In this ‘My View’ article, I will argue that taking down arbitrary cultural barriers can make the game friendlier, and that “stepping stone” facilities are essential for converting beginners into real golfers.
By any measure golfer numbers are in decline. This is not because seven billion people have given up on green space and outdoor recreation. On the contrary, it’s more important than ever to the 54% of the global population who live in large urban areas. By 2050 that figure will be 66%. If you operate a municipal or non-private urban golf course you have a major role to play in the future of the game.
I live in Tokyo with 38 million other people. Even in the face of national population decline this will be the world’s largest city for some time. Like many Tokyoites I travel outside the city to play golf. It’s a full day commitment: three hours travelling, four hours golfing, one hour eating and one hour relaxing in a traditional bathhouse. This is becoming the standard for big city dwellers everywhere. Minus the bathing of course.
For new golfers the barriers to entry have always been high. Some of them are harder to address than time commitment. In many countries it’s hard to even set eyes on a golf course. Gates, tall trees, fences and exclusion have become the norm. Golf did not start out this way, and we should not be surprised that the everyman roots of Scotland’s Gift are being eroded by a lack of new blood.
Outside of wealthy retirees, company owners and the golf addicted few it’s easy to see why the game is losing the competition for people’s time. Providing a golf experience that takes under three hours total, instead of over nine hours, is critical.
Please indulge me while I paint a quick mental picture for you. You’re having a relaxing Sunday with your partner, significant other, dog, whatever. Maybe you’ve cycled or taken the train across town to spend time in a park. Your stroll brings you to a welcoming cafe. As you walk in and sit down you are pleasantly surprised by the golfing vista that unfurls beyond large bright windows. Friendly staff explain that this cafe doubles as the reception for an accessible public golf facility. If you’d like they can take you downstairs and set you up with clubs to play their half acre putting course, a six hole short course, or their full spec nine-hole course. As a complete novice they suggest a round on the putting course. You decline but as you finish your coffee the scene of city residents putting, pitching and generally enjoying the pleasant environment connects with you in a positive way. Although you didn't play today your interest has been kindled. This is a place that you can easily see yourself spending a few hours when time allows, maybe even bringing a friend…
The stepping stone facility described above - that is, a facility where any adult or child can take the steps from novice putting to playing full spec golf holes - can be combined with walking/cycling trails, non-golf green space and naturalised areas that provide an urban oasis for people and wildlife. A business model that welcomes non-golfers into cafes, restaurants (even bathhouses in Japan!) is perfect for introducing people to the game.
Multifunctional land use is critical to golf’s urban future. The days of conceding 100 acres of cityscape to an exclusive use have basically gone. With the golf ball flying further than ever thousands of municipal courses simply aren't big enough to accommodate eighteen holes of the modern game. In an urban setting chasing distance and squeezing safety margins is doomed to failure.
A talented golf course architect can pick off cool land features from an existing eighteen holes to create a nine-holer that is engaging for beginners and experts alike, retaining enough chances to hit driver. Finding space to add a Putting Course, a five acre Short Course and beautiful walking trails to the facility is relatively straightforward.
Although it hasn’t transitioned from eighteen to nine holes, it’s worth highlighting the recent example of Goat Hill Park in San Diego. One of golf’s unsung heroes John Ashworth (founder of the eponymous clothing brand) successfully led a campaign to save his local municipal course from proposed redevelopment into a minor league soccer stadium, or even worse, a mall. Drafting in premier designer Tom Doak on a pro bono deal they retrofitted a Kid’s Course into the site and renovated the 4,800 yard course. “It’s a good challenge, but it’s inexpensive and only takes 3 hours to play 18 holes, at most” says Ashworth, “There’s no dress code – and lots of tattoos. It really is the epitome of what golf is supposed to be.”
Rio de Janeiro: Home on the Range
A driving range is a terrible introduction to golf. Grass or synthetic, they are sterile and intimidating. Hit but don't walk is a barrier to truly appreciating golf.
TopGolf is an interesting concept. It has successfully embedded the spirit of competition into range golf, but it’s no industry saviour. At best it steers new golfers into a sedentary cart golf model with food and drink on tap. You can learn to hit a golf ball on a range, but you can’t learn anything about golf.
In 2014 I moved to Rio de Janeiro to join Gil Hanse and his design/build team for the final seven months of the Olympic Golf Course project. In a city with 10 million residents, three golf courses and a few thousand golfers an Olympic venue was always going to shake up the local scene. Gil’s design is wide, strategic and beautifully integrated with indigenous landforms and vegetation. It will challenge the best and be fun for the rest.
When it came time to build the academy there was enough space left for four short holes. The team put their heads together and designed a fun little loop. As a free-form learning facility it is perfect for beginners - young and old. With any luck the long-term operators will avoid enforcing dress code requirements. If board shorts and flip flops are welcome Rio public golf will be off to a great start. Carioca (residents of Rio) don’t really do long pants.
So far so good, but a four hole loop has one key limitation: capacity. As a child I stepped up to playing North Berwick West Links via the town putting green and our nine-hole Kid’s Course. My early experiences had no rules or supervision; a freeform and fun introduction to the game.
Every year since 1904 North Berwick Kid’s Course has hosted stroke and matchplay tournaments. Up to eighty local youngsters compete for historic trophies in the shadow of North Berwick’s famous Redan hole and Biarritz 16th green. This is real golf. Tears are spilled, life lessons are learned, and competitive spirit is ingrained. Offering this kind of experience to Rio kids was at the forefront of our minds, and the solution was right in front of us. We extended our academy routing into the range, building four target greens to add four equally fun holes to the course. The ninth hole plays back to the chipping green in front of the Olympic Clubhouse for a grandstand finish.
Using a short course to grow new golfers is a tried and tested approach, but a multifunctional range has a knock-on effect to your business model. If you close your warm-up facility one afternoon each week to enable nine-hole play some golfers will defect and play at a course where they can warm up before they go out and shoot 110. That’s OK. Growing new golfers is more important than keeping your range open from dawn till dusk seven days a week.
Get Your Goat
Golf needs to demonstrate that it is a solution for urban communities. The market for the full day, full service golf experience will always exist, but in fast growing, fast-paced cities around the world golf must adapt to survive. In the mature post-bubble golf economies of Japan, the United States, Australia and the UK, the over-supply of one-dimensional facilities is correcting itself through closures. That’s OK. That’s capitalism. Although the waste of resources is sad. What is certain is that going forwards we need more barrier-free examples like Goat Hill Park. We need better facilities for fast, fun and friendly golf experiences. But most of all we need to throw the doors open to everyone; golfers and non-golfers alike.