The Leak in Golf’s Balloon

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From over 30 million golfers to less than 23.5 million, from over 16,000 18-hole equivalents to 14,118 and from 1,882 golfers to 1,687 golfers per 18 holes are the numbers posted to the scoreboard.  Rounds have fallen from 37,572 to 32,295, municipal golf courses have grown by 36% and public courses now constitute 75% of all facilities.  Time, cost and difficulty are cited ad nauseam as the reason for golf’s decline.

I believe these three frequently cited factors are not the cause but the result of a greater problem: our changing culture.

At Baltimore International Airport, they now have a “SERVICE ANIMAL RELIEF AREA.”  Dogs are now frequently seen on planes, in hotels, and in restaurants. The rise in “emotional therapy” animals is exponential with passengers citing they are traumatized by flight and require the pet to remain emotionally stable.

I agree they are unemotionally unstable and should be on a couch in a doctor’s office and not on a plane until healthy opting for car, bus or train as their primary transport. I fear a lot of things, heights, snakes, sharks, crocodiles, etc. – anything related to death not by natural causes. I am not demanding the Eiffel Tower build a self-enclosed elevator that goes to the top without having to walk across a plank at 650 feet. I just don’t go up.  I am not requesting Troon Golf remove all the rattlesnakes on their Scottsdale courses as a condition of my playing.  I just take extra balls lacking some.

Recently, I saw a lady walking her pet pig through Lowe’s.  I asked if that was unusual.  The manager said, “Absolutely not.  We have had goats, donkeys, and Shetland ponies paraded through the store.”

What is the problem and what is the connection to golf?

We have become a society where our sense of propriety is lost. We believe our rights are greater and more important than those of others. We have lost our moral and ethical compass to accept our responsibility to respect the rights of others within our community, the nation and on the global campus.

Golf represents the antithesis of these values.  Golf attracts those who respect and subconsciously believe in the nine core values taught by First Tee:  honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment. As a result, golf attracts those who have respect for the game’s rules and the traditions it imbues:  74% wealthier and 13% older than the general population, largely Caucasian and 76% male and a welcomed growing female participation – up 33% in six years.

Earlier this month, I saw an individual (gentleman would be too kind a description) bring his dog into the practice area at the Ridge at Castle Pines.  The well-trained crew under the guidance of Daniel Kane, Troon General Manager, respectively informed him of the inappropriate behavior and asked that he depart.  Yea!

With this hopefully an exception rather than a new trend in golf, I ponder if rather than pandering to the masses a targeted advertising approach to those who identify with the values of First Tee would accelerate the growth of golf and seal the leak on the current balloon?

What do you think?  Please comment below.



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  1.    Reply

    There are countless academic research papers, and even more industry reports published by major golfing bodies around the world that have citied cost, time and difficulty as a major barrier to golf participation. This data tends to be collected directly from current golfers, lapsed golfers and people who do not golfer wether they have an interest in golf or not. I believe the problem is a resistance to change which this piece of text is a brilliant example of. Individuals in golf are stuck in their ways and do not accept that society changes and industries and sports have to adapt to this. Golf is seen as boring, too strict, takes too long, too difficult if this can change then there will be a growth in participation. Golf will not influence peoples behaviour, one PM in the UK tried to use sport to influence peoples behaviour and it massively backfired, golf will not teach individuals how to behave as they won’t play. Golf needs to appeal to younger lifestyles as these are the ones who will keep the sport from going under. Currently golf is played by 60+ year olds and is reliant on these well in 20-40 years who will golf rely on? The younger generation this is why golf needs to be open to change. Golf clubs should not have a great big list of ‘don’ts and rules on the first tee’ it should be advertising what people can do, bring your dog, play on your mobile (with silent on of course). Golf can keep some values but will have to trade off others, the quicker individuals that are in decision making roles in golf realise the more beneficial it will be for the game. Get younger people into marketing and decision making roles instead of having boards made of 60+year olds trying to attract younger groups they are out of touch!

  2.    Reply

    I’m in the golf business. I love dogs. Please cancel my subscription.

    How’s that for growing the game?

  3.    Reply

    Yes, couldn’t agree more. Very tired of the exception not having to adjust but everyone else must adjust. I find it unacceptable that animals are welcomed at restaurants, grocery stores etc. No peanutbutter at schools to protect a child’s allergy but pets allowed on planes, in stores and at restaurants etc with no concern for my pet allergies. My sons has special needs that do not allow him to play soccer at school, so all kids should not play soccer?

  4.    Reply

    Agree 100% with you! The demise of the family units, both spouses working and technology has pulled us away from the basics of developing long term, committed relationships and the values we grew up with as “baby boomers”.

