A Strategic Plan for American Golf

How to reposition the game for the next generation of Americans.

Golf is, at its best, a game for the every-man. Unfortunately, the American version of golf is often the opposite. Somewhere in the last century, our nation’s golf industry decided it could “improve” upon the ancient traditions of the game by prioritizing things like exclusivity, lackluster courses, and golf carts. Those policies may have resulted in a temporary boom for the golf industry, but it was unsustainable and today there are more courses closing in America than opening.

Golf in America is not dead though. The game has found new life in a generation of players who are finding joy through the sport in a variety of non-traditional ways. Golf has a growing presence on social media, short courses and Topgolf are all the rage, and municipal facilities are suddenly cooler than country clubs. We live in a time which American golf is changing for the better and there is an opportunity at hand to increase the game’s popularity. Millennials are now the majority of the workforce and Gen Z is quickly coming of age offering golf a window to show both generations that the game can be appealing to them. In order for golf to capitalize on these changing demographics, there needs to be a plan for how to move the game forward in ways that are attractive to these generations.

I believe that can be accomplished by making the future of golf in America resemble the best attributes of the game in Scotland. In Scotland, golf is a resilient game because it is a community pastime. In America, the game was turned into a commodity, strapped on to a cart, and placed behind fences as the result of misguided policies that have been detrimental to the sport. The resulting state of the game is something that is too expensive, unnecessarily slow and needlessly detached from everyday life. It’s time to reexamine how golf in America is offered to the masses. I have great hope that the courses, clubs, companies, and organizations involved in golf can create a bright and thriving future and it starts by making the game more oriented to the common man.

There are numerous solutions to turning the tide for American golf, but I’d like to offer up a few that I think should be moved to the front of the list. In my belief, the key to creating a new surge in American golfers is to build a nationwide network of courses, facilities,  and clubs that are inviting places for passing time with friends and family. American golf should be affordable, walkable, and flexible. We must endeavor to make golf a game that people will choose to play. Golf should be a part of people’s lives, not some expensive escape from it. Let’s look to create a better golf culture in America and position the game to be a community pastime.

In order to achieve this lofty goal, American golf needs a strategic plan in place to shape how the next two decades should unfold. To begin, the stakeholders of the game need to understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the game today.

Strengths

  • America has an immense amount of golf courses and millions of players
  • Golf is a unique way to discover the variety of American landscapes
  • There are more outlets for discovering good golf than ever before
  • Current new course construction is generally in good taste

Weaknesses

  • American golf is too dependent on golf carts
  • The vast majority of courses lack interesting design
  • Golf courses have become removed from everyday life
  • Too many clubs and courses hold a rigid interpretation of what golf is

Opportunities

  • Golf has many attributes that can appeal to millennials (exercise, travel, unique experiences)
  • There are thousands of golf courses that could become great community assets with some creative design changes
  • Golf can be offered in small doses all across the country (short courses, putting courses, top golf)
  • Golf has a fabulous and ever flourishing relationship with social media

Threats

  • Golf takes too long to enjoy for many patrons of the game
  • Exclusivity is not an appealing attribute to millennials
  • Failed developments, struggling clubs, and a right-sizing of the game have resulted in a sense that “golf is dying”
  •  The cost to enjoy interesting golf is generally too high.

Understanding these factors and their potential impacts on the realities of the sport is critical to completing a successful handoff of golf to new generations. American golf is at a crossroads and in order to create a thriving future, there must be clear and identifiable target outcomes that drive decision making among stakeholders. Golf’s critical stakeholder groups must create a set of imperative priorities to serve as a guiding light in the coming years.

Imperative Priorities

America’s golf stakeholders need a universally accepted set of Imperative Priorities that are widely regarded as the compass for which we all use to steer the game. Based on the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats outlined above, I offer the following four suggestions:

  • Create open and inviting environments for golf
  • Frame golf as a pastime instead of a privilege
  • Change the look of golf to better reflect millennial and Gen Z preferences
  • Invest in places that promote fun, walkable, and flexible varieties of golf

Strategic Initiatives

In order to achieve these desired outcomes, there need to be a set of initiatives that can appeal to golf’s strengths and opportunities while correcting weaknesses and neutralizing threats. American golf needs a combination of both simple policy level changes and more intensive overhauls that require large scale investments. When making a change of this magnitude, small victories are critical to building momentum for larger systematic shifts. The sum of those actions can lead to improved perceptions and newly activated markets for golf. In that spirit, I submit eight strategic initiatives for golf:

