Lessons Learned: Looking Back Golf in 2015
Youth Movement Solidifies on PGA and LPGA Tours
Jordan Spieth showed the way on the men’s side, capturing two major championships—Masters and U.S. Open—and concluding the season with a triumph in The Tour Championship and ending the season in possession of the Fed-Ex Cup. Not since the high times of Tiger Woods has a player shown such total command of the spotlight.
On the women’s side Lydia Ko proved dominance—winning an astounding nine wins at the rip “old” age of 19. The main issue is after having gotten to the top of the mountain, do they have the goods to remain their given the fierceness of the competition.
Water Usage Becomes Forever Topic in Golf’s Future
Drought emergencies were a frequent topic of conversation and golf course consumption is now in full view. Natural courses—those using less water—will be a must in going forward. With major states such as California under major drought watches it’s highly unlikely golf can sustain itself without taking a proactive approach to future water usage.
Credit the USGA in getting ahead of this critical issue in staging the last two Men’s Open sites—Pinehurst #2 and Chambers Bay—where natural areas without water were encouraged to play a role in the event. Moving towards firmer and faster courses provides a clear re-connection to the game’s original roots before automatic sprinkler systems became the norm. Golf courses will need to demonstrate a clear proactive response because having non-golfers decide the fate of the industry could prove to be a big time disaster. Getting courses—and players—to fully comprehend what’s needed and what’s at stake will be a major issue from this point forward.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in Golf’s Rear View Mirror
When Tiger Woods returned to the operating table at the end of the ’15 season in dealing with various back ailments, it became a sheer certainty his return to competitive golf is forever clouded. Woods stated in a season ending news conference that he is comfortable with what he has done in his career even if nothing else adds to it. Such an admission was a first for the ultra-competitive Woods.
Tiger was only minimally competitive when he did compete and he still has failed to show the wherewithal to play four solid rounds—witness the breakdown during the Greensboro event where he was in position to garner his 80th PGA Tour title before misfiring on the back nine. His last PGA Tour win: August ’13. Last major: June ’08.
Phil Mickelson ended his relationship with teacher Butch Harmon and simply said it was time for him to move on and get another pair of eyes to assess his game. The reality is that Lefty, since his win at Muirfield in ’13 at The Open, is playing on fumes. Forget what he did at the President’s Cup. The reality is that at 45 Phil can no longer muster the four rounds of high caliber golf needed to combat the youngsters taking over the game.
FOX’s Fumble at the U.S. Open, NBC’s Gain of Feherty and The Open
Fox took over the broadcasting of USGA events in ’15 from NBC which had been the main broadcaster since ’95 and it was clear the network has much to learn from what it did and what it failed to do this past season. There was a lack of continuity and Joe Buck and Greg Norman were both searching for ways to get the proper mojo going. There were some elements that worked—at times the commentary from Cory Pavin and Brad Faxon worked—but those moments were footnotes when held against the overall fumbling. The USGA took a sizeable paycheck from Fox for the broadcast rights and in ’16 we shall see if the network can get things straightened out.
All was not roses for CBS. David Feherty, the witty Irishman who had been a mainstay with the network for many years during its golf coverage, opted to head elsewhere as his contract ended. The loss to CBS was a big time gain for NBC which also gained the opportunity to broadcast The Open Championship starting in ’16. The network which lost the USGA contract has been fast to retain its footing. Gaining Feherty, The Open and remaining the broadcast face for The Ryder Cup Matches which resume again in ’16 at Hazeltine National just outside of Minneapolis.
CBS did make one smart move after losing the witty Feherty—bringing back to network television Dottie Pepper. The 50-year-old former LPGA star took a short hiatus but her return proves the adage, “the best man for the job is a woman.”
