The Fun’s Gone Out of Golf

by Frank Giordano

August 2014


I was visiting recently with a friend who is a golf course architect. When I asked him what he was doing lately, he replied that he was working on a couple of small projects: repairing a few sand traps at one course, adding a couple of tees at another, and softening some greens at a third course. “Are you working on any new golf courses?”  I asked.  “There just aren’t many new courses being built in America at this time. In fact over the past 3-4 years, about 10 courses are going out of business for every new  course we’re building. There’s just not much fun in the golf business here these days. Any young person who wants to be in the golf design business today needs to be studying Mandarin and preparing to go look for work in China.”

The idea that there is not much fun in the golf business  is hardly new.  The world’s greatest golfer and, arguably, the most successful golf course designer, Jack Nicklaus, has recently claimed that “Golf has become too difficult, too expensive and takes too long.”   Ironically, no one  has had more to do with golf’s becoming too difficult  and too expensive  than Mr. Nicklaus himself. Indeed, he bears much of the responsibility for the game’s taking too long  also,  as generations of golfers watching him on television learned to  adopt his deliberately,  often infuriatingly slow pace of play.   But, since golf has always been primarily a matter of business  for him, and because he has always been a great player and a most successful champion, it’s not surprising that he is also one of the world’s most successful businessmen.

But the business of business is not to have fun,  and to claim that there’s no fun  in the golf business should shock no one.  The current malaise in the American golf scene,  which threatens the viability of golf course operations throughout the land, is a result of the many complex ways that the business of  golf  is subverting the game of golf.   Throughout the industry,  there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the question of how to get golf growing again.

Tom Watson,  another great champion and occasional golf course designer, once said that “Golf will grow as long as it’s fun.”   Characteristically, Watson’s  prose is as crisp as his wedge play; and his analysis is dead on target.  However, I expect the business-minded developers of golf courses  all over the earth will insist that golf, the game, cannot exist unless creating golf courses also creates profit for the developers.   Producing golf courses is a capital–intensive business, they will insist, with the purchase of real estate and hiring of designers, and the costs of construction and, inevitably, marketing. And if those expensive golf course projects cannot return a meaningful profit to the developers, there will be fewer and fewer golf courses being built.

The hard-headed profit-driven businessman certainly has a valid point. Golf courses are expensive to build; many golf course designers are very expensive to employ; and maintaining a golf course is a very expensive ongoing  proposition.   But while these facts are undeniable,  and while they accurately account for the scarcity of new golf course projects, they miss the main point  for building a golf course in the first place.   No matter how expensive it is to produce the course,  the course will not succeed unless it produces enjoyment —  fun —  for the players.    The profit motive alone does not guarantee a successful golf course.   Golf courses do not exist simply to generate profits for developers.  In fact, to get back to the observation of Jack Nicklaus,   the game is suffering in America precisely because golf has become too expensive.

It might seem that  from its beginnings, golf in America has always been very expensive.     When C.B. MacDonald organized his “Millionaires Club”  to develop the National Golf Links of America  on Long Island in New York, the 100 elite members  were all captains of industry  and finance.   Throughout the young nation,  as the automobile and public transportation provided greater mobility, private country clubs were developed near the major urban areas, offering golf as one of the inducements  for prospective  members and home owners.

However, after the world wars of the first half of last century, with the return of peace and with the encouraging example of our President Eisenhower, many ordinary Americans began to take up the game both for the fun of it and as a symbol of our new prosperity.  In addition, the enthusiasm generated by Arnold Palmer, and television’s exposure of his charismatic personality as a golf champion, inspired many of us ordinary folks to play the game that seemed to offer such excitement and joy.

Harvey Penick, one of our most famous golf instructors, encouraged us all to  “Go out and have fun. Golf is a game for everyone, not just for the talented few.”  As more of us took up the game, we naturally created a need for more golf courses to be built in our local communities all across America. Like mushrooms, nine and 18 hole golf courses shot up in towns and cities all over our landscape in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  Many resorts began to add golf courses to the amenities they offered their guests and tourists, while clubs  dedicated exclusively to the game of golf soon appeared, especially in warmer and more moderate climates throughout the land. In addition, many private communities were developed with a golf course running through the property as the chief inducement for residents to purchase homes within these communities.

It is to be hoped that in China, India, and those countries in eastern Europe and South America, where new courses are being built these days, that developers of golf courses, in local towns and residential communities, even at the tourist resorts, understand that golf is, above all, a game.  Too often in America,  particularly when  the economy has been vibrant, the business of golf course development has  lost sight of that primary fact. If golf is to succeed and continue to exist for more than just the fabulously wealthy,  the game must continue to be fun  for all who play it.   When the game ceases to be fun, for whatever reason, the game itself is in serious jeopardy.

It is sadly ironic that the success of the American golf industry after mid-century  planted the seeds for the great decline  at the start of the present one, when much of the fun has been drained from the game.  But that’s a story for another time.