If there’s one constant fact that’s not relented it’s the slow but ever steady decline in the total number of people playing golf in the USA and the courses that service them. In 2001 nearly 30 million Americans identified themselves as golfers. Fast forward to 2013 and the number is now approximately 24 million. No question the Great Recession—which started in ’07 and lasted thru a good portion of ’09—played a major role in pushing players away from the game. Since 2006 almost 650 18-hole courses have closed and since 2005 course closing have outnumbered openings. In 2013 alone 158 courses closed and just 14 opened. Between 130 and 160 courses are closing every 12 months and that trend is likely to stay in place for the short term but could go beyond that. Golf as a sport is clearly changing and those associated with the golf course business—ruling bodies, affiliated associations, owners, builders, architects—had best realize the deep-seated challenges ahead.
The reasons are varied but essentially boil down to this: the baby boomer generation is near the end of the active golf shelf-life. The replacement millennial generation—those born in 1980 and beyond—have not embraced golf as readily. In fact, they’ve distanced themselves from it. In today’s go-go-go world the very definition of quality leisure time is being shaped and defined differently than from years ago.
For many millennials the thought of playing a game that can take several hours to play is not warmly embraced. We live in a Twitter world of brevity and quickness. Golf’s key benefit is “smelling the flowers” —allowing the day to unfold. That past necessity is today’s dinosaur for many. There’s also the escalating cost of equipment which makes it un-affordable for all but those with the deepest of pockets. There’s also the overall difficulty of the game and the companion failure for quality instruction that helps speed along the process. Despite all the gains made through technology for clubs and balls, the net improvement in golf handicaps over the last 25-30 years has been negligible for men and women.
Golf was supposed to flourish when former world number one Tiger Woods came onto the professional scene in late 1996. Minorities were thought to be excited enough to take up the game with Woods serving as the new ambassador for the game. That did not happen. In fact, the game is even whiter now than when Tiger first entered the scene.
When the Great Recession happened golf course construction in America halted. It has not fundamentally changed since. The key golf groups—United States Golf Association (USGA), Professional Golfers of America (PGA), National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA), to name the most prominent—have all admitted the present landscape of golf must evolve to maintain its relevance in the 21st century. The denial phase is over but the prognosis is still uncertain.
What’s been realized is many of the courses built during the ’80’s and 90’s were extremely difficult to play and as a result required more time to negotiate all 18 holes. Fun golf has become the moniker in attempting to show how golf can be an attractive way to spend leisure time and indulge in what golf does better than just about any other activity—networking with friends and business associates.
In 2015, I had the pleasure in playing a wide variety of courses within America—a number of them were either just opening or had been overhauled in recent times to provide an even better product than what was there previously. Those in the business in building or renovating pre-existing courses realize golf has to provide a clear fun element to keep people interested in the game. The six courses mentioned below are clear examples that more will be needed, but the facilities mentioned indeed show a brighter future for the game is certainly doable. Golf can only be relevant to a newer generation of prospective players if the product provided strikes a real chord that fosters fun as the primary connection. Like the movie industry, today’s consumers are savvy and will not be fooled into providing ongoing financial contributing to cinema that has no characters or storyline. Golf is in the entertainment business. The six facilities below demonstrate how getting back in touch with the fun side of things can propel the game with new core players and a far brighter future.
Rams Hill Golf Course: Borrego Springs, California
One hour south of Palm Springs is the community of Borrego Springs. Back before the population explosion that caused the Coachella Valley to surge to the forefront the communities of Palm Springs and Borrego Springs were quiet enclaves—rejuvenating tired bodies for those seeking a desert getaway. In the ensuing years Borrego Springs remained true to its original roots—the community is still small and grows modestly during the winter when snow birds arrive. In 1985 Rams Hill opened as a 18-hole course by architect Ted Robinson. Eventually nine additional holes were added but the course did not really attract much interest and eventually was modified by architect Tom Fazio in 2005 as a new 18-hole course within the previous footprint of the Robinson design. The “new” layout opened in 2007 but eventually closed in 2010 and remained that way until present ownership took control of the property in 2013—which re-opened in November 2014.