Courting the Millennials
Those born after 1980 are not gravitating to golf as past generations. Why? Leisure time as defined by millennials doesn’t fit into golf’s slower pace. This is in addition to the fact golf equipment is expensive, the game is difficult and instruction has failed to really help produce better players. No real solution has been brought forward, at least thus far, that will add to the total number of people playing golf today. Interesting ideas are emerging like Top Golf with its spin on new driving ranges; FootGolf with its link to soccer and golf; and even developmental games for young players such as SNAG Golf have been brought forward along with Hack Golf with its enlarged golf holes. Without a pipeline to the future the decline of players—4 million over the last several years—will continue unabated.
Playability and Fun Becomes Focus in Golf Course Design
During the go-go course development days in the ’90’s there was a surge in openings in which layouts were overly demanding and quite intensive in terms of money and manpower to maintain them. Often there was the belief—most especially by developers—that having the most challenging and most difficult of courses would add to the prestige and stature of the facility. Often times it simply meant a six-hour round of golf with incessant looking for lost balls and greens with contours that rivaled that of putt-putt courses.
Fortunately, there’s been a recent movement in the creation of playable courses. Case in point: Gamble Sands in Brewster, WA. Designed by David McLay Kidd—the man responsible for the original Bandon Dunes—the notion of playability is one that rewards shots rather than savagely punishing the slightest of mis-hits. Kidd learned the hard way that bringing forward tougher and tougher courses was not helping him in any meaningful way. Playability doesn’t mean easy, it just means that “fun” is something that golf course designs had best demonstrate in order to maintain their overall relevance with the broader masses playing the game.
Skyway Golf Course in Jersey City, NJ opened as a 9-hole course and shows the resourcefullness of Hudson County to take an perpetual garbage filled eye-sore and turn it into an oasis in which people can have a fun layout with stunning area views.
Want to know a main reason for the success of golf’s all-time best player Jack Nicklaus? Simple. Check out the lady Jack said “I do” to 55 years ago. Barbara Nicklaus claimed the Bob Jones Award—the highest honor bestowed by the United States Golf Association (USGA) for contributions made to the game of golf. In receiving the prestigious award, Barbara and Jack become the first husband and wife ever so honored proving the reality that the best man for the job is a woman.
Zach Johnson’s Win at The Open
In the age of the power game, precision can still conquer when the likes of a deft wedge game and pressure proof putting game are in motion. Zach Johnson’s win at The Old Course marked his second major triumph and taking The Open title showed the grit of this Iowa native. Clearly, the golf stars have to align for players who don’t hit the ball 300-yards plus, but with shaky weather throughout the event Johnson stayed in the hunt by capitalizing time and time again—the most notable being his 20-foot final hole birdie which ensured his participation in the three-way playoff that he eventually won. Amazingly, Zach has two more majors than the big time talents of another Johnson—Dustin.
Long Putter Outlawed
The long putter says adios at the end of this year. The debate was fierce and often time contentious but the governing bodies held firm. Now all players—professionals and rank amateurs throughout the world—will need to adjust. The sad reality is that long putters should have remained legal for everyday players but the governing bodies don’t want to have a bi-furcated rule book. Was the need for such an overhaul an overreach based on a few players and what will be the fallout for those who have used the long putter to remain active in golf? Stay tuned.
New European Tour Head Outlines Possible Future Merger
When Canadian Keith Pelley took over the reins in leading the European PGA Tour, the 51-year-old media expert got quick attention in suggesting a possible future merger between the European and Asian Tours. This combination would make for a possible counterweight to the near monopoly the PGA Tour has had for so many years.
It’s no secret that the key Euro players routinely take up residence on the PGA Tour primarily because of the overall purses and the quality of the facilities in which competitions are held. A future merger of the European and Asian Tours could possibly elevate purses to a height comparble to the PGA Tour and with that a possible reconsideration of many overseas players to remain more frequently outside the United States.
World golf events are becoming more and more the norm. Players want the freedom to cherry pick the key events and it is the PGA Tour which has remained adamant that commitment to its events is an absolute must. A future Euro-Asian partnership could well mean a far different structure for professional golf in the 21st century. We shall see.