  5.    Reply

    Hi Jim, as you will recall many of our members at the Honourable Company (Muirfield) are country folk and enjoy other country pursuits. Even the ‘townies’ are sympathetic of our canine friends and regularly are dogs seen walking with their owners on the links. One of our number even has the nickname ‘3 dogs’ as he is seen on occasions with his 3 black labradors… of course there is a balance to be struck which means the dogs need to be well under control, so not chasing balls or disturbing the ground nesting birds and owners trained to bag the poop when deposited in likely and heavy areas of traffic. Thankfully members are respecting of the ‘rules’ and we are able to enjoy their presence… there is no better way to exercise our canine pets.
    This is the minority because most clubs in the UK have too many people who have disrespected the rules of dog owning decency or had too strong an anti dog lobby. Fortunately at our club a recent Secretary who was waging war on the presence of dogs was reminded by several members that he is a servant of the club and they would much prefer dogs than him about the place! And the joke until recently is that canines were better looked after than the fairer sex as there are several water bowls strategically placed on the course and yet women were denied the lunch fare on club days. This has now thankfully been voted to an end and with true equality ladies are embraced throughout the clubhouse facilities just as dogs are welcomed on the course – progress!

  6.    Reply

    I’d like to see more dogs on the golf course. Check out golf in the UK.

  7.    Reply

    That is a very good point Jim. I do believe that consistent communication with the golfing and non-golfing public about what your facilities objectives are with regards to maintenance and playability along with a clear policies and protocols that promote the integrity of the game of golf along with meeting the expectations and desires of our golfers.

  8.    Reply


    It’s amazing the degradation of values that has taken place in society in such a short period of time. As a PGA member, I do my share in growing the game at the facility that I work. We have a strong junior golf program. I head the adult clinics instructing 4 evening classes a week. I recently played in a golf outing that was basically a music-blaring drunk fest. Never having played in it before, I didn’t know that’s what type of event I was going to experience. Nonetheless, I guess there is a time and place for outings like that but it shouldn’t become the norm. I don’t feel golf needs to transform to cater to the masses to grow the sport. I say instill the values that golf was formed on over 100 years ago. Maybe golf will ‘create’ better people in this nation as a result and not self-entitled, selfish, valueless, fast-driving tailgaters who don’t respect the rights of others.

  9.    Reply

    Agree on all counts. I can hear the liberals cringe as they read this. Run for public office!!!

    1.    Reply

      Seriously, while I’m a centrist libertarian and am not personally attacked by your comment, that’s a ridiculous and irrelevant assertion. It’s illogical to construe that the statements JJ makes are tied to one’s political bent. You evidence the real problem, we need smarter, less biased people in this business.

  10.    Reply

    Excellent Jim,
    Golf should stop apologizing for providing core values.
    There are more of them than there are of us, but that doesn’t make them right. I believe that golf provides a great deal to society and if it continues to do so, a lot of the “lost souls ” will recognize that and return to the fold.

  11.    Reply

    I doubt emphasizing the First Tee values would drive new players statistics. I think the current malaise could be in part attributed to the “Millennial”society’s behavior.Most golfers are older than 40, the industry needs more 25-40 year olds.Also,the percentage of female golfers may be growing,but I play 150 rounds per year and see about 0-6 women playing at the times I
    play(7-11 a.m.)
    Marketing campaigns should target players based on frequency of play.Thus someone that shows up to play 6 times a month at a course and get loyalty points for future rounds,should get more points once a certain lnumber of rounds has been reached so your 7th monthly round gets 1.5 points,etc..and after a year over say 75 rounds get 2 rounds or one and a sleeve,etc..

  12.    Reply

    The problem with Golf is economics, operator attitudes towards patrons, and teaching the swing in a way that is difficult to get positive results.

    Economics is an increasing problem for most, regardless of whether or not one plays golf. Economic experts project the next downturn, occurring soon, will be between 3-6X greater than 2008. Why? Since 2008 the global central banks have added $37T in additional debt to stabilize the collapsing of debt levels that were already unsustainable. This will make the next downturn a much greater magnitude than the last. It may also require the IMF to bail it out. The consequence of the IMF’s involvement may result in the removal of the USD as the benchmark world reserve currency. All this will result in far fewer golfers with the financial means to play.

    Operator attitudes toward their patrons are a serious problem, which stems from the Industry as a whole. If I were to write a book about my experiences with the Golf Industry, the title would be: GOLF, Arrogance and Ignorance, The Collapse of an Industry. The attitudes, (“Screw em, let em wait”) of many operators are still stuck back in the 1990s when there was less capacity and more playing interest. With tougher economic times, why would anyone choose to pay to be treated with disrespect and gross lack of appreciation?

