In the Rough or a Favorable Lie? Perspectives Vary on the State of Golf

My on and off affair with golf started when I was about 17, and has been somewhat tumultuous. Like many duffers, I’ll take some time off, then mosey out to the range after watching a PGA event on TV. Next thing you know,  the seductive temptress known as a promising round appears with her flowing hair as beautiful and dangerous as windblown fescue — and once again I’m hooked and helpless. Walter White himself might as well be running the clubhouse cash register.

Yet with viewership of the PGA’s major tournaments reportedly down — often credited to Tiger Woods’ absence (he’s battled serious injuries and hasn’t won a major since 2008) — and with Millennials more interested in soccer (and their smartphones), there’s been much speculation that the game’s popularity has dropped off like a shank over a Pebble Beach cliff. Many attribute it to the time commitment of an 18-hole round — and legend Jack Nicklaus even proposes a move to a 12-hole standard outing for amateurs.

However, findings portrayed in a recent Golf Digest article posit the game is not in as dire shape as some might have you believe. We hope this is the case for our members in the golf industry:

Contrary to popular belief, there are positive stories in equipment sales, rounds played, and even employment opportunities. The professional game might be on better financial footing than any other individual sport, and maybe most important, the game’s leaders have embraced the idea of growing the game in its most important way: young people. The story of golf in July 2014 certainly is not candy canes and rainbows, but those clouds might not be as dark as others have been so quick to point out.

Has 2014 been a down year for equipment sales and rounds played? Certainly. Is there an oversupply of golf courses (fueled by unsustainable real-estate projections) and golf-equipment inventory (driven by overzealous manufacturers who were primed by unrealistic sales forecasts from certain large-scale retailers)? Unquestionably. But that’s a relative and limited point of view. First, let’s remember this: There were about 5 million golfers in 1960. While U.S. population has increased only some 75 percent since then, the number of golfers has more than quintupled to around 25 million.

Recent data from golf-retail research firm Golf Datatech show that the sale of hard goods (clubs, balls, bags, shoes and gloves) through the first six months of the year are higher than or equal to 12 of the previous 17 years. Is the trend line down from the somewhat freakish highs of 2006-’08? Yes. But there are unquestionable categories of enthusiasm this year. Iron sales, the largest purchase a golfer makes, have been up this year. The wedge market, thought to be dead after the USGA rolled back groove performance, has been consistently up this year. Even the footwear market has been an important, steady source of revenue. Callaway Golf just announced its second-quarter earnings and noted its sales for the first half of 2014 were up 9 percent, with growth in all categories, including woods (up 8 percent), irons (up 14 percent), putters (up 9 percent) and golf balls (up 7 percent).

There have been arguments that television ratings for golf are down in 2014 (and indeed the majors have been off), but according to the PGA Tour, the number of unique viewers this year is consistent, and sponsorship interest across all tours has risen to unprecedented levels. Golf Channel set a ratings record for the month of April this year…

Bishop and other leaders believe young people are not only the catalysts for golf’s future, but the strongest elements of golf’s present. Finchem points to The First Tee reaching a record 3.5 million youngsters in the last year. That’s a powerful number when you realize that a traditional, outdoor, analog game like golf is somehow energizing a nation that is eschewing physical education, battling a growing childhood-obesity problem and fighting a culture that sees kids spending nearly eight hours a day in front of screens.

Pete Dye Course Captures Golf Digest Honor

Combine legendary golf course designer Pete Dye with the scenic French Lick location and the result was pretty much guaranteed to be a winner. The latest affirmation is a Golf Digest ranking (No. 93) on the list of America's 100 Greatest Courses.

The publication's biennial review of America's greatest courses appears in the February 2013 issue. Established in 1966, it is the game’s oldest course rankings list and considered the leading symbol of golf course excellence in the industry. Golf Digest used over 1,100 members of its Course Ranking Panel and asked each to submit ballots based on seven criteria including shot values, resistance to scoring, design variety, memorability, aesthetics, conditioning, and ambience.
“We are very honored to be recognized by Golf Digest as one of America’s 100 Greatest Courses,” said Dave Harner, director of golf for French Lick Resort. “This ranking is a testament to the vision of our late founder Bill Cook, Steve Ferguson and the legendary Pete Dye who together developed arguably one of the most visually stunning courses in America solidifying French Lick Resort as one of the elite golf resort destinations in the country.”
Bill Cook, the late founder of Cook Group Inc, together with Steve Ferguson, chairman of the board, acquired the historic French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels in 2005 and immediately began restoring the properties including the already popular Donald Ross golf course. They brought in Pete Dye, a native of Indiana, to design and develop the next great “must play” course, which has succeeded in putting French Lick Resort on the map as one of the country’s leading golf destinations.
Ron Whitten, Golf Digest senior editor of architecture, describes the Dye course as  “A mind-boggling creation by octogenarian architect Pete Dye, it sits on perhaps the highest point in the state, a mountaintop leveled and transformed into a spider web of terraced fairways and perched greens guarded by every kind of bunker imaginable, from sand traps and waste areas to pot holes to puckered ones dubbed volcano bunkers. We predict a PGA Championship for this course.”
Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest Courses only includes 18 public or resort facilities. The Pete Dye Course joins just three other Midwest public/resort courses that made the elite list including Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, and Arcadia Bluffs in Michigan.