Walking must become the preferred way to play the game

As Shivas Irons said, “the game was meant for walking”, and it is high time that American golfers got back to this mindset.  One of the most important attributes of golf is the time spent walking between shots. It is in those moments where a player can find the unique peace of mind that only a walk on the golf course can offer. When you walk a golf course you can hear the sounds of nature, see the contours of the land, and better enjoy the company of your companions. The golf cart has ruled the courses of America for far too long. A golf cart is necessary for some who otherwise couldn’t play, but most American golfers wrongly see the cart as a must-have accessory. Golf carts make for long rounds and constantly do damage to the course. Meanwhile, walking is great for your health, highly enjoyable, and actually can help you focus and play better. Ameica needs to ditch the cart and encourage the carrying of clubs. To promote walking is to promote the best version of golf.

Private clubs should allow more access

Private golf clubs play an important role in the game. Clubs often serve as the guardians for the traditions and history of golf. Many clubs are also regular hosts to championships and other important tournaments in the sport. The difference between the great clubs of Scotland and the most prestigious clubs in America is how they view public access. In Scotland, clubs see sharing their courses with the public as part of their duty to the game and healthy for the bottom line. Many clubs open their doors a few days a week as a means of sharing the charms of their club and driving outside revenue. Imagine the possibilities if the most important clubs in America adopted such policies. More golfers would travel, fond memories would be created on special occasions, and players could reasonably aspire to someday play the great works of golf design. Now is the time for American clubs to open the gates and share the joys of golf. Golf cannot flourish with its best grounds locked behind gates and hidden from the masses.

Municipal golf must become more interesting

In the next twenty years, the greatest opportunity for golf course architects will be the re-imagining of municipal golf. Let’s face the facts, there just aren’t many new courses being built these days and that trend has no end in sight. Course architects must partner with municipal governments as a means for rethinking how golf is offered as a service to taxpayers. There is a growing list of projects across the country today that provide a blueprint worth following. Municipal golf should be interesting and diverse. There need to be more short courses and nine-hole offerings in urban areas where land is limited. The biggest opportunity is renovating existing courses that either under-perform or simply don’t deliver a compelling layout.  The future of municipal golf is directly tied to the prospects of the broader game. Architects need work, the game needs new players, and citizens need great options for recreation. If we can re-position how governments offer the game then we can reach millions of potential players. Municipal courses can become the breeding ground for the golf’s next generation and a godsend for architects.

Match play should be actively promoted

Golf is best played in a match against friends. Match play offers an ideal structure for enjoying competition over a golf course. The scorecard and pencil crowd will find this blasphemous, but golf is more of a sport when played head to head in a thrilling match. Match play also lends itself to a variety of formats that are best enjoyed when players are prioritizing the winning of holes versus the final score. Match play makes any course immediately more interesting and allows for a speedy pace of play. The great match play golfers are a dying breed and that is a real shame. Match play calls for daring shots and bold decision making at times while also rewarding the strategic and patient golfer in other moments. Momentum is a real thing in a match and to watch it swing only increases the intrigue. Every club and course should host regular matches across a variety of formats as a means for filling the tee sheet. It’s time to promote match play as the preferred method for playing the game. A regular round of golf is leisure, but a match is a sporting pursuit. That way of thinking is worth courting to our American game again.

Courses need to be dog-friendly

It is hard to imagine a better pairing than dogs and golf. One of the greatest joys that I have found in the game is playing with my dog at my side. In Scotland, a dog is a welcome companion on the golf course. American golf courses would be wise to embrace our four-legged friends as part of the culture of the game. If golf is to become a great pastime in our country then dogs must be allowed to walk at our side. Golf is the perfect opportunity to “take the dog for a walk” and courses could see added rounds by allowing such activities. Owners must keep their end of the bargain and make sure dogs are well behaved, but most courses have golfers that treat the grounds worse than a dog would. There aren’t many games that allow pets to tag along, but golf is well suited for the canine. What a fun notion to think that both a dog and an owner can find equal enjoyment in a sport like golf. Dogs make for great playing partners and inviting them to the course is a great way to make any round more enjoyable.

Kids under 15 should play for free

Children should always be allowed to play golf for free. No matter the course or club, kids need to be openly encouraged to become golfers. The potential loss of small amounts of revenue has a marginal impact on the bottom line, but the gain of new golfers is desperately needed and can be undoubtedly lucrative for all. Kids that learn the game early in life stand a strong chance of staying in the game for decades to come. An added bonus is that children who get hooked on the game while playing free will likely insist on playing with their paying parents more. If we are going to talk about growing the game then we must be serious about how we offer our courses to children. Like any budding relationship, the first impressions we make on children who are interested in golf will dictate how well they take to the game. I suggest the cut off for free golf be after age 15 because I believe that teens should get a job at the course to earn free golf and learn more about how courses work. It’s time to get serious about recruiting the next generation of golfers and offering kids free rounds is a great place to start.

