Stuffy. Buttoned-up. Elitist. When pro golfers themselves are using those words to describe their own sport, you know there’s a significant problem. Both Brooks Koepka and Paige Spiranac, both completely independently of one another, have decried the sport’s lack of approachability, and noted that growing the game remains a problem because of it.
Golf has long struggled with its image of being a country club sport, available only to the white collar, private school, Division I, white bread wealthy players who could afford it. (Want to see an example in motion? Look at the movie, Caddyshack).
The image might not have been a problem in previous years but with more kids entering sports at all levels (and few entering golf), it has become a crisis point. Organizations like The First Tee and LPGA Girls Golf are working to bring in children and reverse the image. Non-playing adults, however, remain untouched and leery of the sport.
Golfweek discussed this phenomenon in a recent article. Koepka, the former World No. 1 – opened up in great detail in a profile in GQ about what he would change about the game of golf, a sport that he truly loves despite some outside perception.
“One thing I’d change is maybe the stuffiness,” said Koepka, who’s never viewed himself as just a golfer. “Golf has always had this persona of the triple-pleated khaki pants, the button-up shirt, very country club atmosphere, where it doesn’t always have to be that way. That’s part of the problem. Everybody always says, ‘You need to grow the game.’ Well, why do you need to be so buttoned-up? ‘You have to take your hat off when you get in here.’ ‘You’re not allowed in here unless you’re a member — or unless the member’s here.’ Really? I just never really liked the country club atmosphere. I know that drives a lot of people away from liking me. But just ’cause this golf club has such prestige and the members are all famous and have a lot of money. … like, why can’t I show up and just go play the golf course? Why do I have to sit in my car and wait for the member?”
The lack of approachability has long been an issue for golf – and with the closure of municipal courses, the entry point for many middle- and lower-income players – that point has been underlined. In red ink.
But if golf seems unapproachable for males, the issue is stratospherically multiplied for women. Paige Spiranac, who enjoyed a stint on the pro tour, recently blasted the sport as unwelcoming to women as a whole.
“It’s this big boys’ club,” she noted.
Spiranac, who boasts over 2 million followers on her Twitter page, also revealed on the podcast that she was once rejected from helping a charity because of her sex appeal – and was told the charity couldn’t accept a donation of clubs from her because of it.
The 26-year-old who came onto the scene through a college career and enjoyed a brief stint on Tour believes problems with inclusivity is one of the significant issues facing the sport. In addition, she noted, the game itself creates boundaries that don’t need to be there – chiefly in the fussiness over what you can and can’t wear on the course. (Men, she noted, can wear shorts; however, if women wear tank tops, they are cast in a negative light): “We bond over having a common interest, and we all love the same thing … I don’t understand why it matters if you’re wearing a polo (shirt) and I’m not wearing a polo.”
The fact that women would be intimidated about going into golf because it allegedly punishes those who are attractive and accuses them of sexualizing themselves is also part of its problem. Without a female role model who refuses to knuckle under to the institution, the sport will not appeal to young women who are taught, in other sports, to embrace themselves as they are.
Women’s golf has long been seen as being held to unequal standards and a recent article in Golfweek details the disparity in how much the U.S. Women’s Open in golf lags behind its male counterpart in money-making. And while it’s not necessarily a by product of the image of golf, the fact that women see little return in the sport can discourage them from pursuing it.
Koepka’s remarks appear to echo those of Spiranac. While courses will cite decorum and conservatism as one of the sport’s benefits, he points out, they can also be its downfall.
Koepka previously called golf boring, saying, “If I could do it over again, I’d play baseball, 100 percent, no doubt. I just think people confuse all this for me not loving the game. I love the game. I absolutely love the game. I don’t love the stuffy atmosphere that comes along with it. That, to me, isn’t enjoyable.”