The Rams Hill layout provides wonderfully crafted holes with sufficient width to provide for all types of golfers. Fazio has often been accused of simply being a “stylish” designer with vapid holes. That’s far from the case at Rams Hill. The additional width comes in handy given the winds that can whip through the property at certain times. The conditioning is on par with any of the best layouts in the Coachella Valley and the cost to play is smartly set to encourage return play. Fazio has made a career in designing courses that are pleasing to the eye but Rams Hill is much more than a scenic wonder. Rams Hill embraces the desert connection and is not superimposed as so many courses one finds in the nearby Cochella Valley. Fortunately, the course is relatively free of housing and the views of the surrounding mountains is mesmerizing—most especially as the sunlight moves throughout the day. Playability is present, but so is the challenge with putting surfaces that require the keenest of strokes and the surest of executions time after time. Fazio is rightly feasted for a range of his designs—and Rams Hill has been clearly missed. Be sure to include it on your golf agenda when in the area. RamsHillGolf.com
Gamble Sands: Brewster, Washington
When Scotsman David McLay Kidd designed Bandon Dunes nearly 20 years ago along the southwestern coast of Oregon, the golfing world wondered who was selected by course developer Mike Keiser for that special piece of land sitting on the Pacific Ocean. Kidd surprised many with his work there but that success only served to propel him into creating courses even more challenging and more maddening for all but the most gifted of players. The Scotsman realized this when receiving feedback from those wondering if he had lost his bearings. Kidd decided a return to making golf a fun event for nearly all players would be the direction he would go. One can see firsthand the fruits of his labor with his stellar design at Gamble Sands in Brewster, WA.
Located in the heart of Central Washington State—and renowned as the nation’s cherry and apple capital—Gamble Sands was previously a former sandy mesa above orchards owned by the Gebbers family. The belief was that a special course could be the driving force to get many more people to visit the area.
Kidd relished the challenge since the available land would be free of intruding housing and allow him to create a course where ample fairway width is the norm—a few in the range of 60-70 yards across. Kidd didn’t build multiple tier greens as he had at Tetherow in Bend, OR. The putting surfaces at Gamble Sands are more about subtlety and less about wild ocean waves routinely producing mindless three and four putts per hole. Gamble Sands allows for miscues but it never provides total rewards without top tier executions. The non-cluttered course allows for the beauty of the Columbia River Valley to fully express itself. And when the round concludes the urge to try it again is overpowering. The ultimate barometer to a course’s true greatness and fun connection.
Gamble Sands has shown a pathway—a focus on elevating fun time for people playing golf. Will more such courses be created? That’s hard to say with 100 percent certainty but what Gamble Sands does show is that people still want to play but on courses that invigorate them to return—not overdosing on water hazards with difficult forced carries, high rough and impossible greens that only Jordan Spieth can negotiate. The gamble Kidd took clearly paid off. GambleSands.com
Cabot Cliffs: Inverness, Nova Scotia
The most talented duo in golf course design—Americans Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw—have been plying their skills for a number of years now and it is there work on a course located in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island that may well be their most significant course project that members of the general public can access.
For those relishing classic course designs when golf came of age in America, Coore & Crenshaw have built a reputation second to none in bringing back to life that revered style of golf.
Cabot Cliffs opened in a limited fashion this past July. The Cliffs joined forces with the original 18 holes—called Cabot Links—which opened three years earlier to positive acclaim as well. Cabot Cliffs, as its name suggests, is located on land that rests a few hundred feet above the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The juxtaposition of land and water makes for a superb partnership and Coore & Crenshaw have seen fit to keep Mother Nature in the mix while also providing for a range of fun holes that provide an array of different strategies for players to determine.
The par-72 course possesses an equal number of par-5, par-4 and par-3 holes. Such a combination is a rare mix but, all in all, generally works well here with only a few average holes sprinkled in the routing. None of the par-4’s plays over 405 yards and the total yardage from the championship tees is less than 6,800 yards. The motif of Cabot Cliffs is centered on fun golf shots that all types of players can employ. There’s sufficient width in nearly all the fairways to deal with the varying wind conditions that can arise at anytime. The ending stretch of holes is rightly celebrated because of the brilliant series of shots called upon.
Cabot Cliffs provides a marriage between and air and ground shot-making which highlights options for players to decide upon. Unlike the severe courses built 25-30 years ago which often resulted in players playing them one time and forever looking elsewhere for other golf course options, Cabot Cliffs forces you to think ably and not just apply brute force. Cabot Cliffs still needs to mature turf wise and likely that will quickly happen when the ’16 season begins in earnest. For many people the idea of encountering a links course usually meant travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland. No longer. Cabot Cliffs is not an easy place to quickly access, but once you have played the course you will feel a rush of excitement—thinking not much of what it took to get there but planning your return visit. CabotLinks.com
Kiva Dunes: Gulf Shores, Alabama
In 1995 there was no real serious golf alternative of national stature along the Alabama Gulf Coast. That changed when Kiva Dunes entered the scene. Designed by 1974 U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate, Kiva Dunes demonstrated the qualities of the Gulf Coast region—for golf and so much more. In celebrating its 20th anniversary the ownership of Kiva Dunes took a bold step in closing down the facility for four key months starting this past July. The purpose? Upgrading a course and making it more playable for the broader masses of players. Kiva Dunes recently reopened and the “new” course is clearly pushing itself to the forefront of attention.