Golf style should adopt a more casual appearance

Golf needs to loosen up a bit if we want to attract new and younger players. There is nothing wrong with playing in a t-shirt and not every top need to be tucked in. Forgive my intrusion into traditional clubs and courses that have strict dress codes, but it is time that we allow a bit more leeway in the attire of our game. The business world is continually changing what kinds of dress are allowed at the office and the golf courses of America need to do the same. Instead of promoting certain types of clothing, why not promote the idea of being stylish. Stylish attire should be the mark we aim for as we broaden the game’s appeal to millennials and members of Gen Z. Let’s not tell people what they can or can’t wear. A better path is to show people that golf is an opportunity to express your personal style while enjoying a great recreational and communal activity.

There should be new varieties of golf offered across the country

Golf can be played virtually everywhere. The game is played anytime there is a club, a ball, and a hole available. In today’s world where time constraints are a constant, we must strive to provide opportunities for golf on smaller scales and in more convenient places.  Golf should not be relegated to the open spaces on the edge of cities or on remote rural backroads. Why not create community putting courses in city parks or pitch-and-putts tucked into urban greenways? Playgrounds across the country offer basketball hoops and swing sets so there could also be a space for a small chipping green. Office parks could have three to five one-shot holes available for people on their lunch break and apartment buildings could offer a synthetic green on a pool deck or roof. If we want to bring more people to golf in the future we may just have to bring more golf to where they are. Let’s get creative and build small doses of golf all around us.

Golf in America has a promising future, but in order to arrive at the best possible outcomes, we must be willing to make a few needed course corrections. Golf needs to be promoted as a pastime and made open and affordable to the masses. The game should resemble the diverse tastes of new generations and we must prioritize having fun through the sport in varied ways. If America’s golf stakeholders are committed to growing the game then we must be strategic in how we advance the best attributes of it. American golf has had many years of growth in its past, but in order to grow again, the game has to evolve in ways that better reflect the true spirit of the game.

Happy Trails Forrest Fezler

Forrest Fezler has passed away, but his impact on golf and on me will be felt for many years to come. I was fortunate to get to know Forrest in recent years and after a few meetings he agreed to let me tell his story. Forrest was a world class player, a risk taking entrepreneur, talented golf designer, and all around good guy. He lived a life in golf that was always played slightly out of bounds. Like his best friend and partner Mike Strantz, he was a maverick until the end.

I first met Forrest when I was President at Capital City Country Club in Tallahassee, Florida. Forrest had taken a liking to Capital City in his final years and we talked him into building a few bunkers for us. I had long known the highlights of his life story but I was curious to know more. We scheduled a lunch that turned into a long afternoon conversation about his career. That conversation led to another lunch and even more conversations about golf.

I asked Forrest if he would mind me writing his story and he agreed. Through a few months of chats and texts I got a great sense for who he was. The story became a narrative about his life, the life of Mike Strantz, and how the fates brought them together to build some of the most interesting new courses in golf. Together they made Maverick Golf Design one of the most cutting edge firms in the game.

I spent a couple of months building out their story and I couldn’t wait to share it with Forrest. The day I sent him the final draft was the day he told me about his tumor. I remember sinking in my chair when I read his message. I could tell it was a bad diagnosis from his tone.

Forrest was struggling to read the story due to the effects from the tumor, but he trusted me to go ahead and release it. I published the story and it quickly became the most read piece I had ever written. A few days later I got a text from Forrest. He had finally gotten through the story and he let me know what it meant to him.

This is what he sent me:

“It has brought tears in my eyes all night.

Especially reflecting on this new chapter in my life. Your kind words are more healing now than you will ever know or appreciate

That means the world to me.

Thanks for being there when I needed it so.

Forrest”

I’ll never forget that text and I’ll never forget my talks with Forrest.

I’m so glad that I got know his story. I found Forrest to be a humble man with many talents and someone who clearly loved everything about golf. He was a champion in the sport but he will likely be best remembered by friends as someone who championed them and the game many of us adore.

If you’d like to learn more about Forrest Fezler, his life, and career you can check out the story here.

The Maverick Lives On

Happy trails Fez. Golf will surely miss you.

-J