Tuesday, January 19

Vanishing Game: Losing Players, Traditions, History

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

WITH ALL THIS TALK OF MILLENNIALS not taking up the game, and golf courses closing for lack of membership, I am saddened to think of what will be lost, in terms of tradition, architecture and history if there is a death knell to country club life.

Private country clubs have been a mixed bag in terms of popular acceptance, social strata and shifts in attitudes of our society. Richard J. Moss in his excellent 2001 book Golf and the American Country Club, a cultural history of American life and the connection of the game, details how the early country clubs sought to counter the nationalization and standardization of American life by creating closed, controlled communities that reminded them of the villages that were being snuffed out by industrialization.

By the 1900s, country clubs had become "country estates" in suburbs where the wealthy showed off their social status. The country club was viewed as a suburban playground for the family which promoted their own health by playing golf. Anyone could play—men and women of any age—and the handicap system leveled the playing field.

In the 1920s, the game expanded further, with the advent of professional golf architects and increased discretionary time and income. There was a shift as well, away from the Protestant ethic of deferred gratification toward values that justified increased leisure and pleasure.

The Depression years brought the expansion of golf to a screeching halt. These years were followed by World War II, and then golf became a popular game, with public and private daily-fee courses, corporate country clubs and gated golf communities and also the demands for equal access by minorities and women.

All of these shifts in our society have in many ways been played out on the fairways of country clubs, these "nineteenth-century villages" where lives were controlled and what was considered recreation within a society of equals.

I'm afraid Moss, a retired professor of history of social and intellectual life at Colby College and a player himself, wrote his book too soon; or better, he might write a second volume, one that considers the Millennials.

Here I'm all worried about the belly putter and what, if any, havoc that rule change will mean on the PGA Tour as well as for matches played out on private clubs across the country, having just read where four million golfers have walked away from the game just within the last decade.

That all said, if so few golfers are now playing, then why does it still take me five hours to finish a round on a warm Sunday afternoon?

Do you think it's my short game?

John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.


Ashley said...

If professional golf gets a new Tiger, that will go a long way to reigniting passion among young people. Not just someone who is incredibly good, but someone with Tiger's competitive spirit who inspires young people to want to be like him. Rory doesn't have the personality for it, and Spieth has a lot of grit, but he is too nice of a guy. When someone with a fiery personality who dominates the game enters the picture, people's interest in golf will be renewed.

In addition, I think the doomsday predictions miss an important attribute of golf - it's practically the only sport you can play whether you are 3 or 93 years old. Millennials (and I'm speaking as one myself) have short attention spans, but as we get older golf will become more appealing. In 10 more years a lot of millennials will be entering their 40s and will have more money and time to play golf. It will be a game with more appeal that it has for this generation today.

I also think everything moves in cycles. There are a lot of people out there who are tired of the "rat race" and could benefit from the relaxing atmosphere that 4 hours on a quiet, tree-lined golf course will provide. They just need to discover the game.

The Armchair Golfer said...

Good thoughts. On Spieth, I wouldn't rule him out too quickly. In addition to a nice-guy exterior, he has plenty of fire. There is no new Tiger, just like there was no new Jack, no new Arnie, no new Snead or Hogan. Yes, we should be watching for the next great or greats. They will be as unique as the legends that came before them.

Ashley said...

Good point. Golf currently doesn't have that special someone that will draw non-golfers to the game. Tiger and Jack and all the others you mentioned had that spark. Maybe Jordan can be that special someone...