Kiva Dunes is bracketed by the Gulf of Mexico to the south and the Bon Secour Bay to the north. As a result, the impact from daily winds is always an issue—even though there are no immediate views of the aforementioned bodies of water which is a pity. Kiva Dunes, like the other courses mentioned, provides ample fairway width although on many of the course there is a preferred spot bolstering your odds in having the easier approach angle. Turf conditions have been attended to and the detailing will only become more apparent during the growth season next spring. Instead of having flat putting surfaces which can lead to utter boredom, the green contours at Kiva Dunes are well done—most notably the par-3 13th and the par-4 16th holes. Often times courses near bodies of water can overplay the impact that forced carries for golfers to handle—especially those who don’t hit the ball considerable distances. Kiva Dunes made a long term decision when closing down during the busiest time this year, but that short amount of time on the sidelines will reap huge dividends in the years ahead. KivaDunes.com
Skyway Golf Course: Jersey City, New Jersey
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country and among its 21 counties is Hudson—just across the Hudson River from Manhattan and occupying roughly 33 square miles with approximately 650,000 people fighting for every inch of space they can grab. In recent years, elite private clubs such as Liberty National and Bayonne have come onto the scene within the county. However, their grounds are meant only for the deepest of pockets mainly connected to Wall Street. Those on the public side of the aisle who call Hudson County home would need to venture beyond the immediate area to find an available course to play. In 2015 that situation change for the best with the opening of a 9-hole layout called Skyway. The course sits in full view of the Pulaski Skway—hence the name—a major road artery connecting Hudson to Essex County. The former site was to be a charitable garbage dump where periodic fires were started and often left unchecked.
The 55-acre site was not large enough to fit 18-holes, but plans were put into motion for a regulation 9-hole layout—the first public course in the county. Opening this year, Skyway provides a greenway in a sea of concrete and blacktop. There’s still much noise as a busy roadway on the eastern border of the course rumbles with trucks going to and from New York City constantly. Yet, once on the property you’re quickly jettisoned away to enjoy the qualities of the course.
Designed by architect Roy Case, the creation of the course is a monumental achievement given the complexity of the site and the myriad of environmental hurdles it took to overcome. The layout measure just under 3,300 yards from the tips and there’s sufficient challenge without being backbreaking for all types of players. There will never be a U.S. Open or PGA Championship played at Skyway, but such events were never on the radar screen. Skyway proves the point that the future model of successful golf development is fitting the course into the situation you find.
How much will it cost county residents? Just $33 Monday-Thursday for 18 holes—$43 on Friday through Sunday and holidays. In today’s era of tight budgets and other priorities, hats off to Hudson County for taking an eyesore and making it a paradise for local golfers to enjoy for years to come. SkyWayGolfCourse.com
Grand Canyon University Golf Course: Phoenix, Arizona
Golf visitors to the greater Phoenix area—known more commonly as the “Valley of the Sun”—have generally spent the bulk of their time congregating in the immediate Scottsdale area and for good reason. Many of the top tier layouts are located there. Visitors have come to that specific area for quite some time because the best golf options were located there. For years this model worked flawlessly but the Great Recession changed those dynamics. Scottsdale still draws the deep pocket players but for those living in the area and in need of quality courses that are accessible and affordable the range of viable options was very limited.
On the west side of Phoenix, you find an area a diverse neighborhood. Some is basic middle class, other areas showing blight. In the midst of that environment a golf course called Maryvale—owned by the City of Phoenix and opened in 1961—was created. The original design was the handiwork of William Bell—the man responsible for the design at Torrey Pines / South in LaJolla, CA which hosted the ’08 U.S. Open. Over the course of time the 6,500 yard Maryvale course had simply deteriorated and the surrounding neighborhood had equally shown decline. In simple terms a “tired” layout that instead of providing revenue to the city was actually costing taxpayers nearly $240,000.
Fortunately, the ascension of the nearby Grand Canyon University—a private institution—began to change the nature of the conversation. The University signed a 30-year lease agreement with the City of Phoenix. The University agreed to invest $8 million into a total overhaul of the facility which includes a new 10,000 square-foot clubhouse building and totally revamped practice area. Renowned architect John Fought—a former US Amateur champion and PGA Tour winner—was called upon to totally revamp the former Bell layout given his success in doing similarly at Phoenix County Club—a storied layout in the heart of the city.
The new course—called Grand Canyon University—begins play January 1. The “new” course stretches to roughly 7,200 yards and plays as a par-71. Turf conditions are well done and, best of all, golfers, even those not Phoenix residents, will enjoy a fee structure that is quite affordable—somewhere in the $55 range. In order to encourage exercise, walking is permitted at any time.
Fought completely upgraded the course. The holes have maximum versatility and the greensites are well crafted and ably defended by bunkers that are all completely new and well-positioned throughout the design. The elasticity of the layout gives new life to the facility and provides an open avenue for all types of players—young and old, new and long time—to once again enjoy the game in its most purest form. How appropriate is the course’s new ascension—Phoenix is indeed rising from the ashes.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.