As far back as 2015, Money Magazine foresaw the problem in an article entitled “Fore! No, Make that Five Reasons Golf is in a Hole.” And those five reasons were telling, not just number two but others as well:
- People are too damn busy: 18 holes is a day commitment many can’t keep. All the way back in 2013, , golf groups launched a “Time for Nine” campaign, pushing the idea that, because so many people can’t find the time for 18 holes, it’s acceptable to play a mere nine holes. The problem is that it looks like people don’t have time for nine holes either, lately.
Takeaway: If only the leisure class has time to play the game, where does that leave the worker bees and others who want to play?
- It’s elitist and too expensive. Unfortunately, the sport has a well-deserved reputation for being pricey—think $400 drivers, $250,000 club “initiation” fees, and too many gadgets to mention. The snooty factor goes hand in hand with the astronomical prices and atmosphere on the typical course. As USA TODAY columnist Christine Brennan cautioned recently, unless the sport figures out a way to change course, “Golf is destined to continue to hemorrhage participants and further ensure its place as a mostly-white, suburban, rich men’s niche sport with plenty of TV sponsors who make cars, write insurance and invest money.”
Takeaway: We’re seeing the sport as not just unwelcoming but at worst, forbidding, to the middle- and lower-income demographics.
- It’s just not cool. In 2009, Jack Nicklaus lamented, “Kids just don’t play golf any more in the United States and it is sad.”
Takeaway: If golf doesn’t do anything to change its reputation, it will keep the same rarefied group it always has – and that group is shrinking.
- It’s too difficult. Pretty much every other sport on the planet is more immediately rewarding than golf. Take a snowboard lesson in the morning, and by afternoon, you can make a few turns down the bunny trail without falling (much). Golf is renowned not only for being frustratingly difficult for beginners, but even longtime players “enjoy” it as a frustratingly difficult hobby.
Takeaway: Why can’t this be made fun the same way putt-putt has been made fun? Why can’t we adopt a modified version of US Youth Soccer’s motto: The game for ALL kids?
- It’s false news: Of course, there are those who say golf isn’t dying. The sport’s popularity, they say, is merely taking a natural dip after soaring to unjustified heights during the “golf bubble” brought on by the worldwide phenomenon that was Tiger Woods. After the infidelity scandals and, more recently, poor play and loads of injuries from Woods, fewer people are watching golf on TV, buying golf gear in stores, and, you know, actually going out and playing golf.
Takeaway: Yeah, whatever. If the last item were true, we wouldn’t have all the closing of muni courses to show.People would still be playing. Munis have been around – and should continue – because people are interested in playing. But with an uptick in closings, it’s apparent this is not the case.
We’ve seen the industry work to try to make itself more welcoming. Recently, TopGolf unveiled a “backyard games/lounge” concept, eerily similar to that which has worked for Chicken N Pickle, a pickleball/sports bar/hospitality venue. To bring in neighborhood players, corporations looking for a team-building day and parents seeking something for their children, the organization has created a concept that welcomes not just players of all levels but those who might previously have had no interest in playing – but as a result of exposure, might pursue the game independently. It’s ‘Eatertainment’ and one of the top trends moving now.
Golf continues to explore opportunities for growth. FootGolf and Disc Golf both present chances for venues to bring in new athletes, increase usage and create another revenue stream. If events are held to help athletes try various disciplines of the sport, cross pollination can occur.
The bottom line, says Koepka, is the ability for golf to let go of its predetermined notions of whata a player should be – and to just let players be:
“…A lot of clubs, if I walked up … it’d be: ‘Sir, you need to tuck your shirt in. You need to take your hat off when you get in here.’ That’s just not my style of play. I’m not saying no rules is the answer. But it’s like, you want everyone to enjoy themselves when they’re there, you don’t want to feel like you’re walking on eggshells when you arrive at the golf course. I don’t like feeling like I’m walking on eggshells everywhere I go.”
If, as the saying goes, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, golf is in serious trouble. The sport needs to lose the eggshells, or it’ll be looking at a huge mess down the road.