, and at a higher, more economically active level.
 
None of this is to say that serious players should have to deal with groups of occasional (read: slower) players in front of them. Nor should beginners, hit-and-giggles, three-holes-is-plenty players, or any other variation have to endure blank stares from players who like their golf serious and fast.
 
The solution? There must be facilities for all kinds of golfers. It may take some business courage, and it will definitely take some creativity. Golf has to find a way to make three-hole, six-hole, and beginner courses profitable. Alternative ways to enjoy the game, ways that defuse the classic objections to full-scale golfs need for large amounts of time, money, and ability, will be the hope of the industry.
 
To be fair, many good minds in the business are working on this problem. But as years go by with little new golfer retention, the job becomes more and more critical. Adult attraction programs and opportunities for youth from various economic strata are helping at the grass roots, to be sure. But more bold thinking is necessary, especially if golf is to grow ' or even hold level ' over the next decade.
 
Heres an example of the kind of idea that might help: A municipal course or daily fee could consider splitting its 18 into three courses between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Golfers with kids in tow or on their way home from work could choose the option that fits their available time: three, six or nine holes. And perhaps a post-round dinner special would pump up the food-and-beverage business.
 
And who knows? Perhaps that kind of golfer ' could one day develop into your kind.
 
Email your thoughts to Adam Barr