Plight of Golf

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This week’s brilliant television spectacle, at the 2015 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, is the 31st time a big broadcast—replete with PGA Tour stars—has been produced and presented, to the rest of planet golfdom, from right here on Maui. Over that four-decade span of time, the game has gone from a boon-era sport to a pastime on the decline.

But it needn’t be, and many are doing their best to man the game’s rudder. Those who are at Kapalua, right here on our island as I write this, are a powerful force behind the game. They are the best in this sport on every level: from the champion players themselves, to operators like Troon Golf, resorts like host Kapalua, to the cadre from NBC Universal, and its NBC Sports and Golf Channel teams… golf’s army is omnipresent and looming large here on the Valley isle. It is an interesting thing to observe, and while my proximity to it all is very much removed from its epicenter, I try to discern the trees from the forest just the same.

The big institutional players are good and bad for golf. They lack the nimble and independent mindset of one mind, one idea. That isn’t to say that all of these very smart and well-heeled people up at Kapalua don’t have their own ideas mind you, in fact, our very own Mark Rolfing has some of the very best insights, and a passion and love for golf that merges many mindsets, from the commercial, to the games roots. In his Da Game Show interview with Dave Ward last month, Mark told Dave Ward, in response to the question: “Where do we go from here? that: “Throughout the 40 years of my career here on Maui, I have been extremely proud to watch Maui grow into one of the most attractive and sought after golf destinations anywhere in the world. I don’t want to see that change now.” But, as he points out, the problem remains: “The hotels, other rental properties and most of the activities are doing very well, but the golf courses are stuck in the revenue doldrums.”

Rolfing’s 10-year plan or vision for Maui golf and tourism is very island-centric, but it presents some valuable insights, and brings to mind three core issues for golf that seem to be at the forefront of many people’s minds: “We must aggressively address the three fundamental issues that face the game today. A. It costs too much; B. It takes too long to play; C. The game is too difficult.

There’s no doubt that he’s onto something, and he is in good company. Lindsey Rupp and Lauren Coleman-Lochner, in their June 2014 Businessweek article, How Golf Got Stuck in the Rough, describe how “Golf is suffering from an exodus of players, and courses are closing.” They describe  how “the U.S. Golf Association, the PGA of America, and Golf Digest have launched a “Time for Nine” campaign to counter complaints that the traditional 18-hole game takes too much time. And some clubs are adding attractions such as yoga and hovercraft rides.”

They further point out how “Hack Golf, a movement to identify the parts of golf that aren’t fun and fix them” has taken hold and how equipment maker TaylorMade “co-sponsors a website with the PGA,, with the goal of ‘crowdsourcing the future of golf.’ The site has elicited 1,471 ideas. A recent suggestion: smartphone apps to reserve tee times, pay for services, and communicate with the pro shop.”

They do a good job of summarizing golf’s current place in the grand scheme of things, and cite research from the likes of Jim Koppenhaver, president of Pellucid, who notes that “We’ve got to find a way to stem the decline in the golfer base,” he says. Rupee and Coleman-Lochner add: “His company’s research shows the number of golfers today is lower than in 1990, even though the U.S. population is 27 percent greater.”

The writing, as I have said enough already, is on the wall and the biggest organizations and the brightest minds seem to be hammering away at its solution. People who are better at it than us, have been in it longer, and who are more elite or closer to the core of the action, who know more and are smarter and faster and simply better. But grand ideas and ideals are not the exclusive domain of the state, the corporation, the non-profit institution, or the pro. Often, they are borne in the oddest of places and by the tinkerers who have that stickwithittoitiveness to never quit, and who sometimes get lucky. It is the plight of golf, and the little guy, and I include myself metaphorically, even rhetorically, may be of some use or value to this endeavor. And so, I write as I do for you….

I think Churchill articulated what we often think quite well: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see,” he once said. Hugo Ceron-Anaya, in his exploration of “the creation of rules of etiquette, the introduction of the handicap, and the socioeconomic composition of golf clubs throughout the nineteenth and early-20th century”, advances Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital and Michel Foucault’s idea of technologies of the self. Caron-Anaya looks at the social and cultural capital that individuals possess, accumulate, and exchange in order to augment their hierarchical position in society. In short, money isn’t everything.

When I localize all of this, and I think of how much winning means to some, and how each of us sees a victory, whether it is hitting just one good shooting every 10 rounds, or breaking par, there is some inner motivation that is greater than the capital of financial assets, that gets us out onto the course on our days off. Here on Maui, back in the 1950s and the 1960s, when the working class was just starting to get ahead, Mike Emura and his father were a busy pair, growing their Wailuku-based engraving business in leaps and bounds. They made every kind of imaginable trophy and award, but none could rival those of golf, and I saw evidence of that myself when I visited with Maui’s winningest amateur player, 94-year-old Willie Goo, last Thanksgiving Day at his home. Wille’s living room was like a museum, with trophies on every table and lining bookcases along the wall. They weren’t a foot tall, or cheaply made plastic golf and faux marble prices of junk either, they were five feet tall and dwarfed even the Claret Jug

But Mike’s trophy shop now has nothing of golf in evidence there. Tennis, another individual sport, yes. But golf? Nothing. No tribute to the champions or the weekend warriors. No local leagues or businesses to speak of that could see represented here, let alone any clubs. We have this spectacle of golf happening at Kapalua, and we have this desertion of golf in Wailuku.

In 1982, when Mark Rolfing was getting the Kapalua Open off the ground, golf was already huge. It had, by then, surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino and Gary Player and Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros and so many others had, by then, built upon the stuff of legends on TV. The prosperity of the masses increased the game’s popularity, and the fall golf event Mark launched was timed perfectly, and run even better. Corporate America was really buying into golf in the 1980s and then Tiger came along and brought viewers and interest to the game in droves, and in social and economic ways never before seen at such levels.

As America’s middle class prospered, so too did golf. Then, as quickly as the click of a mouse, we saw Hank Paulson telling us the system was imploding and before you know it, our economy was in peril. But the average American was already feeling the pinch long before that, and as he or she was forced to make tough decisions, the game suffered.

Solving the plight of golf isn’t about the purse, or how many FedEx points Kapalua’s event offers, or the star power that shows us (although that helps increase attendance), or the kind of flashy bravado the new winners display before us, or the quasi-007-like slick openers we see on ultra-posh TV shows like Golf Central, that make us love the game… it isn’t even a bigger hole or a faster loop, or a social network that makes us want to play…

It’s more about slowing things down. It’s about being able to afford that set of clubs or the time to play. In an information age where one is deluged with content, and things to do, and emails and texts, and voice mails, and options 1, 2, and 3… all the while trying to buy that Costco TV screen with the same paycheck, if we even have a paycheck….

Golf doesn’t need a gimmick or a quick fix. The people who put on the grand show can only do so much. They do it better than ever before and in such imaginative and brilliant ways, but if you can’t afford the time or the cost to play, and haven’t the freedom to hit that bucket every now an then, what is one to do?

Changing the game to fit our economic woes is one solution.

Stay tuned, as we continue to tinker away at the problem…. There must be a better way.

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