By Jeremy Schilling
On a recreational scale, most would say golf is healthy, but not thriving. Good courses have tee times stacked from dawn ‘til dusk during the heart of the season, but some other courses just aren’t as popular. There was a golf course design boom in the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s but now that bubble has burst, and a lot of those courses now sit empty or unfinished, making beautiful plots of land lay ugly.
There’s also this crucial fact: to many, golf isn’t fun. The rounds take five hours. The holes are too long. Their fellow golfers are too rude, and going to the driving range and acting like Happy Gilmore is more enticing than trying to make your first ace.
Changes must take place.
This past week the New York Times highlighted two different organizations trying to bring golfers back to the course. It’s needed. The National Golf Foundation says there were three million less players in this country in 2009 than there were four years prior. And American golfers played 24 million fewer rounds of golf last year than they did five years ago.
Enter Flogton, or “not golf” backwards. Their actual name is the Alternative Golf Association. They bend the rules by allowing cooking spray to be applied to drivers to make them go farther and straighter or special wedges that look like cheese graters to help impart backspin on the ball so the average Joe can hit shots like Tiger and Phil and get the ball closer to the hole faster
The second is the Polara ball, whose irregular dimple pattern makes it neither hook nor slice. It’s nonconforming to the rules of golf and can’t be used in official tournament play, but as their director Dave Felker says, “’It’s for the other golfers, the ones who rarely hit it straight,’ he said. ‘It’s for people who want to be embarrassed less, play faster and enjoy it more. I respect the U.S.G.A., they help identify the best golfers in the world, but what about the rest of us?’”
The most encouraging sign is that golf’s governing bodies are in favor of radical ideas like these.
The PGA of America, which represents the teaching professionals who see a lot of new golfers as they are just beginning are in favor of ideas like Polara and Flogton. As their CEO, Joe Sterenka said about the latter, “’Few of the 475 million rounds played each year are played by the strict rules that govern tournament play….If that [Flogton] helps encourage facilities to be more customer focused, that would be a positive, but not entirely necessary.
“The P.G.A. is now looking at new entry points to the sport that address some of the things — technology, family fun, and low-cost, time-flexible experiences for beginners — that people have identified as important to them in the new research we conducted.’”
Dan Hubbard, assistant director of communications for the United States Golf Association clarified the Association’s position on Polara and Flogton in an email.
“The Polara ball does not conform to USGA & R&A standards for approved golf balls, and is therefore not supported for use,” he wrote.
“Regarding the Flogton concept, the USGA welcomes efforts to attract more players to the game. At the same time, we are very clear that our mission is to protect and preserve the game of golf as it has been traditionally played. We respect the choices that people make, but our goal is to focus on golf and not an alternative game.”
Steps like these are going to be crucial if golf hopes to continue to expand further into the 21st century. New, fresh thoughts are desperately needed to continue to pass down the game from generation to generation.