    Teaching the game to be difficult has always amazed me. The golf swing is one of the easiest things to do. There is no right or wrong way, just some basic fundamentals. I watched a teaching video yesterday where a pro, selling his program, was explaining/demonstrating how not to hit behind the ball. His explanation took ten minutes and was so confusing to me (I’m a 6 index) that I couldn’t see how anyone wanting to learn could or would watch the entire 10 minutes. I sent the pro my thoughts, which were:

    “Please, Golf is taught to be so difficult, when in fact the swing is quite simple. 
    To keep from hitting behind the ball, at address hover the club 1″ +/- directly over the back half of the ball with your arms fully extended. Take your normal swing. As the club approaches the ball, your body will be moving downward past the point of address. That downward motion will enable the club to strike the ball instead of passing over the top of it (whiff). Those of you who position the club on the ground behind the ball at address, as your body drops downward, while bringing the club to the ball will normally hit the ground first before striking the ball (fat). This can all be demonstrated within 15 seconds.”

    Teach the golf swing in a way where the student achieves instant positive results and the game will begin to flourish. That is, if you treat the players with respect and appreciation. The economy is a different matter.

  13.    Reply

    The golf industry has abandoned the “core golfer” who wishes to play at least 3 times per week and focused on getting non golfers to play the game. Cut maintenance budgets with poor turf conditions and raise the fees is not in keeping with sound business practices. But the shorts are stacked perfectly in the pro shop.

  14.    Reply

    Sunningdale in Uk allows dogs in fact there is an ESPN video clip which shows just how proud the members are of their dogs and their companionship on the course.

  15.    Reply

    I agree JJ, I think you have hit on one of the items that has created the “leak in the balloon.” I would also say that those who are 30 years old and younger are not going to help as they don’t even know what physical work is and are too attentive to mindless electronic screens. We can’t even find anyone who wants a summer job anymore!

  16.    Reply

    I completely agree with you Mr. Keegan.
    I have said many times we need to change our marketing strategy to appeal to the selfish side of the younger generations.
    We have two generations now that have grown up getting trophies for participation. We even have kids graduating from kindergarten having parties and gifts. The list goes on.
    So why not market to these people that they need time away from the computer, work, children and family. They deserve time for themselves. What better place than the golf course. Four hours out in the sunshine, fresh air and nature.
    I am sure there are marketing people that could develop a plan.

  17.    Reply

    Dogs can be great companions. I’ve seen them at the course I play often. If they are well-behaved, I have no problem with them being part of our four-ball. Ron Read, USGA Committee Member and US OPEN starter has a his dog featured prominently in his Twitter feed, I’d be curious to know his opinion. It’s a local rule. Just because you have a dog, doesn’t mean you don’t have respect for others. Love reading your stuff Mr. Keegan.

  18.    Reply

    JJ, your take on the reason for decline is very interesting and a fresh perspective.
    As someone who was a lead instructor for the First Tee for 5 years, not only was it a joy and a massive reward to be priveledged to help share and shape these young people.
    Now years later I run into past young students and they still remove their hat, if wearing one, put out their hand, to shake mine and make eye contact with a smile…it works!
    Thank you for the interesting insight.
    BTW, I am one of those people who still call bunkers by their definition in the rule book and not sand traps! Some traditions are worth saving and some are worth revolving.

  19.    Reply

    Quite poetic and, as usual, insightful! Any means to uplift this wonderful hobby/profession/etc, is welcome. Your idea will be at or near the top.
    Gold offers so much! Too numerous of offerings to list here, and, along with the First Tee values, this is a great campaign for the profession to start putting forth to the masses or a target audience.

  20.    Reply

    I was with you until you got to the dog on the practice area. We permit dogs on our course – just as pets – therapy included. I picked up this practice when playing the Old Course in St Andrews – and a player coming in 18 had his retriever walking with him on the fairway – I am guessing they walked out 1 about 3 hours before then.
    The people who bring their dogs are more respectful of everything – they see it as a privilege not a right to be able to bring their dog with them. They always call first to confirm, they come with a leash, and they are very careful to keep the dog under control – until our foster dog-guide puppy hears them and runs out of the clubhouse to greet them.
    Yes there is a generation of entitled people coming our way – we made them that way and now we pay the price. The helicopter parents who never let their children fail or be disappointed – have really contributed to this mess. The kids who are on the couch and not on the first tee – they are enabled to be there and not here.
    There is a generation of parents who have to wonder what they have done with their kids – and what they are unleashing on the world. The genie is out of the bottle and we have to work with them.,
    I have employees who feel entitled to take breaks, chat on their phones – etc – when they arrive. After we drill it into them that this is unacceptable and put up with the tears, they learn and they adapt. Some quit, knowing Mom and Dad will pick up the tuition because they always do. Most just learn. Our motto – you are either part of the problem or part of the solution – choose wisely.
    Yes we have a problem – and kicking people out of courses is not the answer. There is a way to be accommodating and not hurt your business or the game. But sharp reaction is not the preferred route for golf. We have to remember – this generation is upon us – they are not going to change easily. We either embrace them and all of their foibles – or we lose them – choose wisely.
    Remember our parent’s reaction to the Beatles – and where we went from 1964 – it can be done – let’s get creative – TopGolf has – we can too. Choose wisely….